A Rare Early Printed Book: Quaestiones by John from Duns in Scotland

Worcester Cathedral Library has two volumes of a work by the famed Franciscan theologian monk, John Duns Scotus: Quaestiones in Quattor Libros Sententiarum or Questions on the Four Books of Sentences by Peter Lombard – ‘Sentences’ meant Biblical texts or quotations from the learned fathers of the Church. The books were printed in Venice in 1497, and are classed as ‘incunables’, books produced from soon after the birth of printing in Europe. They can also be called ‘fifteeners’, meaning they were printed in the fifteenth century.

Peter Lombard

Peter Lombard (1096 – 1160) was born as an Italian peasant but he eventually became the Bishop of Paris. He wrote the original Four Books of Sentences, which became standard textbooks of theology at medieval universities. In the high Middle Ages, no work of Christian literature, except for the Bible itself, was commented upon more frequently. All the major medieval thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Bonaventure, Robert Holcot and Duns Scotus were influenced by it.

The Sentences were a compilation of biblical texts, with relevant passages from the Church Fathers and other classical and medieval thinkers, on virtually the entire field of Christian theology as understood at the time. It was the first major effort to bring together commentaries on all the theological issues in a systematic order: the Trinity in Book I, the creation in Book II, Christ the saviour of the fallen creation in Book III, and the seven sacraments in Book IV.

A commentary on the Sentences was required of every master of theology, and was part of the examination system for theological students.

John Duns Scotus

The life of John Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308) was summarised in a very short Latin poem inscribed on his sarcophagus:

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

He was born in Duns castle, in Berwickshire in the Scottish borders. He was ordained a priest at St Andrew’s Priory in Northampton, and he first studied at the Franciscan House in Oxford. He lectured to students at the University of Paris, until he was summoned to the Franciscan House in Cologne, Germany, where he died not long afterwards.

Scotus used Lombard’s text as the starting point for highly original discussions on topics of theological or philosophical interest. For example in Book II there is a complex discussion on how angels can be different from one another, given that they have no material bodies, and thence how it is possible for individuals to have a common nature and yet to keep personal differences.

Quaestiones in Quattor Libros Sententiarum

As mentioned earlier the two volumes of this work in Worcester Cathedral Library were printed in Venice in 1497. Here is the first page of the first volume:

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The page is printed using the usual Gothic typeface in three different sizes – very large for individual heading words like ‘Supponendo’ (Supposing); large for the whole of the second, introductory paragraph; and medium for the rest of the page. The first sentence introduces John Duns Scotus. It is shown below in the original Latin and in an English translation:

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Here begins the writing on the Quotations as done by Brother John Duns of the Friars Minor, the most subtle doctor and the greatest of all theologians

As well as printed characters, there are also illustrated capital letters printed from woodcuts. The example below is a very large capital ‘P’ (which begins the much abbreviated word ‘Posterisque’ means something like ‘this is what follows’).

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Creating a woodcut meant drawing a design in reverse on a piece of wood, sometimes the size of a postage stamp, and usually without the help of magnification. Then the wood was cut away to leave the design in relief; then ink was applied and the letter was stamped onto the page. Here the young man’s right eye is missing perhaps from lots of previous uses of this woodcut.

Below is a selection of smaller woodcut capitals, including the ‘C’ from the opening page. The illustrations are all quite complex in spite of their small size, and include a variety of plants, animals and human figures.

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Almost all medieval works of theology were written and printed in Latin, which enabled scholars from all countries to read them, and printers all over Europe to publish them. It is known that the Worcester volumes were printed in Venice in 1497. The printing had been commissioned by Octaviano Scoto as is evidenced by this printers’ mark on the last page of each book:

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The mark is a circle with a double cross raised from the centre. The letters O S M are the initials of Octavianus Scotus Modoetiensis (Ottaviano Scoto of Monza). Ottaviano Scoto headed a distinguished family of printers. He came to Venice at the age of 35 and operated a press there, later becoming an editor. Apparently the printer’s mark on the last page is quite a rarity.

Tim O’Mara

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