DDBspotlight: Bookplates - of book curses, book collectors and small works of art

Von Theresa Rodewald (Online Redaktion)

Do you put your name on your books? Do you write dedications in books you give away or are you more interested in the first, supposedly blank page of a book at the flea market because it might bear traces of its previous owner? Then you're in the right company, because as part of this month's #DDBücherfrühling (DDBookspring) our DDBspotlight is all about the bookplate and its predecessors.

"Exlibris Emil Orlik" (1902), design by Emil Orlik, a reminiscence of his travels to Japan and his great enthusiasm for Japanese theatre, Photo: Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

Exlibris are small works of art. Graphics in the form of woodcuts, copperplate engravings, or etchings printed on a slip of paper and glued into the cover of a book. There they show their proud owners. The Exlibris as we know it today originated in the late 15th Century. Exlibris translated from Latin means "from the books (of)". But more about that later. For exlibris are by no means the first, nor the most creative, indications of book ownership.

Early notes of ownership: the label

Probably the oldest known ownership notes in books are found in ancient Egypt at the time of Amenhotep III. (around 1388 to 1351 BC). What survives today is a small, blue-glazed ceramic plaque with two small holes, which is kept in the British Museum. This is probably the label of a papyrus box. The English translation of the hieroglyphic inscription reads: "Beloved of Ptah, King of the Two Lands, the good god Amenhotep III, may he be given life; the king's wife, Tiye, may she live" "the Book of the Moringa Tree." To this day, it is not clear to which book the inscription refers. The ownership, on the other hand, is unmistakable - Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye. The contents of a papyrus chest could be marked either by such a plaque or by means of decoration on the lid.

In Europe, the precursors of today's bookplates were initially short handwritten entries. With the emergence of monastic and manorial libraries in the Middle Ages, the first systematics also developed, which are still used in a similar form today. Whereas books (or clay and wax tablets) were already kept, systematised and marked in libraries and temples in Mesopotamia, in the Sumerian and Babylonian advanced civilisations.

"Inventory of a collection of tablets" from the time of King Assurbanipal (7th Century BC), Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

The curse

A particularly exciting precursor of the exlibris is the book curse. Book curses are as old as libraries themselves. Accordingly, the earliest book curse known today comes from the Assyrian Empire and is dated to the reign of King Aššurbanipal (669 BC to 631/627 BC). The library of Aššurbanipal in Nineveh is one of the earliest of its kind. Here you will find numerous clay tablets written in cuneiform, bearing inscriptions to protect them from theft and vandalism. The curses threaten retribution or the wrath of Babylonian-Assyrian deities such as Nabu, the god of writing, or Aššur, the imperial god of the Assyrian Empire.

From today's perspective, the threatened punishments and above all the supernatural revenge of the gods seem quite harsh. In the book curses, the theft of a book is put on a par with blasphemy or murder. However, the production of a book - whether as a clay tablet, papyrus scroll or medieval codex - was extremely laborious before the introduction of printing with movable type. In the Middle Ages, books were copied by hand in so-called scriptoria.

The process is expensive, usually, several people work on a book: scribes or scriptors copy the text, often decorate the initial letters and highlight individual passages. Illustrators devote themselves to the pictorial design of the book, for example with drawings and borders that are their own little works of art. Not infrequently, these are designed with precious gold leaf and expensive colour pigments. The finished book is of course unique. The emphasis on warning against theft is therefore understandable.

"Rudolf the Scribe", in: Great Heidelberg Song Manuscript (Codex Manesse) (1305 - 1340), Bibliotheca Palatina (UB Heidelberg) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Let us briefly recall the cursed burial chambers of the ancient Egyptians - here, too, significant, sacred, precious artefacts are supposed to be protected from robbery. Even if not always successful, this approach has at least given us a number of entertaining scary stories and films. In some medieval libraries, some books are also chained to the shelves to prevent theft. Other books are fitted with locks to protect their contents from unauthorised eyes.

Knowledge, it is also implied here, is power. Not every book should be able to be read by everyone - and this even at a time when only a few people are able to read. From the book curse, it is indeed (spoiler!) only a few steps to the poisoned tract, as Umberto Eco imagines it in "The Name of the Rose".

The medieval book curse usually threatened excommunication, or a church ban or eternal damnation. While excommunication can only take effect when the thieving person is convicted, damnation, as in the Assyrian book curse, has the advantage of being able to take effect without human intervention.

