A New Edition of a German Mathematical Bestseller

By Nina Lamal

‘Nach Adam Riese’ is a known expression in Germany when referring to a simple calculation.  It hints at the importance of Adam Ries (1492/1493-1559), a German mathematician who wrote an influential textbook entitled Rechnung auff der linihen und federn. In this book Ries discusses the two different ways of counting used in the sixteenth century: people had traditionally learned to count using an abacus (a calculating board), but numerical calculations were becoming more commonly used. The title pages of Egenolff’s Frankfurt editions (see above) show two men practicing the different methods: one using pen and paper, the other using an abacus. Other editions of this book were adorned with a portrait of Adam Ries.

It quickly became one of the most popular mathematical books in German-speaking lands. During the sixteenth century at least 74 editions were printed in Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main, Erfurt, Nuremberg and other German cities. In these cities, the same publishers reprinted the book several years in a row, yet the majority of the editions currently recorded in the USTC show very low survival rates. Most editions survive in only one copy. This is not surprising as the book was a practical How-To manual. It was mostly printed in octavo-format, making it more easily portable. It was used in schools, shops and at merchant desks until it fell apart and was thrown away. Some editions might, therefore, be entirely lost and unknown editions might still be hidden in unknown libraries.

With Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, we hope to find these unknown editions or unique survivors. I came across a previously unrecorded edition of Ries’ mathematical bestseller in Glasgow University Library, one of our partner libraries. It is a 1586 octavo edition of Ries’ manual published in Frankfurt an der Oder by the official university publisher Andreas Eichorn. His father, Johann, had already published two editions in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1577 and in 1579. Both father and son were official university printers, publishing mainly works written by the Frankfurt university professors, academic dissertations and church music. In a university city such as Frankfurt an der Oder, there was also a market for Ries’ mathematical work. The survival of this 1586 edition of Ries’ work confirms how popular it was.


Adam Riese 1586 Title Page from Glasgow University Library
Shelfmark Sp Coll Mu32-h.10. With permission of University of Glasgow Library ASC.


Our library partners receive a list of their unique holdings and in working together with them we aim to improve catalogue records which will help researchers worldwide. We also aim to preserve these rare survivors and the stories they tell. This particular copy was owned by several different individuals who all have left their mark on the book. The three preliminary leaves with notes are dated 1587 and were probably made by its first unknown owner. The calculations at the end of the book were also made by an early hand. In 1627 the book belonged to a certain Kaspar Döring.  It came to the university library as part of the collection of the Glasgow lawyer David Murray (1842-1928). He was an avid book collector and bought over a hundred sixteenth-century books with continental imprints. The German imprints are mostly grammar books and legal texts. It was rebound by the famous London bookbinders firm Riviere & Sons after 1880. Fortunately for book historians, they kept the original vellum manuscript waste cover and the additional inserted leaves with manuscript annotations. It was very common for these type of manuals to have inserted leaves for the owner(s) to practice their calculations.

This edition also demonstrates that by surveying the holdings of libraries outside of the German Sprachraum, we can still find new editions of an immensely popular work and a well-studied author with its very own story to tell.

Nina Lamal is a FWO postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. From 2015 until 2017 she worked as a postdoctoral research assistant on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books. She is currently compiling the first bibliography of seventeenth-century Italian newspapers. Her research focuses on the role of handwritten newsletters and printed newspapers in the seventeenth century. You can follow her on Twitter @NinaLamal.


Images used with permission of University of Glasgow Library ASC.

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