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Apokalypse - Ars moriendi - Biblia pauperum - Antichrist - Fabel vom kranken Lowen - Kalendarium und Planetenbucher - Historia David: Die lateinisch-deutschen Blockbucher des Berlin-Breslauer Sammelbandes, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Cim. 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12.

Die lateintsch-deutschen Blockbucher des Berlin--Breslauer Sammelbandes, Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin -- Preu[beta]ischer Kulturbesitz Kupferstichkabinett, Cim. 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, Farbmikrofiche-Edition. Einfuhrung und Beschreibung von Nigel F. Palmer. Monumenta xylographica et typographica, 2 (Munich: Edition Helga Lengenfelder, 1992). 98 pp.; 4 colour microfiches. ISBN 3-89219-402.-5. DM 620.

Books printed in whole or in part from wood blocks in the fifteenth century have long been treasured by collectors and fibrarians. According to the new census in the superb catalogue Blockbucher des Mittelalters (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1991), published to accompany the major exhibition of xylographica held in the Gutenberg Museum at Mainz in 1991, which updates the previous standard handbook on the subject (Vol. IV of W. L. Schreiber's Manuel de l'amateur de la gravure sur bois et sur metal au XVe siecle (Leipzig, 1902)), some six hundred block-books, representing about forty-five different tides, are known (though many of the survivals are but single-leaf fragments). Their rarity and fragility, together with the fact that the survivors are widely dispersed among some seventy collections throughout Europe and America, have tended to militate against sustained and detailed study of them.

Once aware of these difficulties, one will appreciate so much the more Professor Palmer's remarkable achievement in this book. By bringing all his expertise in codicology, his immense erudition as a mediaevalist and his sheer powers of detection to bear, he has succeeded in establishing and describing the structure of the original Berlin-Breslau compendium in virtually all its details.

The compendium originally comprised eight texts; in 1841 it was taken apart and is now bound in seven units. Items like the Biblia Pauperum and the Apokalypse are well known from other block-books, while the Historia David and the Fable of the Sick Lion are rare. The Latin and German 'Planet books' are unique. For each item Palmer supplies a literary and art-historical introduction and a codicological description. Then there is a page-by-page description of each item, which forms an indispensable commentary to accompany the four full-colour microfiches which reproduce the block-books in their entirety.

The case of the Berlin-Breslau compendium provides the perfect illustration of the havoc that has been wrought by well-meaning but ill-judged attempts at preservation. When the volume was taken apart in 1841, the Prussian official Johann Sotzmann recorded the details of the collection unusually faithfully for the time -- but omitted to describe or preserve the original fifteenth- or sixteenth-century binding which might have provided modern scholars with invaluable information.

Watermark evidence suggests that the compendium was assembled in c. 1469-70, though individual items may have been printed a few years earlier. Linguistic evidence points to east central German provenance, probably Thuringia and possibly Erfurt, which was a cultural centre and a centre of the book trade where typography too had been established as early as 1473. The compendium's whereabouts for the next three centuries are not known. Palmer reveals that at the end of the eighteenth century it was in the Bibliotheka Jagiellonska at Krakau, but at some point between 1801 and 1812 it was stolen and passed into private ownership at Breslau (Wroclaw), whence it passed into the hands of the distinguished Berlin collector Karl von Nagler between 1835 and 1841, before being acquired by the then Royal Library in Berlin.

The scholarship brought to bear in this study is first-class. Though Palmer leaves no obvious stone unturned, much clearly still remains to be done, not least on the background to these texts (for instance, on the fifteenth-century astronomer Johannes of Gmunden or on the Speculum Artis Bene Moriendi). But one thing is clear: future research on block-books cannot afford to ignore this study, which is exemplary in its multi-disciplinary approach.

The quality of the all-important microfiches is exceptional. One can, however, only express surprise that -- given that the book costs well over 2.00 [pounds] -- the text should have such an unattractive appearance: though I have noticed no misprints, there are several unevenly spaced, crooked and unjustified lines, not to mention one partly obscured through masking during the photographic process.
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Author:Flood, John L.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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