Friends reunited: an incunabulum split between London and Glasgow

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By | Early Medicine

Among its substantial collection of incunabula (books printed before the year 1501), the Wellcome Library holds six copies of Hortus sanitatis (Garden of Health), a richly illustrated botanical compendium in Latin, based on the German Gart der Gesundheit. The work contains sections not only on plants but also on animals, fish, birds, minerals and stones. These volumes, which have been subject to the ravages of time over more than five centuries, are all incomplete. One copy, however, is distinguished in F. N. L. Poynter’s 1954 catalogue of the Wellcome’s incunabula as being ‘very imperfect’ (5.e.13 (copy 4) in the Library catalogues).

Hortus Sanitatis: 15th century compendium

Hortus Sanitatis: hand-coloured woodcuts and text from section on minerals. Wellcome Library copy EPB Incunabula 5.e.13, folios gg 3 verso–4 recto 1491. Wellcome Images L0018937

It was printed in Mainz by Jacob Meydenbach in June 1491, and contains only the second part of the text, relating to birds, fish and stones and ending with the table of contents. This is bound with another pre-1501 printing, Simon of Genoa’s Clavis sanationis (Venice, 1486), a multilingual medical dictionary first compiled in the thirteenth century. Both these works are key reference texts for questions of medicine and health, and so it makes sense that they were bound together as one volume.

Out of the blue, last year I was contacted by Jack Baldwin of Glasgow University Library, enquiring about this particular book. Jack is an Honorary Research Fellow working on the Glasgow Incunabula Project, developing an online catalogue of Glasgow’s pre-1501 printed books. He had come across a detail in Poynter’s description of the Wellcome book that led him to believe that it was closely connected to an incunabulum in Glasgow’s collection. Jack had noticed that the Wellcome volume contains the ownership stamp of the Free Church College Library, Glasgow. He had been cataloguing another incomplete copy of the Mainz 1491 Hortus sanitatis at Glasgow, which also has the stamp of the Free Church College Library. By comparing photographs and other details, we were able to ascertain that the two volumes had once almost certainly belonged together, with the Glasgow volume containing the first part of the Hortus sanitatis, and the Wellcome volume incorporating the rest of the text.

Page from 15th century text: Hortus Sanitatis

The Wellcome Library, incunabula 5.e.13 with the ownership inscription of a Dominican monastery in Dortmund (top margin) and stamp of the Free Church College Library, Glasgow (right margin). Photograph: Elma Brenner.

In particular, both include the 18th century ownership inscription of a Dominican monastery in Dortmund, Germany, and have very similar bindings of blind-tooled calf over wooden boards, with a manuscript title in vellum pasted onto the front board, and medieval manuscript pastedowns.

Hortus Sanitatus

The Glasgow University Library incunabula T.C.L. f5 with the same ownership inscription of a Dominican monastery in Dortmund (top margin) and stamp of the Free Church College Library, Glasgow (right margin). Photograph: Jack Baldwin.

While the Wellcome Library’s book was purchased from Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge for £9 on 9 December 1905, Glasgow University Library did not acquire its volume until 1974, when it received the collection of the Free Church College Library (by then known as Trinity College Library) on permanent deposit. Why were the two volumes separated, in 1905 or earlier? Perhaps the volume that came to the Wellcome was prized for the copy of Simon of Genoa’s work that it contains. It is possible that they were split up accidentally, or as a result of a wider process of reorganization in the Free Church College Library.

Cover of Hortus Sanitatus

Glasgow University Library, T.C.L. f5: front cover in calf binding (detail). Photograph: Jack Baldwin.

Jack Baldwin’s discovery means that future readers will, potentially, be able to treat two printed volumes that are in themselves incomplete as one complete whole. Although they are housed in separate collections, digitization makes it possible for them to be unified in electronic form. Indeed, our copy (Incunabulum 5.e.13) will be digitized as part of the ProQuest Early European Books project. The link between these two books is exciting both for researchers studying the Hortus sanitatis, and for those interested in the ownership and usage history of early printed books, from the moment of their production until the present day. There are surely many other potential discoveries of this nature to be made, underlining how every rare book in the Wellcome Library is a unique physical artefact with its own story to tell. Incunabulum 5.e.13 now seems less incomplete than before, and is less of a stranger to us.

A man and two birds (storks?), coloured woodcut from Hortus Sanitatis, 1491. WI no. L0029224

A man and two birds (storks?), coloured woodcut from one of the copies of Hortus Sanitatis, 1491. WI no. L0029224

Author: Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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