Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > Printing History & Book Arts > 3. Alexander de Villa Dei

3.  Alexander de Villa Dei (1175-1240).  Doctrinale. Printed on parchment, Folios 21-22. Lower pastedown in the binding of UTS MS. 14. [Netherlands: Speculum (Prototypography Type 1) Press, not after 1463] The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Leander van Ess Collection.

The 1499 Cologne Chronicle, while assigning the first printing from moveable type to Mainz, yet mentions that its forebears were "the Donatuses in Holland." Fragments of elementary grammar texts composed by Donatus and Alexander de Villa Dei survive, and are tied through study of their fonts to what may be the remnants of Dutch prototypography. Almost all such fragments, however, are now removed from their context, rendering their place and date of origin yet more obscure. The startling exception is the present pastedown in a manuscript containing works by Albertus Magnus and Raymond Lull. Paul Needham has taken into consideration evidence of the manuscript scribe's colophon: Conrad Itter signed his work four times during the course of 1463; Needham has identified the manuscript's paper stock and the paper stock of the flyleaves used by the binder; and he has studied the blind-stamped tools used on the manuscript's binding of calf over wooden boards.

The result is a verifiable proposal for the place and date of production of the manuscript: Cologne, 1463. By extension, we now have a terminus ante quem for the manuscript's pastedown and thus for Dutch prototypography that is some four years earlier than paper evidence amassed to date, and some eight years earlier than ownership inscriptions have attested. The Burke Library's fragment, because it survives in a context, advances knowledge of the means we have used for five hundred years to spread knowledge: printing itself. The manuscript and fragment came to Union Theological Seminary in 1838 with the library of Leander van Ess at that time the largest and most comprehensive theological library, with the largest number of incunabula, in the New World.

Purchased with the Leander van Ess Collection, 1838



Alexander de Villa Dei

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