image Monthly Collection Highlight: No.1

This is the first in a series of monthly posts highlighting items from our varied collections. Here we look at a book which connects us to the many people involved in its production.

This book is from our early printed collections which is chiefly comprised of the early libraries of King’s and Marischal Colleges. It was given to King’s College in 1643 by Sir Francis Gordon who was an agent in Poland in the early years of the Sixteenth Century and was involved in several trade and political affairs there. Recalled to Aberdeen, he donated “at his return to Scotland for the help of the library of the College, after 30 years peregrination, 42 fair volumes, most part physicall [medical], anno 1643.”

It is a fascinating book, even before it is opened. The book is bound in heavy wooden boards, covered with calfskin. The binding is from the early 1500s and has features typical of early bindings. It has plain vellum pastedowns (rather than paper) which fold around the first and last gatherings of print.

The binding was repaired in the 1950s by Roger Powell who replaced the spine but also repaired the elaborate but structurally vital endbands. These were composed of pleated red and white leather over a core of thread and twisted vellum which was laced into the boards thus providing an added support to hold the heavy wooden covers. The metal clasps which held the book shut have been lost but the sturdy brass corner pieces which protect the wooden corners are still in place. It is a well-made binding which has lasted for 500 years with minimal repair.


The volume contains two medical works. The two works have no connection with each other but it was common practice to bind unrelated printed works together to save on binding costs and to make storage and transportation easier.  The first work is Liber theoricae by the Arab Muslim physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn ʻAbbās al-Zahrāwī, or Al-Zahrawi (d.1013). Al-Zahrawi intended this book to be for the use of medical students and describes a number of surgical procedures. It also contains one of the first descriptions of haemophilia. The second is De re medica by Alban Thorer (1489-1550) which is a translation of a number of medical works by classical authors. Both works were printed and sold in the early Sixteenth century, part of the humanist tradition to make available classical texts by re-publishing and translating ancient texts. The first was produced in Augsburg, Germany in 1519 by two printers, Sigismund Grimm and Marx Wirsung and the second in Basel, Switzerland by Andreas Cratander in 1528.

Grimm and Wirsung were both medical men in addition to being printers and publishers. Grimm was one of the town physicians in Augsbug and Wirsung a pharmacist, merchant and poet.  Andreas Cratander was a graduate of the University of Heidelberg who settled in Basel where he produced humanist works of early classical scholars. The printers of these two works are great examples of scholar printers of late Renaissance Europe, educated men who made accessible in print works found previously only in manuscript and who edited and translated many of the works they published.


The title-page of the first work by Al-Zahrawi has a woodcut which shows a group of scholars in debate around a table. The woodcut is by the German artist Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) who worked in Augsburg where the book was printed. The scholars depicted were important humanist authors of the time and are recognisable from other portraits. Burgkmair was also responsible for the marvellous printer’s device which appears at the end of the work.

This shows the device of the two printers, Sigismund Grimm and Marx Wirsung. Wirsung’s symbol is a flamboyant heraldic shield and helmet and Grimm’s is that of a wild man or ‘woodwose.’


Alban Thorer’s work has a relatively plain title page with no images but further into the book there are separate, additional title pages which have elaborate metalcut borders by Jakob Faber designed by Hans Holbein the Younger.


These depict wonderfully lively rustic scenes of a drunken bacchanal, a peasant’s dance and a chase after a fox who has stolen a goose. The whole work is studded throughout with detailed historiated initials.




This book is a wonderful object. It is full of historical details which link to personalities. Suddenly the book becomes far more than a printed text, you appreciate the many people involved in its production from the authors to the editors, the immensely educated printers, the booksellers, the book binders, the metalworkers, the artists and engravers and the owners, like Sir Francis Gordon who knew the value of a work such as this and thought it a fitting gift for a university library.



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