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Dates in Incunabular Colophons by Curt F. Bühler
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Dates in Incunabular Colophons
Curt F. Bühler

Among its incunables, the Stadtbibliothek of Trier numbers a copy of a Latin grammatical tract, the commonplace text of which is probably matched only by the rarity of this edition. This is the Exercitium puerorum grammaticale printed in Antwerp by Claes Leeu in 1488 (VT 2351),[1] of which only four other copies (one quite fragmentary) are known to us.


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The precise date as given by the colophon is: "xxviij. kalendas marcias[2] Anni octogesimioctaui". In regard to this, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (GW 9497)[3] makes the following observation: "Mit dem Datum der Schlussschrift kann der 3. II.[4] nicht gemeint sein, da er 1488 ein Sonntag war. Vermutlich ist der 28. III. 1488 gemeint". It is a matter of record that, in 1488, February 3rd fell on a Sunday.[5] The emended dating of the Gesamtkatalog was accepted by Dr. Maria E. Kronenberg[6] and by Professors Wytze and Lotte Hellinga,[7] in both cases with such reservations as an added "?" implies.

To the present writer, the statement in the great German bibliography seemed rather like a gratuitous assumption, especially since a number of books bearing a Sunday date came to mind. Chief among these was the book for which William Caxton's press will always be remembered, the Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The colophon of this work sets forth that it was "fynysshed in thabbey westmestre the last day of Juyl the yere of our lord /M/CCCC/lxxxv/".[8] In 1485, July 31st fell on a Sunday. Similarly, the Cicero, Of Old Age (etc.), was printed by Caxton on "the xij day of August the yere of our lord .M. CCCC. lxxxj".[9] Chronological tables show that August 12th was the second Sunday of that month in 1481.

The opinion expressed by the Gesamtkatalog in regard to the date of the Belgian incunable raises, of course, the entire question of what is meant by the dates given in such colophons. Certainly, no one will suggest that the fifteenth-century printer was able to complete much more than the printing (say) of a "sheet-per-press-per-day" — obviously nothing so extensive as a folio book of 862 printed pages. What, then, does the date of the


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colophon represent? It has often been assumed that this precise date indicated the day of the machining of that sheet which contained this information — and this, indeed, seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

If the Gesamtkatalog was correct in the assumption that the printing of a book would not have been completed on a Sunday, then such mundane tasks would certainly never have been undertaken on any of the recognized holy days of the Church. In order to determine whether any incunabula were in fact provided with such dates, the writer made a quick survey of the incunabula produced in the Low Countries,[10] England[11] and Bologna.[12]

Quite a few books, indeed, bear the dates of the first four days of Holy Week.[13] Similarly, in the Netherlands, Italy and England, books were occasionally dated as of Christmas Eve.[14] All these may be allowed as suitable dates for the completion of a book — but it seems highly improbable that printing would have been performed on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter or Christmas Day,[15] yet we know of a few incunables which do exhibit such dates:

  • Palm Sunday: 27 March 1491 (GW 1159) — "vicesimaseptima Martij"

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  • Good Friday: 5 April 1493 (Hain 8683[16] and Bühler 36.A.1) — "quinta Aprilis; Nonis Aprilibus"
  • Holy Saturday:[17] 14 April 1487 (BMC IX:166 — IA. 49349) — "xiiij Aprilis" 6 April 1493 (Bühler 33.A.3) — "a di .vi. de Aprile"
  • Easter: 30 March 1483 (Bühler 6.A.14) — "adi. 30. de marzo"
  • Christmas Day:[18] 1496 (Bühler 36.A.15) — "octauo Kalendas Ianuarii"

How, then, shall one account for such dates? Perhaps it may be true that, in certain circumstances, the printer simply selected some remote target, choosing an arbitrary date about the time when he believed the printing might be completed. This could explain the dates in Holy Week, assuming that the printer set up his type for the colophon quite some time before actual printing began and hit upon some important date without happening to note its special significance.[19] This explanation, however, would be impossible for a Christmas date,[20] since it was not a movable feast.

Again, it may be that incunabulists have been too much influenced by the modern respect for accurate dates — and that those found in fifteenth-century books were considered, on occasion and in their own day, merely as approximations. Such an hypothesis may be underscored by the presence of "circiter", which certain Augsburg printers (especially Schüssler and Sorg, early in their careers)[21] prefixed to the exact dates.

If, then, dates must occasionally be regarded as mere approximations, it would seem wise not to tamper with a printed date, unless some almost


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incontrovertible proof for the correctness of the proposed alteration could be advanced. The value of an approximate date would, indeed, be the same as that of an exact one, since nothing more definite can, with any confidence, be proposed to take its place.

To return to the Belgian incunable which provoked the present inquiry, it is apparent that February 3rd or March 28th are equally possible solutions for the improper date of the colophon, but it must remain a matter of speculation as to which of these (and conceivably still other dates) the printer actually had in mind. It might, therefore, be wise to date the book as Voulliéme did: "28. Kal. Mart. 1488".



Ernst Voulliéme, Die Inkunabeln der öffentlichen Bibliothek und der kleineren Büchersammlungen der Stadt Trier (Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen, Beiheft 38; 1910).


No such date (28 Calends) was known to the Romans.


