By Forrest Strickland |
On 20 November 1615, the University of Groningen gathered to mourn the death of Eggricus Eggaeus Phebens. Phebens’ death was remembered in standard early modern tropes. His life, we are told, was one of piety, temperance, virtue and other laudable qualities. Temperance, honesty and modesty marked Pheben’s academic career: at the young age of fourteen, he had begun studying the liberal arts and eventually studied at Marburg before making the journey to Groningen. We only know of Phebens through the funeral programme that was printed to commemorate his death (USTC 1518751). It is now preserved in Special Collections at the University of Groningen, a partner of Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.
The print that announced Phebens’ death bears the same features of other seventeenth-century printed broadsheets from Groningen printers and many other print shops during this time. A decorative border encases the text, large type-face signals by whose authority the declaration is being made, and the text itself is a mass of black ink without standard paragraphs. In fact, little had changed in the print style of Johannes Sass since he printed the broadsheet announcing the formation of the new university in 1614 (USTC 1023444): the features of the two are so similar, one could be forgiven for not immediately noticing the differences between them.
Herman Ravensburger, the university rector, is featured prominently on the upper-most portion of the broadsheet, but a local cleric oversaw the funeral. With several hundred students and a growing faculty, Ravensburger eventually witnessed the funerals of many friends and associates of the university.
Programmes, such as the broadsheet commemorating Pheben’s death, were the lifeblood of university printers. Johannes Sass certainly printed these broadsheets with care, knowing that they represented the university to the town and to other towns where the local university’s broadsheets would have been circulated; nevertheless, it was a project that could be finished quickly and with little financial outlay. Only a small amount of work was needed, and it was commissioned by a single buyer, therefore there was less headache trying to navigate the vagaries of the book-buying public.
It was common practice that a funeral programme would be printed and circulated through town, announcing the death and remembering the person’s life. What was not common, however, is the survival of these prints. Without a focused effort to preserve these kinds of prints, there was little reason to safeguard these ephemeral texts. They were prints tied to a specific time and place that did not engender the same kind of enduring value that a printed book would. Extant funeral programmes only represent a small portion of the total number printed, meaning most will remain forever unknown and unknowable.
The University of Groningen Special Collections now provides digital reproductions of many of its resources, including hundreds of broadsheet academic programmes. Nearly 200 programmata funebria are digitised from the seventeenth century. Yet, for the seeming abundance of those that survive, they represent a fraction of the total printed. Given this remarkable collection, the rarity of this particular print is easy to forget. Groningen’s copy of Phebens’ funeral programme is the only known surviving copy, despite there being several hundred printed at the time. While these works were ubiquitous and formulaic, they each represented a life, and the desire to remember that life. By preserving and sharing these exceptionally rare works, this centuries-old mourning tradition is kept alive.
Forrest Strickland (PhD, University of St Andrews) has served as a research student with the USTC since 2017. He is the author of the forthcoming Protestant Ministers and their Books in the Dutch Republic, 1607–1700, 2 vols. (Brill). His doctoral research investigated Dutch ministers and the culture of print in the Golden Age. He is a former Arminius Fellow at the University of Leiden-Scaliger Institute. You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.edu.
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Featured image available from The Wellcome Collection under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.