The Liber de proprietatibus rerum Bartholomei angelici (On the Properties of Things) is a medieval encyclopedia that was written by the 13th century Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus, who sought to gather the rapidly expanding corpus of knowledge of the Late Middle Ages into a single volume. As Bartholomeus himself says in the epilogue to De proprietatibus rerum, he wrote his book so that “the simple and the young, who on account of the infinite number of books cannot look into the properties of each single thing about which Scripture deals, can readily find their meaning herein – at least superficially.”¹ A single source for surface-level knowledge about everything? In other words, medieval Wikipedia. De proprietatibus rerum is arranged into nineteen books, moving in order of importance from spiritual beings, to human beings, to the natural world.
Over one hundred manuscript copies of De proprietatibus rerum survive, indicating its popularity and widespread use, and it continued to be printed into the seventeenth century, purportedly being used over the years by the likes of Shakespeare and Dante.² FSU Special Collections & Archives has two printed copies of De proprietatibus rerum – the first edition in English printed in London in 1582 (Vault oversize AE3.B313 1582) and a 1485 imprint from Strassburg (Vault oversize AE2.B27 1485), which is featured here.
The 1485 imprint is a stellar example of an incunabule, a book printed before 1501 in the first half-century after Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. FSU’s copy is in its original binding of alum-tawed pigskin decorated with blind fillets and stamps of popular Gothic imagery such as the griffin and the Agnus Dei (the sacrificial Lamb of God). The cover is also stamped with a small banner tool of Gothic lettering (unfortunately illegible) that could be the name of the bookbinder. The endpapers inside the front and back covers are made from re-purposed medieval manuscripts on vellum. In early printers’ shops, paper was always at a premium, and it is not uncommon to find fragments of older manuscripts used as endpapers, bindings, and sewing supports in newer books. Discoveries like these are one of the great joys of working with rare books in-person. In fact, fragments of yet another medieval manuscript have also been re-purposed on FSU’s copy of De proprietatibus rerum to make tabs, which aid the reader in turning directly to specific sections of the encyclopedia.
The study of incunabula provides a fascinating glimpse into a period of history when the book was adapting to the challenges and demands of new technologies. On the opening page of the 1485 De proprietatibus rerum, the capital letter “C” is sketched in, perhaps in preparation for illumination that was never completed; on early printed books, decoration and rubrication (red lettering) was still done by hand. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the space where a decorative capital would have been drawn is left blank and marked by a small, printed letter. As printing increased the output of new books, forms of decoration that were routine for scribes and illuminators fell to the wayside. This is not to suggest that a total break with the past occurred, however. To the contrary, the very act of printing De proprietatibus rerum is an example of new technology being used to spread old ways of thinking. The presence of manuscript waste and marginalia on FSU’s copy are physical manifestations of the links between the old and the new that can be discovered in early printed books.
Katherine Hoarn is a graduate assistant in Special Collections & Archives. She is working on her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Florida State University.
1. Quoted in R. J. Long, Bartholomaeus Anglicus On the Properties of Soul and Body, Toronto, 1979, p. 1.
2. R. J. Long, Bartholomaeus Anglicus On the Properties of Soul and Body, Toronto, 1979, p. 2.