[Incunabula] [Hagiography] [Medieval Latin Literature]

Jacobus de Voragine

Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive Lombardica historia ["The Golden Legend"]

Printed in Ulm by Johann Zainer, [not after 1478].
(The Newberry Library copy has an ownership inscription in contemporary hand dated 1478.)

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A complete and very well preserved example of this scarce edition of one of the greatest Medieval bestsellers. This thick folio printed in a fine large gothic type and embellished with over 200 curious woodcut initials, is A SUPERB SPECIMEN OF THE FIRST PRESS IN ULM.

This edition presents a considerably enlarged version of Voragine's celebrated "Golden Legend," in which the original 177 chapters are supplemented by 16 additional legends (along with sermons by Venerable Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, and other pertinent material). These additions (leaves 421r-458v) include chapters on St. Thomas Aquinas, Charlemagne, St. Othmar (first abbot of St. Gallen), et al, as well as texts relating to Marian feasts.

Natives of Reutlingen, the Zainer brothers, Johann and Günther, were major figures in the early history of printing, as both introduced the new craft to major German cities, Johann to Ulm and Günther to Augsburg. "Johann Zainer, who, like Günther, had learnt his craft at Strassburg, must have settled at Ulm about 1472, for his first book (Steinhöwel, Büchlein Der Ordnung Der Pestilenz) was dated 11th January 1473..." (Arthur Hind, An Introduction to a History of Woodcut, II, p.305). Johann Zainer's most famous productions were the editio princeps of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus published at Ulm in 1473, and Aesop's Vita & Fabulae in 1476-77.

This scarce Zainer edition of the Golden Legend is embellished with numerous woodcut initials, which are characteristic for Zainer's productions and offer some of the earliest and most elegant examples of xylographic capitals. "[A] high point of German woodcut illustration is found in Johannes Zainer's border decorations and in his elaborate woodcut initials. [...] The flow of the woodcut is clear and simple. [...] The minimal use of lines and parallel hatches for shading, combined with the graceful floating design, results in some of the finest initials in the art of the early German woodcut. The appearance of these elegant initials marks the beginning of a sophisticated design style in German woodcut illustration. No other fifteenth-century German printer had such a wide selection of woodcut borders and initials in his inventory, furnishing his books with a hitherto unequaled decorative appearance." (A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books, p.52)

The work of Johann Zainer, especially his xylographic decorations were greatly admired by William Morris (and served as a source of inspiration for his own designs for the Kelmscott Press).

The Legenda Aurea (or Golden Legend) is one of the most successful works of the Middle Ages. Written around 1260 by the Italian Dominican preacher and archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230-1298), this exceedingly popular hagiographical compilation is ordered according to the liturgical year and was intended to accompany the major feasts in the church calendar. The Golden Legend details the lives and miracles of saints and explicates events in the lives of Christ and the Virgin. It must have been the most widely consulted authority on these matters and is consequently an invaluable insight into what was generally known by writers, artists and their patrons. The original text of 176 chapters was expanded over the years with updatings and with feasts specific to certain localities.

The simple style of the Latin ensured a wide audience for the text among both the educated aristocratic readers and the preachers looking for a storehouse of examples and ideas for sermons. It was probably directly promoted by the Church and nearly 1000 manuscripts survive. Following the invention of printing numerous editions of "Golden Legend" appeared quickly - not only in Latin, but also in every major European language. Among incunabula, Legenda aurea was printed in more editions than the Bible. It was one of the first books William Caxton printed in the English language (1483).

Many of the legends include miracle tales and similar wonderlore from accounts of those who called upon that saint for aid or used the saint's relics. Such a tale is told, for example, of Saint Agatha; Jacobus de Voragine has pagans in Catania repairing to the relics of St. Agatha to supernaturally repel an eruption of Mount Etna. It has been claimed that its focus on the fantastical may have inadvertently fuelled the Protestant Reformation, providing sceptics of the cult of saints with much material.

Physical description:

Thick Chancery Folio; textblock measures 262 mm x 198 mm. Bound in early 20th-century brown morocco; spine with five raised bands, ruled and lettered in gilt; edges of boards tooled in gilt. All edges gilt.

416 leaves (forming 832 pages).
Without foliation or signature marks; collation: 1-1810.8 198 20-3910.8 4010 4112 42-458 466 478 [-11, 4112 blanks].
Collated and COMPLETE, except for the two blanks.

Printed in gothic types (Typ. 4:96G, headings 5:136G) throughout; 40-41 lines per column; main text in single column; Table of contents and Index in double column.

Numerous (over two-hundred) decorative 10-, 7-, and 4-line woodcut initials, some with zoomorphic grotesques (eagles and dragons) and others with foliage.

Opens with Prologus (12r,v), followed by Table of Contents (12v-13v). Main text begins on 14r Index at the end of the volume (461r-478v)

Colophon on 478v : Legende sancto[rum] quas [com]pilauit frater Iacob[us] Ianuensis natione [...] Impressi per Iohanne[m] Zainer in opido Vlm finiunt feliciter.

Two additional lines of text printed in the bottom margin of 282v (as in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek copy); but (unlike the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek copy) with 10 additional lines of text printed on 13v after the end of the table of contents giving the contents of the sixteen supplemental chapters (headed "Sequuntur festivitates et legende adiuncte post hystorie lo[m]bardice finem").


Very Good antiquarian condition. Binding slightly rubbed and with a small shelfmark sticker to bottom of front board. Occasional light soiling or spotting; a few leaves slightly browned. Small waterstain to outer margin of the final 3 leaves (text not affected). A few leaves with faded manuscript marginalia in early hand(s). In all, a very clean and solid example with strong impression and wide margins.


Franciscan Convent at Wurzburg, Germany, early inscription (in ?17th-century hand) to top margin of the opening page [12r] William Powell, early inscription ("Bibliotheca Gulielmi Powell") to bottom margin of the final page. Perhaps of the 16th-century English printer William Powell.

John Vertue (1826 - 1900), the first Bishop of Portsmouth, bookplate on front pastedown; inscription, likely in his hand, to front free endpaper: "Printed in Ulm by John Zainer probably in 1473."

Bibliographic references:

Goff J91; Copinger 6390; CIBN J-70; Polain (B) 4478; IGI 5012; Bod-inc J-042; Proctor 2538; BMC II 529; BSB-Ink I-71; GW M11319.

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