History at your fingertips: Quincy’s incunabula

By Chloe Nott

Most of us use books every day. Whether it’s for education or entertainment, books have been a principal source of information for centuries.

While many of us would consider an old book to possibly date back to the 1800s, some of the Franciscan Rare Book Collection includes copies that date back as far as 1472.

Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith and inventor created something that would change the world. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press along with his oil-based ink enabled books to be printed in a fraction of the time and at a reduced cost. This ability for mass communication of information was a turning point in history. It contributed to many major events including the Reformation.

Many early books were printed in black ink before color was added by hand. Images were often included, and after purchase, hand-colored if the owner desired.

By 1500, over 20 million copies had been printed across Western Europe. These books are collectively called incunabula. The word “incunabula” comes from the Latin term “in the cradle” or “place of birth”. Forty-one of these made their way across the world and survived over 500 years to rest in QU’s Brenner Library.

The incunabula at Quincy contains works by a number of different authors and covers a variety of topics. Several of the copies are the works of saints. Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Bernadine of Siena, and Saint Bonaventure. Other authors include renowned theologians such as Nicholas of Lyra and Duns Scotus.

Each copy is stored in a custom-made box. These boxes were built by Franciscan Friars for the safe-keeping of the books.

The books are mostly bound with leather-covered wood, often imprinted with different designs and patterns. Metal latches were used on larger books to keep them closed while also providing additional ornamentation. The corners of some covers were also protected by small metal squares.

The books were brought to America by Franciscan Friars as they traveled from Germany to North America in the late 19th century. The Friars came to establish an “American Mission” in Teutopolis, Illinois under Bishop Junker. Over the years, the books became scattered among large Friaries across the Midwest such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Memphis, Indianapolis, and Quincy.

In 1931, the books were collected and deposited at St. Anthony’s in St. Louis, Missouri. The books were transported to their current destination 1967, when the Brenner Library had completed construction. The “Rare Books” room is temperature and humidity controlled to help preserve the books.

Patricia Tomczak and Brother Terry Santiapillai, OFM, are currently working on digitally archiving the collection. Anyone is able to view the collection by appointment. To learn more about the rare book collection at QU click here.

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