Yale Law Library’s earliest printed books: Gratian’s Decretum

Gratian's Decretum (Strassburg, 1471)
September 22, 2014

A frequent question from visitors is “What is your oldest book?”. For printed books, there are four contenders for the distinction. All of them were printed in 1471, seventeen years after Johan Gutenberg produced the first printed book, his 42-line Bible. This series of posts will introduce them.

First up is the 1471 edition of Gratian’s Decretum, printed in Strassburg by Heinrich Eggestein. It is the first printed edition of the Decretum, one of the foundational texts of medieval and early modern canon law. Gratian, a 12th-century cleric who became bishop of Chuisi in Tuscany, compiled thousands of authoritative statements of church law and attempted to reconcile the differences. The Decretum was the basic textbook of canon law for centuries, and formed part of the law of the Catholic Church until 1917.

The printer, Heinrich Eggestein, might have first learned the new art of printing from Johan Gutenberg himself at Gutenberg’s workshop in in Mainz, and might have even witnessed the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible. From 1466 to 1488 Eggestein printed books in Strassburg, beginning with a Latin Bible, and printed many books of Roman and canon law.

Eggestein’s 1471 Decretum is one of our prettiest incunables. It is printed in Gothic type, with initials and paragraph marks in alternating red and blue. It is also quite possibly the heaviest book in our collection, weighing in at a whopping 28 lbs.!

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– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian


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