Close Menu


Explore the many countries, cities and institutions of HMML’s fieldwork sites.

Learn More


Meet some of the people, communities and traditions who are part of HMML’s global team.

Learn More


Learn more about the manuscripts in HMML’s digital and microfilm collections.

Learn More

HMML History: An Unexpected Find

May 18, 2011
Back to News


You may have read about the tattered, partial copy of a 500-year-old Nuremberg Chronicle that turned up in a small town museum in Utah. A very old note in HMML’s records indicates that our library has also had its moments of surprise and discovery. From April 6, 1978, we read:

“A recent sally into the Rare Book Room of Alcuin Library on the part of HMML cataloger Donald Yates had the unintentional result of helping to identify what is probably the most precious incunabulum at St. John’s. While consulting an early edition of canon law in the vault of the Rare Book Room, Yates noticed a collection of pages on a shelf underneath a heap of miscellaneous papers. It was a copy of Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on the Gospels of Luke and John. The leaves were badly damaged and lacked any indication of origin. Clearly, however, this was a very early edition, for the fount was Roman antiqua and the format was very spacious. The book was reminiscent of the “light-filled” pages of Sweynheym and Pannartz, the first printers active in Italy, later influential on such archaizing printers as Baskerville in the 18th century.

Yates mentioned the curiosity to the Rare Book Librarian, Deborah Wohletz, at a reception in the Twin Cities for the University of Minnesota exhibition “Mirror of the Middle Ages” on April 4. The next day, Wohletz, along with Brother Alcuin Francis, called on Yates at HMML, and all three went to look at the books in the vault. Re-examination of the book confirmed Yates’ suspicions, yet it was odd that there was no acquisitions notice or catalog description for the book. Books lacking a title, first-page, or colophon are hard to identify. Yates, however, was able to determine that the watermark in the paper is identical to that used in a Greek manuscript copied in Rome in 1470/1471 (cf. Dieter & Johnna Harlfinger, Wasserzeichen aus griechischen Handschriften, Berlin, 1974, vol. 1, s.v. “arbalete 22”) and that the line-count, foliations and incipits correspond to those of the editio princeps of Aquinas’ work published by Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz at Rome in 1470 in a run of about 250. (cf. Hain *1330; Panzer 2, 421; Romae no. 46). A sample of the fount and format may be found in the Index Typographicum Italiae, p. 334, also figure 134. There are five known copies of the work in America, one in London in the British Library, and one in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale. St. John’s copy, though it is only the second volume and badly damaged, is an important addition. ” 

HMML staff continues to document and research the collections, recently identifying several individual incunabula leaves in the Arca Artium print collection, inventorying an uncatalogued signature collection (with royalty, popes, cardinals, et al.), and the “discovery” of documents relating to the slave trade in the American South in the nineteenth century. Our goal is to make these materials better known and thus available for scholarly and educational use.

Above: A sample from the volume Dr. Yates discovered in 1978.