Pope Clement V’s Constitutiones a Rare Treasure

Pope Clement's Constitutiones
Pope Clement’s Constitutiones, published in 1481, is one of our rarest books.

Recent shelf shifting here at Special Collections gave us the chance to appreciate once again the oldest item in our collection, Pope Clement V’s Constitutiones, published in 1481. Given its importance to medieval canon law and its interesting binding, we decided this book of paper letters (decretals) deserved its own blogosphere showcase. Although Pope Clement V originally compiled these texts in 1314, his successor, John XXII, ultimately circulated the collection with his own promulgation letter. Printer Peter Drach published this copy in the German city of Speyer, and it includes commentary (gloss) by prominent 14th-century canonist Johannes Andreae. As a piece of incunabula, meaning it was printed with moveable type before 1500, Constitutiones is remarkable today for its construction as much as for its content.

In the style of fifteenth-century German printing, Constitutiones is bound between two wooden boards covered in quarter leather, likely pigskin. Stamps of the Habsburg coat of arms decorate the leather down the front and back of the book. Still firmly attached to the boards are two metal clasps, though they no longer hold the book shut. A vellum label with the book’s title has been glued to the spine.

Clasp holding the book shut
One of the two clasps that once held the book shut.
Constitutiones is bound between two decorated wooden boards.
Constitutiones is bound between two decorated wooden boards.
Stamps of the Habsburg coat of arms.
Stamps of the Habsburg coat of arms.
Inside the front cover
Inside the front cover: Manuscript pages used in binding.

A look inside reveals how the bookbinder reused manuscript papers to wrap gatherings of the book’s pages. Written entirely in Latin, commentary on the outer margins surrounds the decretals on the inner margins. Other copies of Constitutiones, like this copy fully digitized by the Munich Digitization Center, include beautiful decorations on drop letters and in the margins.

Constitutiones is one of the rarest books in our collection.

Constitutiones is one of the rarest books in the U.Va. Law Library’s collection. According to the British Library, only three other copies exist in the United States (at Harvard, Yale, and the Library of Congress). This copy came to the U.Va. Law Library as a gift from Neill H. Alford, Jr. (Law ’47; Percy Brown, Jr. Professor of Law), who purchased Constitutionales in Paris in the mid-twentieth century and donated his valuable collection of antiquarian law books to the U.Va. Law Library in the 1980s.

Interested researchers can review Constitutiones or other books in the U.Va. Law Library’s large collection of rare and historical legal texts by making an appointment to visit Special Collections.

For additional information on Constitutiones:

See entry for “Clementines” in Medieval and Early Modern Jurists: A Bio-Bibliographical Listing: http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/1298a-z.htm

For other recent posts about rare books and their construction:

Yale University Library: Medieval Manuscripts: Bookbinding Terms, Materials, Methods and Models

The Conversant blog of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum: “Marbled Papers and their Use in Rare Books”

Tumblr page showcasing digital collections at Harvard’s Houghton Library: http://houghtonlib.tumblr.com/

– Randi Flaherty 

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Randi Flaherty

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