Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring witchcraft

Shown here is one of Senate House Library’s two copies of the 1494 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum. Harry Price, the psychical researcher and writer who owned this volume, hated its contents, describing the book as ‘one of the most terrible books known to students of the occult’. Its author, Heinrich Institoris (1430-1505) was an inquisitor and a dubious figure, in and out of trouble, who wanted to prove that witches and witchcraft were a real, not an imaginary, danger and to facilitate their persecution. He wrote his book quite quickly in 1486 and divided it into thee parts. Part I was addressed to fellow theologians and comprised an essay in demonology. Part II, aimed at preachers, reinforced Part I’s message of witchcraft being a reality and all witches (even white ones) being Satanic devotees and supplied anecdotes for sermons. In Part III, Institoris armed ecclesiastic and secular judges with technical points on arresting, examining and sentencing witches.

            The work was printed eight times between 1486 and 1496 and on another sixteen occasions between 1511 and 1621. Price’s distaste did not prevent him from acquiring five editions printed between 1494 and 1615 in addition to the first English translation, made by Montague Summers in 1928. The edition selected as a library treasure is Price’s earliest, printed by Anton Koberger, owner of Southern Germany’s largest printing and publishing house, in Nuremberg on 17 March 1494. While smaller than the other examples of Koberger’s output in Senate House Library (his Latin Bible of 1477, Golden Legend of 1478 and the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493), it is a fitting title to feature in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Koberger’s death. We selected it for our treasures volume for its contemporary German binding.

Malleus Maleficarum, 1494

Malleus Maleficarum, 1494


Teaching with Italian Incunabula

Low survival rates render incunabula among any library’s treasures, and indeed Senate House Library included five incunabula in its recent treasures volume. But use is typically low. Using Senate House incunabula to teach students on UCL’s Italian Studies M.A., Dott. Laura Nuvoloni, Incunabula Cataloguer at Cambridge University Library, noted:

These books have been instrumental to illustrate topics relating to the history and the production of printed books in fifteenth-century Italy.  By comparing incunables with manuscripts of similar texts, I was able to pinpoint  the obvious differences, and also highlight the numerous similarities between fifteenth-century manuscripts and printed

Incunabula 99

Incunabula 99

books, such as the different choice of script adopted for Vergerius’s treatise De ingenuis moribus ac liberalibus studiis by the scribe of the humanistic manuscript (MS288) and by the printer of the Milanese edition (Incunabula 11), or the contiguity between the tables and the illustrations in two books that at first sight could not look more different: the edition of Luca Pacioli, Somma di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalità, elegantly produced in Venice by Paganinus de Paganinis and dated 10-20 November 14[9]4 (Incunabula 99), and MS594, a humble manuscript mathematical notebook in mercantesca cursive hand datable to around 1509. 

I also discussed the costs involved in the printing process and the contemporary

Incunabula 66

Incunabula 66

commercial value of books.  On this respect, the library copy of the 1484 Flavius Blondus offered the tangible evidence of a folio volume made up of 186 paper sheets with a commercial value of about 4 Venetian lire, as we know for a fact that an exemplar of this edition was sold by the Venetian bookseller Francesco de Madiis for 4 lire and 10 soldi on 1 June 1484 (information supplied by Cristina Dondi).  Contemporary penwork initials probably did not add much to the cost of the Senate House Library copy (Incunabula 81).  By contrast, bindings provided by booksellers by the request of buyers added considerably to the cost of individual copies.  The late-fifteenth-century binding of brown morocco with blind-tooled decoration of the Senate House Library copy of Nicolaus de Ausmo, Supplementum Summae Pisanellae, printed  in Venice in 1474 by Franciscus Renner and Nicolaus de Frankfordia (Incunabula 66), could well be an example of a Venetian trade binding.

British Armorial Bindings Database

Congratulations to †John Morris, Philip Oldfield, the Bibliographical Society and the University of Toronto on its publication of the British Armorial Bindings Database. This catalogue reproduces over 3,300 stamps used between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries on about 12,000 books, associated with nearly two thousand individual owners. Senate House Library is proud to have contributed to the database. Its contributions are found by searching on ‘University of London Library’.

Bindings for the London Rare Books School

Wednesday, 27 June: The Library provided about forty books for one of the London Rare Books School classes on bindings. Only one of the bindings in question could be described as fine, and some, chosen specifically to demonstrate sewing structure, were definitely the worse for wear – but it was interesting to hear under Nicholas Pickwoad’s expert tutelage just how valuable ordinary books are for showing binding techniques of different periods in different countries. Among other books taken out was an almanac from 1768, Rider’s British Merlin, sporting a cottage style binding: interesting because this is a Restoration-style binding which, outmoded generally, remained on almanacs one hundred years later. Especially piquant was a copy of Abbot Benedict’s De Vita & Gestis Henrici II, published in Oxford in 1735, bound in what is now rather scuffed calf in Oxford, in a style known as the Cambridge panel. Our copy stands out for its inclusion of the binder’s invoice for two shillings.