A blog written by Library Volunteer, Peter Hoare
Bishop Edward Geste was Bishop of Salisbury from 1571 to 1577, and is the founder of the printed-book collections of the Cathedral Library. This rubbing of his memorial brass in the Morning Chapel is the only contemporary portrait of him. It records his bequest to the Cathedral Library of “a great store of books, such as scarcely any library can match, to be kept in this church for studious persons to use, to perpetuity”.
Title page of the first printing of the Venerable Bede's De Natura Rerum and De Temporum Ratione
Among the hundreds of books in Geste’s bequest is a volume containing what claims to be the first printing of the Venerable Bede’s De Natura Rerum and De Temporum Ratione - books on the physical nature of the world and on the reckoning of time. Both are serious scientific texts from the eighth century: in his day Bede was known as much for his scientific writing as for his theology and his History of the English Church and People, though that is now one of our principal sources for Anglo-Saxon history. Our book was printed in Latin in Basle in March 1529, edited by the German scholar Johann Sichard. Of course when Geste acquired in the 1530s it is was quite new, less than 10 years old - not an “old book” as we perceive it today. It’s not too rare a text in itself - a copy was sold at Sotheby’s in September 2018 for £1500 - but this copy is special, as we shall see. (There are two other works from the 1520s bound in the same volume, neither of them by Bede.)
The volume came over from the Bishop’s Palace after Geste’s death in 1577, when probably the shelf-mark K 17 was written on the fore-edge to show where it should be placed. The title is also on the fore-edge, sideways and not easy to see. Books were then always shelved with the spine facing inwards, and chained too - so that the fore-edge faced outwards. This practice continued until the late 17th century or even later, at Salisbury perhaps until the mid-18th century.
Geste's original shelfmark K17 on the edges of the pages
Garrett Godfrey's initials are the two 'swirls' representing Gs towards the top of the binding
Geste must have had this book bound when he was at King’s College Cambridge (he went up in 1536, and the binder, Garrett Godfrey, is known to have died in 1539, the year Geste became a Fellow of King’s), so Geste’s ownership can be dated quite closely. Garrett Godfrey is one of the great names in the history of English book-binding, and we have a number of his bindings in the Cathedral Library. Godfrey used a number of different rolls (tools for decorating bindings), and this one is especially fine, with mythical beats and foliage all round the edge - here are a wyvern and a griffin, the wyvern apparently in an oak tree with an acorn in front of him. And many of his rolls have his initials G G in with the decoration, so there is no doubt who bound the volume. This one was repaired in the 1950s by the Salisbury binder Harry Bailey, who reported that the wooden boards were “destroyed by bookworms” so he replaced them with new thick cardboard and covered them with the original 16th-century leather.
Like many early books, this one has preserved a leaf from an earlier manuscript. This leaf was used to strengthen the binding - it comes from a 14th-century English manuscript of the emperor Justinian’s Digesta, a compendium of civil law that was very important for medieval churches and cathedrals. We have two manuscripts in the Library [MSS 70 & 184] containing the Digesta but this leaf comes from somewhere else, perhaps from a dispersed monastery or a discard from a Cambridge college library; but for the binder it was just a useful piece of vellum used for strengthening.
A manuscript fragment incoporated into the orginal binding