1509: The Most Curious Book in the World

Memling, Hans (1425/40-1494): The Passion. Turin, Galleria Sabau

The following entry appears in Charles Carroll Bombaugh’s Gleanings from the Harvest Fields of Literature: A Melange of Excerpta, Curious, Humorous, and Instructive (1867):


The most singular bibliographic curiosity is that which belonged to the family of the Prince de Ligne, and is now in France. It is entitled Liber Passionis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, cum Characteribus Nulla Materia Compositis. This book is neither written nor printed! The whole letters of the text are cut out of each folio upon the finest vellum; and, being interleaved with blue paper, it is read as easily as the best print. The labor and patience bestowed in its completion must have been excessive, especially when the precision and minuteness of the letters are considered. The general execution, in every respect, is indeed admirable; and the vellum is of the most delicate and costly kind. Rodolphus II of Germany offered for it, in 1640, eleven thousand ducats, which was probably equal to sixty thousand at this day. The most remarkable circumstance connected with this literary treasure is, that it bears the royal arms of England, but it cannot be traced to have ever been in that country.

A much more detailed description of the book is found in Pierre Lambinet’s Recherches historiques, littéraires et critiques sur l’origine de l’imprimerie (1798). Lambinet recounts first hearing about it, and then later being able to see it for himself:

I had read the following anecdote in the first volume of Les Nuits Parisiennes, and had transcribed it: “The emperor Rodolphe (Rodolphe II, son of the emperor Maximillian II), offered eleven thousand ducats for a book, which he saw, in 1640, in the study of the Prince of Ligne (in Brussels).” The book was entitled Liber passionis domini nostri Jesu Christi, cum figuris et caracteribus ex nulla materia compositis (“Book of the passion N. S. J. C. with figures and letters not made of any matter”).  A few years later, engaged in the pleasures of bibliography, I beseeched  Le Gros, secretary of the Prince de Ligne, to show me this singular book. I have carefully examined this masterpiece of industry and patience; here is the description, the history, and the explanation of this enigma.

This short book contains twenty-four sheets, including nine prints; the vellum is of the most beautiful white luster. The first page, which serves as a frontispiece, shows a crowned H intertwined with roses. The second, which is also an image, shows the arms of the King of England, with the motto Hony soit qui mal y pense, and below a rose and two portcullises. The date of this work was determined by some Englishmen, including (among others) H.C. Englefield, who in 1774 saw the Coat of Arms of England, and especially the figure of the rose and two portcullises, which was the motto, or rather the monogram of Henry VII. This prince ascended to the throne of England in 1485 and died in 1509. It is assumed that this rare piece was made between these two years, and even that it was presented to this monarch. The date of the bequest, which will be seen below, supports this presumption. The third page is the beginning of the text of Passio Domini Jesu-Christi secundun Joannem, cap. XVIII. The entire text of the passion, in Latin, takes up fifteen pages; seven others portray in images the principal mysteries of the passion, and are placed next to the text that cites them. The twenty-four leaves of this book are of the finest vellum, as we have said above. On each of them are cut out, with the tip of a penknife or another very sharp instrument, all the letters and all the lines of the figures which had previously been printed there. By this method, each sheet can be seen through and consists only of differently-shaped voids. Between each sheet of vellum a loose sheet of blue paper is interposed, which makes the letters and figures appear as distinctly as if printed or engraved. This is the explanation of the enigma cum figuris et caracteribus ex nulla materia compositis.

The great value of this work, which we classify in the class of difficiles nugae, consists in the composition and arrangement of the nine tableaux, in the meticulousness of the drawing, and the appearance of the figures. The round letters of which the text is composed are of a perfect shape and clarity. These incisions and that of the lines of the figures in the tableaux are of a masterful hairline precision and a rigor of which we see few examples.

At the end of the short book, written on parchment, is a bequest — and the main stages by which the book got to the house of Ligne. Here is a copy of the sonnet which announces it:

The countess Isabeau of Hochstrate and Culembourg,
Had this ancient masterpiece in her inheritance;
After that, her dear niece, Anne de Rennebourg,
Inherited this book in her share of her possessions.

Her daughter by Laing, Marie, inherited it,
Then the four sisters after owned it,
So my mother possessed a quarter, which she conveyed to me;
The three to my benefit left me their shares.

Now, at this time I order and command my son
To guard it carefully as a magnificent work,
And to my all my descendents, from father to son,
This book shall belong to the head of the house of Ligne.

Lamoral, prince of Ligne, 1609

Marchand, in his History of the Origin of Printing, mentions this work. He tells the anecdote of the Emperor Rodolphe. He doubts the existence of this book; however, his doubt is allayed. Sanderus, whose Biblioth. Bel.. mansusc. is the source of Marchand’s… information, probably had not seen it.

Auguste Voisin offers a few more details in his Souvenirs de la bibliothèque des princes de Ligne, à Beloeil (1839). He includes a further line following the poem: “Charles, Prince of Ligne, deposited in his archives this masterpiece as a bequest with his family, on December 15, 1773.” He also includes some additional history:

This singular prayer book, phoenix and gem of bibliographic rarities, seems to have been executed…for Henry VII, King of England. But what is generally unknown is the way in which it passed from royal hands to the princely house of Ligne. It was given as a wedding present by the Duke of Loraine to Prince Florent de Ligne at the time of his marriage to Louise of Lorraine, niece and goddaughter of Louise of Lorraine, Queen of France, wife of Henri III. It was Prince Claude Lamoral de Ligne, viceroy of Sicily, who refused the eleven thousand gold ducats which were offered to him for this unique object by the German emperor.

I can find nothing else about this book. Other sources I’ve found depend ultimately on Lambinet—and later English sources simply summarize or plagiarize Bombaugh. Did it exist? Does it? There is considerable detail in Lambinet’s description, and he claims to have seen it himself.  However, nothing else seems to corroborate its existence. One Dartmouth librarian laments as follows:  “I have been looking for this pseudo-manuscript for nearly twenty years. Searching catalogs of major collections in France and in other countries, asking curators and manuscript scholars, scouring the literature, all proved fruitless.”

Hans Memling: Scenes from the Passion Of Christ (1470-71); in the painting, 23 scenes from the life of Christ coexist in a single composition.

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