An Exceptional Book

Gregory IX (ca. 1145–1241). Decretales.
Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 23 November 1473.

This early printed book of ecclesiastical law is exceptional in many ways, a challenge to preconceived notions of what constitutes a book. It is exceptionally large, with leaves measuring 19 x 13 inches. Intended as a book of great permanence, it was printed not on paper, but on durable sheets of vellum. The text was printed not only in black ink, but also in red to lend emphasis to headings. Instead of a single typeface, two were utilized: a larger one for the papal decrees and a smaller one for the thirteenth-century commentary. The respective texts do not simply occupy parallel columns, or appear on separate pages, but were arranged carefully in tandem, so that the main text appears at the center as an island surrounded by a sea of commentary.

Bridwell Library’s copy is also exceptional in that it is not merely a printed book, but one that required extensive rubrication – the addition by hand of colored initial letters and headings – as well as pictorial illuminations introducing each of its five major sections. Every page features the artistry of Ulrich Schreier, a fifteenth-century Austrian scribe, illuminator, and bookbinder who added penwork flourishes and small faces to hundreds of handwritten initials. Schreier also bound the volume in tanned calfskin over wooden boards, utilizing contemporary blind-stamping and cut-leather techniques. In all, the book is an exceptionally rich and complex vessel for the contents within.

Gregory IX (ca. 1145–1241). Decretales. Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 23 November 1473.

Detail of f. 60v.

Gregory IX (ca. 1145–1241). Decretales. Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 23 November 1473.

Detail of f. 60v.

Gregory IX (ca. 1145–1241). Decretales. Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 23 November 1473.

Binding.