1459 Psalter Leaf

PSALTERIUM BENEDICTINUM cum canticis et hymnis.
Fragment of 1 vellum leaf.
[Mainz]: Johann Fust & Peter Schoeffer, 29 August 1459. (07038)


The Latin Psalters printed by Fust and Schoeffer in 1457 and 1459 rank among the finest of all early printed books. The 1457 Psalter was the first book printed with two sizes of type and large initials, the first to be printed throughout in multiple colors, and the earliest printed book to bear a colophon that states the names of its makers and the date of its production. These Psalters introduced two extremely well designed type fonts, the larger serving for the psalms and the smaller for the hymns and rubrics.

The most innovative feature of the Psalters of 1457 and 1459 was their elaborate decorative initials, printed in red and blue ink. Separable from their interlocking ornament blocks, the initials were inked in one color while their ornaments were inked in the other. Reassembled in place, they were printed along with the black letters in one pull of the press. The design of these initials, certainly the work of a trained calligrapher, has been counted among Schoeffer’s greatest achievements, although Gutenberg likely played a role in their development.

The 1459 Psalter, the second firmly dated book printed in Europe, was the earliest edition of the Psalter for Benedictine Use. It was commissioned by the Benedictines of St. James in Mainz for use by the Bursfeld Congregation, a rapidly growing reform movement within the Benedictine Order. The  immense size of the 1459 Psalter, which originally measured about 19 inches in height, illustrates the book's function in communal reading in monasteries, as opposed to the later tendency to produce portable Psalters for personal reading.

Bridwell Library’s rare single leaf, purchased in 2007, was re-used as a liner inside a later book binding. The text is Psalm 69, sung during Quadrigesima, the first Sunday in Lent: “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul...” The musical notation was added by hand. When Schoeffer reprinted the Benedictine Psalter in 1490, he was able to add music printed with wood blocks.

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