Skip to main content
The Collation

Happy 500th Birthday!

On a recent tour, I was showing a book published in 1518, and mentioned that clearly we were celebrating its 500th birthday by showing it off to a group of very appreciative folks. But that got me thinking—what other books in our collection turn 500 years old this year? 500 is a rather significant number. So let’s take a look at some of the cohort of books in our collection that have been around for half a millenium.

Between our card catalog and Hamnet, we seem to have almost 90 items with a creation date of 1518. Of these, only one is a manuscript! That one is a license by Henry VIII, allowing Sir Thomas Tyrrell to shoot a crossbow for hunting and keep it in his home.1

Folger MS X.d.81

In print, unsurprisingly, classical Latin authors are well represented: Caesar, Plautus, Ovid, Sallust, Pliny, and Livy each have one book from 1518 in our collection, while Suetonius has two, and Plutarch, ever popular, has four.

Title page of an Italian translation of Plutarch’s Lives. (PA4377 .V6 1518 Cage, Volume 1 title page)

I especially like these woodcuts from the edition of Plautus, who was a prolific early Roman playwright. About twenty of Plautus’s plays survive mostly intact, and there are fragments from another thirty plays. This 1518 edition is illustrated with woodcuts. About five woodcuts. Each used repeatedly, throughout the plays, with different captions to indicate different configurations of characters. Here, we see Alcmena, Jupiter, and Mercury from Amphitryon, who then morph into Menaechmus’s wife (“mulier”), Sosicles, and Menaechmus’s Father-in-law (“senex”) from Menaechmi.

PA6568 A2 1518 Cage, c3v

PA6568 A2 1518 Cage, B2r

Greek authors don’t get left out entirely: two copies of Euripedes’s plays, one produced in Basel, one in Florence, were printed. Both were the translation into Latin produced by Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Two editions of Euripides’s play Iphigenia, translated from the Greek by Erasmus. Left: an edition produced in Basel, with annotations (216- 299q); Right, an edition produced in Florence (183- 342q)

Speaking of Erasmus, it is unsurprising that he is also prominent: we have over a dozen works published in 1518 where he was the author, translator, and/or commentator. And where there is Erasmus, there must also be Luther. We have seven sermons and writings by Martin Luther that were produced in 1518—a prolific first year for him.

Three titles pages from our selection of Luther’s 1518 publications. Left to right: 218- 359q; 218- 361q; 218- 368q.

Next, we can turn to Opusculum Raymundinum De auditu kabbalistico siue Ad omnes scientias introductorium, (B765.L8 D2 1518 Cage), a kabbalistic tract often attributed to the medieval Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull, but actually written in the 16th century by Pietro Mainardi.

It has the pieces for a three part volvelle in the back (probably strengthening the association with Llull, whose works were well known for utilizing these devices). And some reader studiously worked out all of the non-repeating combinations possible with this setup.

On the left, the outer-most disc of the volvelle, on the right, the two inner discs. (Folger B765.L8 D2 1518 Cage, f6v and f11v)

Combinatorix, 16th or 17th century style. (B765 L8 D2 1518 Cage, f10v)

Next, we move from kabbalistic texts to a Hebrew grammar. De accentibus, et orthographia, linguae Hebraicae by Johann Reuchlin (PJ4581 .R4 1518 Cage) was also printed in 1518. In 1506 Reuchlin published an introductory guide to Hebrew, and this work appears to be in a similar vein. It’s fascinating to see the Hebrew words and phrases set correctly right to left, while the surrounding Latin reads left to right. Your eye ends up jumping around on the page a lot to read it.

PJ4581 R4 1518 Cage, c3r

The first revised edition of Thomas More’s Utopia was also published in 1518. While people tend to focus on the (admittedly beautiful) map that appears:

PR2321.U82 1518 Cage, b2v (page 12)

I really like the next page, with the “utopian alphabet”:

PR2321.U82 1518 Cage, b3r (page 13)

More certainly wasn’t the only one to experiment with “encrypting” by using an alphabet replacement system. In fact, the the book that started this whole investigation, Johannes Trithemius’s Polygraphiae, is thought to be the first printed book on cryptography. Now, people have been encrypting their writing pretty much as long as writing has existed, and there were any number of manuscript treatises on the subject, but this book seems to have been the first time the information was printed for broad distribution.

While the cyphers in the book are simple by today’s standards—most of them alphabet shifts or character replacement—the volume was beautifully (and expensively) produced. The two color printing extends beyond the title page, and indeed, covers the last fifth of the book!

Z103.T7 P6 1518 Cage title page

On the left is a fairly standard set of alphabet shifts; the right side shows two examples of shifts into other character sets, much as More tried to do in Utopia.

So happy 500th birthday to these, and all of the other items that were created in the year 1518. Lookin’ good!

  1. There is a whole rabbit hole you can go down regarding legislation around crossbows in England. The short version is that in 1503 Henry VII banned owning crossbows “without the King’s Licence, except he be a Lord, or have Two-Hundred Mark Land” and Henry VIII reupped that ban in 1514, saying “Whosoever shall shoot in, or keep in his House, and Hand-Gun, or Cross-Bow, without the King’s licence, shall forfeit the same, and Ten Pounds for every Shoot, unless he hath to the yearly Value of Three hundred Marks.” Owen Ruffhead, The statutes at large, from Magna Charta, to the end of the last Parliament, 1761. In eight volumes. London, 1768-70. Vol. 2, p. 97 and 124. Via ECCO.


I like that the marginalia in the Euripides is in both Latin and Greek, perhaps by the same hand. How often have readers noticed such macaronic marginalia?

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — September 11, 2018