Our “New" Oldest Book


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The Law Library is pleased to announce the purchase of Infortiatum: Super Prima Parte Infortiati, a 1478 edition of Bartolus’s important commentary on part of Justinian's Digest.

Printed in Venice by Nicolas Jenson, it is the Law Library’s first incunable. The word “incunable” comes from the word meaning “cradle” in Latin. Applied to printing, it refers to books from 1450 to 1501, an era initiated by Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible, the first book printed with perfected moveable type. Previously, our oldest book was a 1505 edition of William Lyndwood’s Provinciale.

The study of Roman law began in Europe at the end of the 11th century with the medieval “glossators.” Their successors, the “commentators” of the 14th century, focused on applying Roman law to practical, contemporary legal issues and practices. The most important member of this group was Bartolo of Sassoferrato [1314-1357]. Better known as Bartolus, he was a practicing lawyer and professor at the University of Perugia. 

His unrivalled reputation derived from his enormous literary output, much of it dealing with the texts later collected as the Corpus Juris Civilis. His most notable commentaries are those dealing with the Digest and Code; all of which were produced in numerous editions and issues. Bartolus’s influence on the teaching and practice of law was immense:

The Bartolist school of civil lawyers or ‘commentators’ dominated university law teaching from the fourteenth century... Bartolus excelled among them in the ability to devise solutions to practical problems and provide clear and workable doctrines applying the civil law texts to legal and political problems.

The older name for the ‘commentators’ is ‘postglossators’ because they worked from texts of the Corpus iuris civilis (body of the civil law) provided in the thirteenth century with a massive apparatus of glosses, the Accursian or great Gloss, which in effect sums up the work of the preceding school of civilians, the glossators. Their commentaries, a product of their teaching, form a major part of their literary output and give them their name. There and in their other works, using the Aristotelian ‘new logic’, they draw out from text and gloss ideas which they use to solve current problems. The original context of the texts used is scarcely relevant. From civil (and canon) law texts they thus created a living common law to which appeal could be made where local sources were inadequate.”[1]

Super Prima Parte Infortiati is a commentary on a group of books from the Digest concerning wills, testaments, trusts, and legacies, as well as relations between husband and wife, including divorce. (The Medieval Glossators divided the 50 books of the Digest into three parts: Digestum Vetus, Infortiatum, and Digestum Novum.)

According to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) maintained by the British Library, there were four editions of the Infortiatum published between 1470 to 1477, all in Italy. In 1478, two further editions were printed: one in Pavia and the other—our edition—in Venice. Printing came to Venice in 1470, and it is a testament to the importance of Bartolus’s work that there were so many editions in this early stage of printing. In the present day, ISTC locates two other copies of this imprint in North America (Harvard Law School and New York Public Library).

The book itself is a folio (16-1/2” x 11-1/4”) with a contemporary half-leather binding over wooden boards. The text is printed in Nicolas Jenson’s 60-line gothic type, with initial capitals throughout written by hand in red and blue. There is a contemporary (or early) manuscript table of contents on the initial page.

Nicolas Jenson (1420-1480) was one of the most important early printers. An engraver at one of France’s mints, he travelled to Mainz in 1458 to study the new arts of type founding, punch cutting, and printing with Johannes Gutenberg. In 1470, he started the second printing press in Venice. Jenson is renowned for the beauty of the typefaces he created. He developed his Gothic (or blackletter) type in 1473/4, about four years before the Law Library’s book was printed. He printed about 150 titles during his career. Pope Sixtus IV was a patron and gave Jenson the honorary title of Count Palatine (papal count) in 1475.


Our book has an interesting provenance, as it contains the bookplate of Robert Proctor (1868-1903), the bibliographer and book collector who established the "Proctor order" for cataloguing incunabula at the British and Bodleian Libraries. (The “Proctor order” arranges books by country and city, and then by printer and edition.) A bookseller description from the Rosenbach Company, one of the most famous dealers in rare books in the first half of the 20th century, indicates Proctor purchased the Infortiatum on June 15, 1942.



[1] Gordon, William M. Bartolus of Sassoferrato (or Saxoferrato) (1313/14–57), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-T026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/bartolus-of-sassofer....