By Jamie Cumby
This week, we dive into the world of popular chivalric literature, with the Historia del emperador Carlomagno y de los doce pares de Francia, printed in 1521. The only copy recorded in the USTC survives in the Morgan Library & Museum, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners, where it has been since 1935. Before passing through the hands of a major book dealer, two auction houses, and another collector on its journey to the Morgan, the book had belonged to the noted father and son English bibliophiles Henry Huth (1815-1878) and Alfred Henry Huth (1850-1910). The elder Huth was a particularly avid collector of Spanish literature, and this extremely rare copy from a nearly lost edition is a testament to the wealth of his catalogue.
This edition came from the presses of one of Spain’s most celebrated printers of the sixteenth century, Jacobo Cromberger. Cromberger and his descendants made a name for themselves by printing a diverse catalogue of bestsellers that reached both the high and low ends of the book market. Chivalric tales like this one were part of an extremely popular literature that appealed to a large cross-section of readers. Thanks to the Crombergers’ business sense, they were also one of the press’ specialties.
The Historia del emperador Carlomagno is a perfect example of the Cromberger romances of chivalry: it is a folio edition illustrated with 17 woodcuts and printed in two columns with gothic types. These woodcuts, including the half-page illustration on the title page above, were not commissioned for the work, but came out of the Crombergers’ existing stock. Overall, it is shorter than some chivalric romances, being 46 leaves (or 23 sheets), compared with the 150 sheets needed for books I-IV of Amadis de Gaula.
As this edition’s poor survival shows, many of these books were so popular as to be read into extinction. Coupling popularity with a relatively short text goes a long way to answering why this may be the only surviving copy. The Morgan’s copy is an exception; aside from Huth’s bookplate, this copy is mostly clean. We can infer that it survived precisely because its particular early modern owners seem to be among the few not to have read it often!
While the format and illustration are not exceptional by themselves, the edition’s content is notable. Cromberger’s 1521 edition was the very first time that this particular chivalric story appeared in Spanish. The text is Nicolás de Piamonte’s translation of Jean Baignon’s Roman de Fierabras (first edition 1478). This was a story that was already popular with francophone audiences, as well as English (1485), Italian (1487), and would soon appear in German (1533). It recounts Charlemagne’s victory over the Muslim army with the story of the knight Fierabras, who converts to Christianity and, in Piamonte’s version, fights alongside the Christians. Piamonte was mostly faithful to the French text, with some interesting alterations. Rather than fighting Saracens in Muslim Spain, Charlemagne is fighting against Turks in the South of France!
After this first edition, Piamonte’s translation became the standard Spanish version of Fierabras. It appeared in some twelve editions from Iberian presses in the sixteenth century, including three Cromberger reprints ( in 1525, 1534, and 1549); there were a further nineteen editions in the seventeenth century, demonstrating the enduring popularity of this type of literature. Piamonte’s translation also served as the basis for the first Portuguese edition in 1728. The 1521 edition helps scholars contextualize the history of its transmission for Iberian reading audiences, and its poor survival speaks to the early popularity of narrative fiction, the forerunners of the novel.
Jamie Cumby is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014. Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires. She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.
Images: Copyright The Morgan Library & Museum, photographs by John McQuillen.