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Anne Popkema & Herre de Vries, ‘Copy destroyed’: De lotgevallen van een verdwenen incunabel

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‘Copy destroyed’: De lotgevallen van een verdwenen incunabel

Anne Popkema & Herre de Vries  in De Gulden Passer, vol. 96 (2018), nr. 2, pp. 261–281


During – or perhaps shortly after – the Second World War, Dutch scholar Bonaventura Kruitwagen received word from the Premonstratensian Abbey in Averbode in Flanders that their copy of Johannes Vernaker’s Quodlibetum. De indulgentiis printed by the anonymous ‘Printer of the Freeska Landriucht’ in 1484–1486, had not, in fact, as had until then been suspected, been destroyed in a terrible fire in December 1942. Puzzlingly, though, the ISTC currently states ‘copy destroyed’ for this particular copy. What might have happened? It seems likely that, in the 1930s, when the abbey was in dire straits, this copy may have been spirited away, together with dozens of other Averbode incunabula, a fact of which Kruitwagen’s informant was most probably unaware at that time.

Today, only three surviving copies of the Quodlibetum. De indulgentiis are known, one of which is in Cambridge. Recently, in this copy, which was acquired in 1970, traces of library stamps which had been erased were spotted. Using multi spectral imaging (MSI) technology, these traces were enhanced to the extent that it was possible to confirm that they were in fact remnants of Averbode Abbey library stamps.

Although the Cambridge copy could thus be identified as the original Averbode copy, the route that the book followed between Averbode and Cambridge remains obscure. The copy contains a clear reference to a 1970 catalogue by the Amsterdam bookseller Menno Hertzberger; this is in fact how Cambridge came into possession of the incunabulum. However, Hertzberger’s files do not seem to contain any information on how, when or from whom he acquired the book in the first place, other than that it was already in his possession by 1969. Again, annotations on the pastedowns and fly leaves of the incunabulum’s modern cover – some of which had been thoroughly erased, whilst others were left untouched – were uncovered using MSI technology and were transcribed. These may provide insight for future scholars into what actually happened to the incunabulum in the period between its disappearance, probably in the 1930s, and its acquisition by Hertzberger in or before 1969. Furthermore, these insights may perhaps also shed light on what might have happened to some of the dozens of other incunabula that were also ‘removed’ from the Averbode Abbey collection.