Bolton Library: ‘The unlimited virtue of books’

by Olivia Lardner, Bolton Cataloguer

we have chosen what we think is a very fitting inaugural piece, and one of this cataloguer’s favourites, to launch the Bolton Library strand of this new blog: the incunable 1 Fasciculus tempor[um] (Basel: Bernhard Richel, 1482). An ambitious work composed by the German Carthusian monk Werner Rolevinck (1425–1502), it relates the history of the world, both sacred and worldly, in a chronological manner from its creation to the author’s own time.

‘Fasciculus tempor[um]’: Manuscript title page

The birth of printing

In the text, the printer has placed Rolevinck’s history of biblical and contemporary events top to tail. Dates (anno mundi and anno Christi) are placed ‘tête-bêche’ 2 across the middle of each page, creating a horizontal timeline for the text which surrounds it, and notable figures from that specific era are prominently encircled. The details of both biblical history and human history, with attendant incidents – eclipses, monstrous births, comets, storms etc. – are placed around this.

A complex presentation of historical timelines

click on each image below to zoom

This clever yet complex presentation of text and image must be viewed for what it is: a highly ambitious use of a still very new technology, a technology whose own invention is detailed on the penultimate leaf (lxxxix):

This is the art of arts, the science of sciences, through the swift practice of which the valuable treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, instinctively desired by all men, leap as it were from the deep shadows of their hiding places, and enrich and illuminate this world in its evil state. The unlimited virtue of books which formerly in Athens or Paris and the other schools or sacred libraries was made known to a very few students is now spread by this discovery to every tribe, people, nation, and language everywhere… 3

The birth of printing appears almost at the very end of this world history, on the penultimate leaf!

Fasciculus tempor[um] and the Nuremburg Chronicle

Our 1482 edition employs the technique of repurposing and renaming a small number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, e.g. the same woodcut of a city aflame is used here to represent the destruction of both Sodom and Troy.

click on each image below to zoom

This technique is used in another, later item in the Bolton Library: Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg : Anton Koberger, 1493), or to give it its more recognisable name, the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Rolevinck’s history was a very popular and much reprinted work. By the time of the author’s death alone, in 1502, up to 30 editions in several languages had been printed. 4

We hope you will accompany us on a journey through the legacy of the invention heralded on leaf lxxxix, as represented by the diverse works collected in the Bolton Library.

Read an introduction to the Bolton Library here, and subscribe to the blog using the links on this page to get the latest updates from the collection.

  1. An early printed book, especially one printed before 1501.[]
  2. Tête-bêche: one inverted in relation to the other.[]
  3. Moscrip, V. (1954). ‘Werner Rolewinck’s Fasciculus temporumUniversity of Rochester Library Bulletin IX, (3).[]
  4. Rolewinck fasciculus temporum’, Incunabla Short Title Catalogue, British Library.[]