Although this book is not a medieval manuscript, but a printed work from the age of the Reformation, it nevertheless has a colophon: "Colophon", in: "Warning the image of some learned men, through whom God ... the pure doctrine of the Holy Gospel, the necessary languages, and other... arts ... again awakened, cleansed and ... planted" (1562), zvdd -Zentrales Verzeichnis Digitalisierter Drucke (Central Index of Digitised Prints), SLUB Dresden (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The medieval book curse, unlike the exlibris, usually appears in the colophon, i.e. at the end of a book. Here you will also find information about the authors, the content or the clients. Similar to later exlibris, the representations of these indications range from simple handwritten notes to elaborately designed small works of art.

Some curses take the form of little poems and imagine particularly creative punishments. This book curse from a work with the beautiful name "Chemical Recipes. Alchemical Tracts and Teaching Poems" from 1552, for example, reads:

This book is also under

the robbers framed. In

my absence.

Whoever finds himself on an unguarded bank

Must die before he is sick.

What the "unguarded bank" is all about is not clear to us, but the intention is clear. "Book curse", in: "Chemical recipes. Alchemical Tracts and Teaching Poems" (1552), zvdd - Zentrales Verzeichnis Digitalisierter Drucke, Kassel University Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

So we'd better leave this book on the shelf. The following book curse is somewhat more pedagogical, praising all those who treat the book well: "Servanti benedictio, tollenti maledictio" ("Good to the preserver, woe to the thief").

'Provenance note (12th Century)', in "Vitae et miracula sancti Liudgeri" (1055), zvdd - Zentrales Verzeichnis Digitalisierter Drucke, University Library Kassel (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Letterpress printing: the birth of the exlibris

Letterpress printing is not a European invention. In the Chinese Empire, a book is produced by means of wooden board or block printing as early as 868. The process basically works like a woodcut or linocut. The book page, complete with illustrations and lettering, is carved into a wooden panel, which is then pressed onto paper and thus printed. However, block printing did not come to Europe until the 14th century.

Johannes Gutenberg is today regarded as the inventor of letterpress printing with movable type. In Korea, an anthology of Zen teachings was printed with movable bronze letters in 1377, a good 80 years before Gutenberg. However, the procedure does not prevail here. Possibly because it is not suitable for the more than 100,000 Chinese characters.

In Europe, or more precisely in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg developed a process between 1450 and 1457 in which the letters or types were arranged in individual composing boxes and then put on paper with a mechanical printing press. This makes the printing process more flexible, faster and cheaper. A book is no longer a handwritten one-off, but can be reproduced in a larger edition straight away.

"Typographus. The Printer“ (1568), SLUB Dresden (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The significance of this printing process for European culture and history is enormous. Letterpress printing after Gutenberg enables the mass dissemination of information and knowledge. News, tracts and pamphlets are now more easily accessible and can circulate more freely. However, a complete democratisation of knowledge is not taking place. Wherever opinions are disseminated, censorship by church and secular rulers is not far away. Book printing also favours the expansion of bureaucratic structures. Surveillance and power mechanisms are therefore not abolished, but merely change.

Books are still precious, but no longer the exclusive preserve of monasteries and rulers. The rising middle classes in particular benefit from the fact that books become more affordable, and libraries are increasingly to be found in the homes of wealthy merchants. The libraries of monasteries, universities and rulers are also becoming larger. Providing each book with a handwritten note or even an illustration is now too costly.

„Exlibris of the Preacher Monks in Marienheiden“ (1501-1550), Duke August Library Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

But the Gutenberg printing press has a solution for this too: the Exlibris (bookplate). The ownership note is now simply printed on a sheet of paper and pasted into the book. The sheets can be reproduced as desired and the books are quickly marked. However, this does not mean that the bookplate is less elaborately designed. Artists such as Albrecht Dürer or Lucas Cranach the Elder designed exlibris woodcuts. Later, copperplate engravings and other lithographic techniques were also used. In the 16th century, the small prints were also often coloured by hand.

Dürer exlibris: The bookmark of Hieronymus Ebner (1516), conception: Albrecht Dürer, production: circle of Albrecht Dürer, Bamberg State Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first bookplates of this kind are documented in Germany in the 15th century. From there, they spread throughout Europe. Popular motifs are first of all coats of arms and ornaments in connection with the words "Exlibris" (lat. "from the books [of]"). Occasionally there is also the indication "Ex bibliotheca", i.e. "from the library (of)". Graphics with symbolic meaning are also found as early as the 16th century.

Book owners

Reading, writing and especially the possession of books have long been the preserve of the social and political elite and patriarchally dominated. It is therefore not surprising that until the 19th century most bookplates bore the names of wealthy men.