Vols. I-VIII, pt. 1 (Leipzig, 1925-40). GW lists 14 editions (nos. 9496-9509). Also cited in this study are: Ludwig Hain, Repertorium bibliographicum (1826-38); J. C. T. Oates, A Catalogue of the Fifteenth-Century Printed Books in the University Library Cambridge (1954); Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum (1908-62; cited as BMC); and the works listed in notes 7, 11 and 12 below.


The date of February 3rd is arrived at by counting back from the Calends of March (March 1st), 1488 being a leap year. According to classical usage, February 3rd would be "III Nonas Februarii".


For the dates in this study, use has been made of the enormously handy article by Frederick R. Goff, "The Dates in Certain German Incunabula," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, XXXIV (1940), 17-67. All dates have been rechecked against Adriano Cappelli, Cronologia, Cronografia e Calendario Perpetuo (1930).


Campbell's Annales de la typographie néerlandaise au XVe siècle, Contributions to a new Edition (1956), p. 34, no. 717a.


The Fifteenth-Century Printing Types of the Low Countries (1966), II, 390.


Morgan Library, PML 17560, sig. ee6; Duff 283.


PML 778, sig. i3; Duff 103.


As listed by the Hellingas (see note 7).


E. Gordon Duff, Fifteenth Century English Books (1917).


See the short-title list in Curt F. Bühler, The University and the Press in Fifteenth-Century Bologna (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1958; cited as Bühler).


For the books dated in Holy Week, only a few examples need be cited: Monday: 5 April 1490 (BMC IX:66 — IA. 47806) = "altera die palmarum"; 13 April 1495 (Duff 173) Tuesday: 14 April 1495 (BMC IX:24 — IA. 47188) Wednesday: 26 March 1494 (Oates 3555) = "tercia die post Dominicam Palmarum"; 18 April 1492 (Bühler 32.A.1) Thursday: 19 April 1492 (Bühler 32.A.2; also 6.A.41). Note: Giovanni Giacomo Fontanesi published two books on successive days in Holy Week. However, the second of these (Bühler 32.A.2) includes a letter from Politian dated "xvi. kal' Iun. 1492," which would imply that the book was not issued before 17 May 1492, though BMC VI:838 suggests that Iun. might be a misprint for Ian. The publication of April 18th (the Letters of St. Catherine of Siena) seems quite appropriate for Holy Week, but that of the following day (an abridged Metamorphoses of Ovid in Latin elegiacs) does not.


Christmas Eve: 1495, Richard Pafraet (GW 4524) 1476, Annibale Malpigli (Bühler 7.A.4) 1499, Richard Pynson (Duff 341) Erhard Ratdolt, in Venice, issued an edition of Abraham Aben Ezra, De nativitatibus, with the date of Christmas Eve ("nona kalendas Ianuarij"). BMC (V:291 — IA. 20551) interprets the year as 1485, while the GW (113) maintains that the year was 1484. See, also, note 20.


For other significant days, one may record two books dated on August 15th (Assumption BMV): Albertus de Saxonia, De proportionibus (Padua: Cerdonis, 1482; BMC VII:920 — IA. 29988) and Alexander de Villa Dei, Doctrinale (Lyons: Jean du Pré, 1489; GW 1035). Also two editions of the Doctrinale (GW 1071/2), both dated "quarto Nonas Nouembris" 1494 (November 2nd = All Souls), were printed in Cologne by Heinrich Quentell.


The existence of this book is guaranteed by the Hellingas' notes on the types (II, 408 and 495), where they state: "From MS. GW". The book is also not included in Dr. Kronenberg's list of "Doubtful cases" (pp. 59-112). An Aesop was issued "a di primo Aprile" 1491 in Venice by Benalius and Capcasa (GW 438), another example of Good Friday dating. See also note 19 below.


Two further examples with this date are: Aesopus moralisatus (Rome: [Silber], "DIE. XXVIIII. MARCII" 1483 = BMC IV:105 — IA. 19166) and an Albertus Magnus, Compendium theologicae veritatis (Venice: [Locatellus for] Scotus, "io. die Aprilis" 1490 = Hain 443).


An Albertus de Padua was printed in Venice by Rottweil and Corvus with the date "8°. Kl'. Janu." 1476 (BMC V:249 — IB. 20582). This is the equivalent of December 25th.


Sometimes the printer was fully aware of the precise meaning of his date. Thus, Michael Greyff issued from Reutlingen (in 1489) a Doctrinale with the date: "Sexta feria post palmarum" which can only stand for Good Friday (GW 1155). In like manner, Quentell put out an Albertanus Causidicus Brixiensis in 1489 with the printed date "in profesto pasche" (BMC I:274 — IA. 4542). Thus the work is clearly dated "the day before Easter".


A copy in the Morgan Library (PML 93) of the Sermones de tempore et de sanctis by Albertus Magnus, printed by ther Hoernen in Cologne in 1474, has the precise date in the colophon: "Ipso die gloriosi ac sancti profesti natiuitatis domini nostri Ihesu Christi," which unequivocally means Christmas Eve.


See BMC II:328/9 and 341/2. At Strassburg, the press styled "Printer of the 1483 Jordanus de Quedlinburg" on at least three occasions dated its productions with "circa" (BMC I:134, 144 and 146) and twice with "post" (BMC I:132 and 141).