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A woodcut print from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) depicts the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt.

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Special Collections’ Exhibit Is Middlebury’s First to Focus Exclusively on Medieval Printed Books

July 5, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A new exhibit of early printed books at Middlebury College,
In the Footprints of the First German Printers: 1450–1500, offers visitors a chance to see 12 highlights from one of the College’s collections of its earliest and most rare books. The exhibit is the first at Middlebury to focus exclusively on medieval books and marks the first time that such a large number of the College’s oldest printed books are on display at once. Organized by Middlebury’s Special Collections, the free exhibit is located in the atrium and lower level of the Davis Family Library.

All but one of the 12 books are part of the College’s Tashiera Incunabula Collection. (Incunabula, Latin for cradle, describes the first printed books produced in Europe from 1450–1500.)

“It is very unusual for a small liberal arts college to have a collection of this size—44 in all—of early printed books,” said Rebekah Irwin, director of Middlebury’s Special Collections. “We’re fortunate that these books can be a resource for faculty and students.”

Retracing the expansion of printing in Europe, the exhibit follows the German pioneers who initiated and spread the technology and art of book printing, and developed a tradition that changed how people learn and share knowledge. 

Each book contains the history of the early evolution of printing. According to Irwin, studying the materials of the covers, pages, inks, page layouts, and hand-painted additions to the printed text reveals how the first printers’ processes developed and how readers’ interpretation of texts evolved.

“Because the ascent of the mechanical printing press in Europe coincided with Renaissance humanism and the rediscovery of classic texts from antiquity,” said Irwin, “this German invention—and the printers who implemented it—revolutionized Western scholarship and the book trade across Europe.”

An early opening page in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) establishes the order of the universe and its cosmography, as created by God. The earth sits at the center of the universe, upside-down to the viewer but oriented towards the hand of its creator. Nicolaus Copernicus would publish his heliocentric model of the universe in Nuremberg exactly 50 years later.

Helen and Arthur Tashiera were Californians who spent their summers in the 1920s and 1930s in Shrewsbury, Vt. According to College Archivist Danielle Rougeau, their admiration for Middlebury’s academic programs led them to donate an early printed book to Middlebury in 1938—it was the College’s first medieval book. In 1946, they donated 43 additional European printed books that also date from the time of print’s infancy in the 1400s and 1500s.

Marie Théberge, whose son Philippe Bronchtein is a 2010 Middlebury graduate, was the guest curator of the exhibit. Former Special Collections Postgraduate Fellow Mikaela Taylor ’15 designed it with additional support from Rougeau and Irwin.

Théberge, who lives in Quebec, completed her master’s in French studies at Montclair State University in 2016. While earning her degree, she relied heavily on medieval books in both Special Collections and the Middlebury College Museum of Art. After receiving her master’s, Théberge approached Special Collections with a proposal to volunteer her time on a project. “She wanted foremost to be helpful, and to participate in the care and preservation of rare books,” said Irwin.

Théberge’s own work had focused on French medieval manuscripts—handwritten books, rather than mechanically produced. “Early printed and handwritten books share many features,” said Taylor. “They are fascinating but can also be a challenge to modern students—they are typically in Latin, and their subject matter can seem arcane when tackled by a 21st-century reader. With Marie, we found a curious, conscientious, and serious researcher ready to interpret and showcase these books.”

“Curating the exhibit of the Tashiera collection gave me a wonderful opportunity to interact with beautiful early printed books,” said Théberge. “I also loved collaborating with the team at Special Collections—it was truly an enriching experience. I am especially grateful to Mikaela Taylor for her creativity and enthusiasm for my vision of the exhibit.”

In the Footprints of the First German Printers: 1450–1500 will be on display in Davis Family Library atrium (main level) and Harman Periodicals Reading Area (lower level) through September 30.