The first scientific book printed in German
37 Conrad von Megenberg, Das buch der NaturAugsburg: Johann Bämler, 20 August 1481. Third edition.
2°, 285 x 195 mm. 192 leaves (of 194, two initial blank leaves missing, text complete): a10-2, b-i10, k-l12, m-t10; modern foliation in brown ink on upper right margin.Watermarks: bull’s head with cross and circle on top, bull’s head with flower on top and cross below. – 35 lines.Text on leaf (a)5r printed in red.With two- to ten-line coloured woodcut Maiblumen-initials, and with 12 full-page woodcut illustrations coloured in an early hand. – In fine condition, a few leaves slightly darkened, finger prints and some minor staining, some old ‘NB’-annotations with Latin commentaries in brown ink, few underlining, some later annotations of another hand in black ink, fol. 18 repaired tear, fol. 67 black stain on the inner margin. – Contemporary half blind-stamped calf over wooden boards, two clasps and catches. Paper label on spine:“Buch der Natur”, binding carefully restored at edges.
PROVENANCE: Armorial bookplate with initials “I.G.V. W.Z.A.” and motto: “Invidia sibimet Vindex,” a motto that was included in the emblem collection of Saavedra Fajardo published in 1649 in Brussels.The accompanying symbol in the emblem collection, however, bears no resemblance to the escutcheon on the bookplate.
TEXT: The scientist, theologian and historian Conrad von Megenberg (1309-74), born in Mäbenberg near Nuremberg, studied the liberal arts in Erfurt. From 1329 until 1342 he lived in Paris, studying and teaching philosophy and theology in the university, after which he went to Vienna as Rector of the school at St Stephen’s cathedral. Finally, in 1348, he moved to Regensburg, where he became first a parish priest and then a canon of the cathedral, and where he wrote most of his works. Conrad was the first great scientific writer in German. The Buch der Natur, the most famous of his works, originally composed in 1349-51, is a free translation of the De natura rerum of Thomas of Cantimpré (1204-80), considered by Conrad to be a work of the young Albert the Great,Thomas’s teacher. Influenced by Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ Liber de proprietatibus rerum, Conrad reworked the text before he dedicated it to Rudolph IV Duke of Austria between 1358 and 1362. In its first three parts the book discusses anatomy and physiology (book I), astronomy, meteorology and the plague (II), and animals (III).Thereafter, it focuses on the medicinal value of its subjects: trees (IV), herbs (V), stones (VI), metals (VII), and streams and waters (VIII).The introduction to each section contains moralising aphorisms and theological ideas, and Conrad’s descriptions of natural phenomena are generally followed by further theological or astrological explanations. Typically among medieval nature treatises, it includes without question hybrid creatures and chimaeras such as unicorns, dragons and mermaids among the natural phenomena. Conrad’s book, the first natural history in German,was highly esteemed long into the 16th century. When Bämler published the first edition in 1475, it was the first printed book to contain botanical and zoological illustrations. With his second (1478) and the present third edition, Bämler initiated a competition of sorts between Augsburg printers: The fourth edition was printed by Johann Schönsperger in 1482, just two months before a fifth edition, by Anton Sorg; and in 1499 the sixth edition came out, also from Schönsperger.
ILLUSTRATION: A full-page woodcut introduces each section of the book and gives a visual summary of what is to be discussed in the following chapters. The illustrations are, even for the 15th century, somewhat unusual, illustrating neither a narrative as would be appropriate to epic literature nor a static scientific diagram such as might be found in a contemporary scholarly work.Animals, plants or hybrid figures appear alongside one another on various landscape backgrounds, but without any real relationship. In some of the woodcuts it appears that the artist intended to combine narrative and static illustration, a similar principle to that established in the illuminations of 15th century Conrad von Megenberg manuscripts, such as cpg 300 in Heidelberg.However, the Heidelberg manuscript comprises as many as 61 full-page miniatures, whilst in the earlier manuscript tradition of natural histories and Bestiaries, such as the Liber de proprietatibus rerum, almost every item is enhanced with a little miniature accompanying each paragraph. For an early printer the business of illustrating a ‘natural encyclopedia’ with so many images embedded in the text would have been an incredible technical and economic challenge.Thus, Bämler must have instructed his illustrator to include in his woodcuts as many animals or other items relating to the relevant chapter as possible so as to reduce the number of blocks to twelve. Consequently, the woodcuts provide not only visual summaries of the various chapters but also an insight into the order of the known and unknown world as it was perceived in the late Middle Ages. For the present edition, Bämler reused the woodcuts he had employed in the first and second editions.The woodblocks were still in good condition, since the prints appear neat and clean, but the contemporary colourist did not dedicate much care to the meticulous execution of his job, which appears slightly rushed. In this, however, the colouring of this copy is fairly typical of the contemporary illustration of books with profane texts. Bämler’s illustrations turned out to be such a success that all later editions, for example those by Schönsperger and Sorg, were decorated with copied versions of his cuts.
PRINTER: Before he worked as a printer Johann Bämler was known as a scribe, his name appearing as ‘Schreiber’ in Augsburg records as early as 1453. Bämler’s first dated printed book was finished in 1472 and he soon became one of the most prolific Augsburg printers, still listed in the town’s records in 1507.
RARITY: Very rare. ISTC records only ten copies two of which are incomplete, GW records 12 copies, two incomplete. Our copy shows almost identical colouring of the first initial and the handwritten corrections of the first headline ‘Regigster’ as the Weimar (HAA) copy.
LITERATURE: Hain/Copinger 1895, 4043; BMC II, p. 336; Schreiber no. 3780; Schramm 1920, III, p. 26; Klebs 1938, 300.3; Goff 1964, C-844; BSB-Ink K-46; GW M16430; ISTC ic00844000.