From manuscript to printed work: a Utrecht incunable spotlighted

After Johannes Gutenberg had perfected printing texts with individual type cast letters in Mainz around 1450, this way of reproducing texts soon spread to other European cities. In the Northern Netherlands Utrecht was the city that was at the cradle of the publication of so-called incunables. Here the Utrecht book printers and publishers Nicolaes Ketelaer and Gerard de Leempt published the first dated incunable in 1473: the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor (ca. 1100-1179). Also the work presented here De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine rolled from their press around this time. Both publications show the extraordinary history of Utrecht printers, to which the University Library has now devoted a digital exhibition of Utrecht incunables and a geographical interface (temporarily under construction).


We cannot say with absolute certainty whether Utrecht was at the very beginning of Dutch book printing. After all, by the examination of paper we now know that also before 1473 books were printed in the Netherlands. However, the book printers in question and their locations are unknown and their legacy is called prototypography. Even so, the work De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine by Ketelaer and De Leempt, together with dozens of other Utrecht incunables, is proof that Utrecht played a major part in the earliest Dutch history of printing.

Ketelaer and De Leempt

Typographical research has shown that at least 33 different editions from the late 15th century can be attributed to the workshop of Ketelaer and De Leempt. Except for the already mentioned Historia scholastica only the Historia ecclesiastica by Eusebius of Caesarea is dated (1474); the other 31 editions bear no dates. Based on two undated copies in French libraries with the statements from the rubricators that they finished their work in 1474, the active printing period of Ketelaer and De Leempt is currently estimated to have occurred in 1473-1474.

‘Editiones principes’

It is remarkable that the printing shop of Ketelaer and De Leempt used quite original texts which had not appeared in print before. As copy for this kind of ‘editiones principes’ a version executed in handwriting was used. This so-called original manuscript acted as a ‘legger’ or composition example for the printed edition. In some cases these manuscripts can be traced back, including the treatises shown here: De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine by Thomas Aquinas (see the story about this 'legger'). Copy for both texts came from the library of the Carthusian cloister and is currently housed in the collection of Utrecht University Library (Ms. 297; Hs. 4 G 14).

Instructions for setting up type

In the case of the printed edition we are dealing with a so-called pseudo-Thomas edition which the printer attributes to Thomas Aquinas himself however. This attribution appears to have been taken over directly from the original manuscript. Furthermore, this manuscript contains all kinds of signs which the typesetters have put in as a preparation for the final typesetting of the text. For instance, the pages of the work to be printed are calculated by each line and it is indicated what page number the text in question will get in the quire. All this preliminary work was necessary because there was not enough letter material to typeset the book in its entirety and print it. After having been used as copy, the manuscript was returned again to the library of the Carthusian cloister.

Text of a Dominican monk

As said before, the Italian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is presented as the author in De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine. As a scholastic Aquinas is considered to be the most influential and systematic medieval thinker in the field of theology and philosophy. However, modern research has shown that this kind of ‘Opuscula’ works have wrongly been attributed to him. Probably both theological texts are by the hand of a Dominican monk who was staying in an area north of the Alps. They originate from the end of the 13th century. De divinis moribus (‘About the divine character’) has a scholastic and ascetic slant, whereas De beatitudine (‘About beautitude’) carries an affective and mystical signature. In this way the incunable made up from both treatises shows the spreading of influential ideas and concepts, which expanded more and more after Gutenberg’s ‘invention’ …

Further reading

  • Alten, A. van, ‘Het Utrechts boekbedrijf rond 1800. Een aanzet tot reconstructie’, in: De negentiende eeuw 14 (1990), p. 139–140.
  • Begheyn, P., ‘Gherard van de Leempt, ca. 1450-ca. 1492, eerste Nederlandse boekdrukker’, in: J.A.E. Kuys (ed.), Biografisch woordenboek Gelderland : Bekende en onbekende mannen en vrouwen uit de Gelderse geschiedenis, dl. 4 (Hilversum, 2004), p. 80-81.
  • Brecht, J., Die pseudothomasischen Opuscula ‘De divinis moribus’ und 'De beatitudine‘ : Texte und Untersuchungen zu mittelhochdeutschen und mittelniederländischen Übertragungen (München, 1973).
  • Gerritsen-Geywitz, G., ‘The Utrecht printer Nicolaus Ketelaer‘, in: Quaerendo 31 (2001), p. 137-147.
  • Hellinga, L. (1976), ‘Problems about technique and methods in a fifteenth-century printing house (Nicolaus Ketelaer and Gerardus de Leempt, Utrecht, 1473-1475)’, in: Villes d'imprimerie et moulins a papier du XIVe au XVIe siècles. Colleque international, Spa, 11-4 Sept. 1973 (Bruxelles, 1976), p. 301-312. p. 301-312.
  • Hellinga, W.Gs. (1962), Kopij en druk in de Nederlanden: atlas bij de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse typografie (Amsterdam, 1962), p. 168 nr. 13, 15.
  • Horst, K. van der, L.C. Kuiper-Brussen & P.N.G. Pesch (1984), Handschriften en oude drukken van de Utrechtse Universiteitsbibliotheek. Samengesteld bij het 400-jarig bestaan van de Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, 1584–1984 (Utrecht, 1984). Second print, p. 335-339 nr. 183a, image on p. 336.
  • Mulder, H., ‘Utrechtse boekdrukkers in de vijftiende eeuw’, in: Beeldschone boeken : De Middeleeuwen in goud en inkt (Zwolle, 2009), p. 119-128.
MvE, April 2016
Fol 2r, 'De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine', 1474
Fol 10v, 'De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine', 1474
Detail fol 11r, 'De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine', 1474

De divinis moribus [&] De beatitudine / [Pseudo-]Thomas de Aquino ([Utrecht : Nicolaes Ketelaer en Gerard de Leempt, 1474]) . – In 2o. – (Utrecht UB, MAG: F fol 1722 (Rariora)).

  • Binding: Modern binding of calfskin over original pasteboard.
  • Provenance: From the possession of Christophorus van Aemstel, who was buried near the Carthusian cloister. Probably the book was a gift to this cloister. After the confiscation in 1584 the book was taken up into the city library.