The idea of a popular text devoted to the art of dying might strike us today as perverse, comical even, until viewed in its historical context — the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying) was first composed around 1415.
Sixty years earlier, the Black Death had swept through Europe, killing off an estimated 30-60 per cent of its population. There was no medical knowledge with which to combat the disease (outbreaks of which were seen in Europe up until the late 17th century) and no understanding of what caused it. (Contemporary ‘cures’ included washing the patient with vinegar and rose water and drinking a glass of your own urine twice a day.)
Recurrences of the plague, other diseases and conflict on a local and national scale — The Hundred Years’ War between France and England lasted from 1337 to 1453 — frequently cut life short. It is not surprising therefore that people in early 15th-century Europe should have been preoccupied with death, the afterlife and how best to prepare for it.
You’d often see the devil at somebody’s bedside waiting for the soul… The illustrations are very graphic, almost designed to put fear into somebody
The original version of Ars moriendi was the first in a long western literary tradition of guides to dying well. Written by an anonymous Dominican friar, it was probably commissioned by the German Council of Constance (1414-1418).
The text comprises six chapters, the first four of which seek to inspire the dying man with hope, guide him away from temptation and remind him of the possibility of redemption by following the example of Christ. The final two chapters instruct friends and family in the proper bedside manner and appropriate prayers for the dying. Vivid illustrations often accompanied the text, helping to make it more accessible across all levels of society, as well as reinforcing its message.
‘The illustrations emphasised visually what the text was saying through words,’ explains Meg Ford, Christie’s International Head of Books and Manuscripts. ‘You’d often see the devil at somebody’s bedside waiting for the soul, ready to capture it should the person not have led a good life. The illustrations are very graphic, almost designed to put fear into somebody. They’re saying, if you want to die well you have to live well. That’s why often, but not always, the text will appear with the art of living well.’
Ars moriendi. Paris: by Le Petit Laurens for François Regnault, n.d. [c. 1502]. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. This work and those below will be offered in our sale, Important Books and Manuscripts from the Library of Jean A. Bonna, at King Street on 16 June
The rarity of Ars moriendi today is almost certainly due to its extraordinary popularity, the majority of texts having been worn out through use. Copies in good condition, such as those offered in the upcoming sale, are particularly rare. Lot 9, for example, is one of just five known extant copies of a first edition of a collection of four texts, which includes L’art de bien mourir (The Art of Dying) and Le bien vivre (The Art of Living). ‘It is a larger format [than lots 13 and 92],’ Ford explains, ‘a big book, and while that’s not necessarily something that drives value, in this case it means it’s more of a monumental work.’
‘The Ars moriendi was also found in smaller formats, principally for popular distribution, for the everyman. By contrast, those in the sale are big books, well-illustrated, which means that they would have been an expensive production at the time, produced for quite a high level of society. And that’s one of the interesting things about the text — it really was of serious interest and concern to society at all levels.’
Ars moriendi, and other texts, in French. Paris: Pierre Le Rouge (I, undated) and Gillet Couteau with Jean Menard (II-IV), for Antoine Vérard, 18 July — 28 October — 15 December 1492. Estimate: £150,000-200,000
Ars moriendi reveals much about 15th century attitudes towards death and dying. Another text that in many ways epitomises the period of its creation and dissemination is Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, lib. VII (On the fabric of the human body in seven books). Published in 1543 in Renaissance Europe, this work on human anatomy redefined the landscape of scientific thought.
Regarded as the father of modern anatomy, Vesalius (1514-1564) recognised the limitations of an anatomy of the human body based solely on book learning, instead pushing for an approach based more on observation and dissection of human corpses.
He was remarkable among his contemporaries for challenging the conception of the anatomy of the human body put forward by the notable Greek physician and surgeon Galen (129-210 A.D.). Galen, unlike Vesalius, did not have access to human bodies and so carried out dissections on animals for his research. This gave rise to major inaccuracies in Galen’s writings on human anatomy, many of which Vesalius corrected in his Fabrica.
Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). De humani corporis fabrica, lib. VII. Lyons: Jean de Tournes, 1552. Estimate: £70,000-100,000
The significance of the Fabrica can be felt in the grandeur of its production. The 1543 edition was a large book, comprising 663 pages and printed on high-quality paper. With its elegant typography, generous spacing and numerous detailed illustrations, it was a work of art, unprecedented in the history of medical publishing.
Among contemporary works, only Leonard Fuch’s illustrated herbal De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants) (lot 45, see below), printed a few months before the Fabrica, was comparable in beauty.
Leonard Fuchs (1501–1566). De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes. Basel: Michael Isingrin, 1542. Estimate: £50,000-70,000
The edition offered in the 16 June sale dates from 1552, just nine years after the first edition was published. ‘This copy is especially valuable due to its special binding and ownership by a Renaissance diplomat,’ Ford says. ‘Bookbindings of the 16th century of this level and in this condition are exceptional, plus Duodo is an owner who we know quite a lot about, and we can place the shop in which the books were bound.
Duodo commissioned a portable gentleman’s library that was meant to encompass all knowledge at that point in time. He selected representative works in the fields of medicine and botany, among others, and this was one of the core texts. These books show Duodo’s wealth and status.’
It is telling that Duodo chose to include the Fabrica in his travelling library so soon after the book first appeared. ‘The whole history of anatomy is now talked about in terms of ‘pre-Vesalian’ and ‘post-Vesalian’,’ Ford says, ‘so the publication of the Fabrica is one of those absolute landmark moments.’
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