"Exlibris of Barbara Reihingen" (1526), designed by Hans Burgkmeier, Duke August Library Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

But reading and writing women who own books and proudly mark them with their names still exist. In the Middle Ages, nuns worked as scribes just like monks. One of the most important book collectors of the late Middle Ages is Margarethe von Rodemachern. She inherited some of her books from her mother, Elisabeth of Lorraine, and her brother. She has other books made or acquired them through exchange or purchase. She also has a small circle of aristocratic book enthusiasts around her.

In one of her devotional books, Margarete records part of her family history, a practice not uncommon at the time. Many book owners record their family history, sometimes also the purchase price of the book, in it. Margarethe von Rodemachern informs us that her daughter died early and records that her husband Gerhart von Rodemachern has also already passed away. The side is also adorned with their coat of arms.

From the handwritten note we were able to decipher the following:

Item vff den Feir dag nast

n? vnßers her(n?) leich???s dag

da starp der edelwolgeboren

gerhart her(r) zu rodenmach

ern zu ???ncborg vn(d) zu der

wenborg da(?)got der almetig

gnedig vnd barmhertzig

sin wille myn hußwirt sch???

da man schreibt düßant vier

hondert vn(d) vii vn(d) fonfzig

"Likewise, on the feast day ... of our Lord lies the day when the noble-born Gerhart Lord of Rodenmachern died in Kronenburg and Neuerburg, when the almighty, gracious and merciful ... his will is my ... As one writes a thousand four hundred and fifty-four..." Ascetic Mystical Composite Manuscript (Devotional Book of Margaret of Rodemachern) (1460), zvdd - Zentrales Verzeichnis Digitalisierter Drucke, Forschungsbibliothek (Research Library) Gotha of the University Library Erfurt (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Few women have their own bookplate. Especially wealthy, influential women, often widowed, have their own book owner's mark made. Women often also use the bookplates of their male relatives and handwrite their own names. Systematic research into book ownership has made it clear in recent years that women owned books and marked them as their property.

The owner wrote her name and the year in this book from the 17th century: "this book belongs to (Fig.) Maria Charitas Steinerin a(nno) 1672", in: "Prayer and devotional book, German - Cod. Wonnenthal 11" (ca. 1525), zvdd - Zentrales Verzeichnis Digitalisierter Drucke, Baden State Library (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Although for a long time it was assumed that women's book collections mainly comprised fiction and religious works, it is now clear that women's libraries are as broad as their interests.

Pocket books and small works of art

In the 18th century, book production in Europe increases once again. The novel gains popularity and soon displaces both scientific and theological writings and daily political pamphlets from the top of European book production.

„Exlibris“ (1751-1800) Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

From the so-called muses almanacs of the 18th century - periodicals with literary reviews, news, first publications and poems - the paperback book developed in the 19th century. In the middle of the 19th century, entire paperback series came onto the market; Reclam's Universal Library, for example, which is still published today, dates from this period. With the introduction of the paperback, private libraries grow by leaps and bounds once again.

A veritable flood of artistically designed bookplates swept across Europe in the 19th century. In Germany, the painter, sculptor and graphic artist Max Klinger gives bookplates a new lease of life.

“Exlibris Eduard and Johanna Arnhold”, designed by Max Klinger (1906), Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

A lively culture of collecting and bartering is developing. Also, bookplates are now commissioned, which are no longer intended to mark the ownership of books but are primarily collectors' items, works of art in their own right. In 1891, the Deutsche Exlibris-Gesellschaft (German Exlibris Society) e.V. was founded, which still exists today. At the end of the 19th century, the first exlibris anthologies also appeared.

The variety of motifs depicted increased steadily, but in the Art Nouveau period the artistically designed exlibris flourished once again.

„Hans Wolfgang and Lillian Singer / Exlibris, design by Emil Orlik, SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Today, many libraries and art museums have their own collection of bookplates. In provenance research, which deals with the origin of cultural objects, bookplates and other notes by book owners play an important role. The SLUB Dresden explains in its virtual exhibition "mind the gap. Of stolen books, fair solutions ... and gaps", how the path of a book is reconstructed with the help of bookplates and other ownership marks. For example, books that were stolen from their owners during National Socialism can be returned.

Exlibris by Leo Polak: The Dutch philosopher and free thinker of Jewish origin was murdered in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941. In 2020, the SLUB Dresden, together with the UB Freiburg, was able to return looted books to Polak's heirs. One of the books could, for example, be identified by its exlibris. „Polak, Leo / Exlibris“ (1923). SLUB Dresden/Deutsche Fotothek (Rights reserved - Free access)

Did you like Margarethe von Rodemachern's writing? Then create your own computer font with it. In our DDB work bank, our colleague Alan Riedel shows you how it works.







Book curses





Female Bookownership