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Conserving Book History

By Henry Handley

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive in the Marian Library — from the UD community and all over the world — is, “What’s your oldest book?” While one or two of our manuscripts and manuscript leaves are likely a few decades older, Sermones aurei sanctis, written by Leonardus de Utino and published in 1473, is the oldest printed book in our collection. It’s the oldest of the Marian Library’s 30 incunabula — books from the infancy of movable-type printing in 15th-century Europe.

Beyond its age, the book is even more interesting for what it contains: early printed sermons in Latin; some of the first vernacular Italian verse — and about Mary to boot; a typeface modeled on contemporary handwriting; a hand-illustrated and illuminated initial D with gold leaf; and all of it covered in a recycled leaf of manuscript Hebrew text. How Christian sermons came to be bound in that leaf is a mystery that the Marian Library has pursued; the text is from Jeremiah 24, and the binding was likely done in Italy before 1600. To facilitate research, the cover fragment is documented in the National Library of Israel.

Weathered by time, use, elements

In spite of its frequent reference in answers to the “oldest book” question and occasional use in instruction sessions, this polyglot book hadn’t seen a great deal of care in its life before the Marian Library. The back board was detached, the front only hanging on by a strip of leather; both boards were warped. I feared handling it much myself, worried it would crumble in my hands.

Gift extends the life of this rare treasure

When Marylou Hipskind contacted the Marian Library about contributing to the conservation of some of our most significant collection items last year, Marian Library librarians knew this book was important to our collections. Conservator Gabrielle Fox evaluated the book, proposed and completed its treatment, and discovered a new mystery: Besides the manuscript cover, she also found other manuscript fragments lining the spine, and in a non-Hebrew script. The book likely holds more mysteries for the right researcher to solve. With the conservator’s care (and a custom box), Sermones aurei sanctis is now preserved in the Marian Library for years to come. View photos in the gallery below.

More information

You can read more about incunabula in the Marian Library’s collection on pages 3-4 of the most recent Marian Library Newsletter. For more information about incunabula across all of UD’s special collections, read a piece from 2019 by special collections cataloger Joan Milligan.

— Henry Handley is a collections librarian and assistant professor in the Marian Library.

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