Tall or short, thick or thin, the sizes and shapes of books traditionally have informed readers about the nature and purpose of the contents within. During the early years of European printing, authoritative theological works such as lectern Bibles invariably were produced on a grand and expensive scale before portable and less costly editions became available. Readings intended for individual devotion or study, however, appeared almost exclusively in smaller formats. Similarly, whereas a thick book suggests an expansive scholarly treatment of a subject, a slender volume is expected to convey only essential information in a much more concise fashion.
During the first five decades of European typography, virtually all printed books were made with paper produced in one of four principal sizes: Imperial, Royal, Median, and Chancery. The largest books were printed on the largest paper, folded once to produce Imperial folios. Various smaller folios were made with smaller papers. An Imperial folio is twice the size of a Median folio, and a Royal folio is twice the size of a Chancery folio. Still smaller book formats were made by folding their respective papers twice (quarto format), three times (octavo format), or more. Thus, a gradual scale of book sizes, all of similar proportion, was made possible through the use of the various paper sizes and folding formats. The books exhibited together here, all in contemporary bindings, represent nine of the standard book sizes of the fifteenth century:
(480 x 323 mm)
Antoninus Florentinus. Summa theologica.
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 17 October 1478.
The first of five volumes of a lengthy theological treatise, bound in southern Bavaria, and later owned by the Jesuits of Burghausen.
(413 x 288 mm)
Biblia latina. Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 24 February 1472.
The first of two volumes of the Latin scriptures, bound in Bohemia, and owned by the Franciscans of Tachov.
(339 x 240 mm)
Johannes Marchesinus. Mammotrectus super Bibliam.
Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 10 November 1470.
A widely consulted explication of the Bible, bound in southern Bohemia.
(291 x 210 mm)
Juan de Torquemada. Quaestiones Evangeliorum de tempore et de sanctis. [Basel: Johann Amerbach, not after 1484].
A guide to the study of the Gospels, bound for the Franciscans of St. Anne in Bamberg.
(235 x 162 mm)
Petrus Niger. Stern des Meschiah.
Esslingen: Conrad Fyner, 20 December 1477.
A popular criticism of Jewish theology, bound in Erfurt, and owned by the Benedictines of St. Peter and St. Paul in Erfurt.
(211 x 144 mm)
Johannes Trithemius. Liber de triplici regione claustralium.
Mainz: Peter Friedberg, 6 August 1498.
Essential reading for Benedictine monks, bound in Germany with three other works by the same author and from the same press.
(179 x 119 mm)
Antonius de Bitonto. Expositiones evangeliorum dominicalium.
Venice: Johannes Hamman, for Nicolaus de Frankfordia, 15 August 1496.
A handy exposition on the Gospels, bound in Italy and later owned by the Carmelites of Venice.
(144 x 106 mm)
[Thomas à Kempis]. Imitatio Christi. [Ulm: Johann Zainer], 1487.
The most popular private devotional tract of the fifteenth century, bound in Bavaria and owned by the Augustinian canons of St. Nicolaus, Passau.
(114 x 77 mm)
St. Benedict. Regula [German].
[Memmingen: Albrecht Kunne, ca. 1485-1490].
Rules for monastic living, bound in south Germany, with a later brass clasp.