Support ANTIQUES ROADSHOW by supporting public television! Give Today
  • SHOP
  • Appraisals

    Follow the Stories | Madison, Wisconsin (2010)

    A Curious Incunable


    Posted: 3.1.2010

    CU pointing to inscription

    The inscription on a page at the front of the book reads, in Latin, Henry VIII King of England, France and Ireland. It is not in the hand of Henry himself, though it does appear to be 16th-century writing.


    Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan during the 4th century, is considered one of the four original "doctors of the Church." Oil on canvas by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaràn, ca. 1627. (Image from

    appraiser and guest

    Books expert Stephen Massey discussed the volume with Jayne, the owner, at the July 2009 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event in Madison, Wisconsin.

    At the July 2009 Madison ROADSHOW event, books expert Stephen Massey's appraised a 1492 edition of volume two of the works of St. Ambrose. But Massey's appraisal encompassed a larger than usual margin of error. After speaking with the owner, Jayne, in Madison and examining her book, Massey concluded that its value lay somewhere between $800 and $15,000. This wide range did not arise from any quibbles about the book's age or condition, but from the unknown intentions and identity of the person who wrote across a blank page in the front of the book, in what appears to be a 16th-century hand, Henry VIII, King of England, France and Ireland. Who wrote this, and why? The inscription, here translated from the Latin, provided evidence that the book had once been in the collection of one of Britain's most infamous monarchs — but it was hardly definitive. Narrowing down the range of the appraisal, says Massey, would require the attention of a paleographer, an expert in old styles of handwriting, who could analyze the inscription and determine, to within a few decades, the year it was made, and possibly by whom.

    A book from the infancy of printing, with possible connections to an infamous king

    At first blush, because of some indistinct markings, it was unclear whether the inscription referred to Henry VIII or his father, Henry VII. Subsequent examinations by another expert confirmed the former. However, says Massey, he is familiar with Henry VIII's penmanship.

    "The writing is not in the hand of Henry VIII," he says. "But you'd need a paleographer to explain the nuances of it."

    Jayne's edition of St. Ambrose's sermons and exegeses was published by the Swiss printer Johann Amerbach in 1492. We know books from this period as "incunables," says Massey, from the Latin word for "swaddling clothes," because it was only 42 years prior that Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press. Printing was in its infancy, and books were expensive to produce. Only the very rich had enough money to buy them, and only patrons and monarchs had the power to entice printers to give them away for free. Around the time of Henry's reign, because of the printing press, scholars, clerics, and royalty (groups that overlapped considerably) had begun to rediscover ancient Roman and Greek authors, including the Church fathers. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, has become somewhat obscure over the centuries; but along with St. Augustine, Pope Gregory the Great, and Saint Jerome, Ambrose is deemed one of the four "doctors of the Church," a thinker whose writings established the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine.

    "Henry VIII had lots of copies of St. Ambrose," says James Carley, a professor of English at York University and the world's leading authority on the Henrician library. "Ambrose came very much into fashion in the 16th century, because [European scholars] were interested in the fathers of the Church. They were trying to get back ad fontes," or back to the source of their religion.

    This examination of the past led not to a shoring up of Catholicism, of course, but to the turmoil of the Reformation, a bloody, 130-year crack-up of old orthodoxies in which Henry VIII played a peripheral, if memorable, role. But the most excellent irony in Henry's possession of the works of Ambrose, whether Jayne's book was his or not, is that Henry and Ambrose's contributions to Church history are opposite.

    Before Ambrose, says Carlos Eire, Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale, "no one had defined what role [monarchs] would play in the church. Emperors thought of themselves as being the same rank as bishops. Ambrose helps to redefine all that."

    For example, says Eire, in 390, rioters in the city of Thessalonica killed a Roman military commander. In retaliation, Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered a punitive slaughter in which thousands of innocents were put to death. When he learned of the emperor's actions, Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, ordering him to do months of public penance before he would consider allowing him back into the Church. The emperor complied, publicly confessed to his misdeed, and repented.

    Then, says Eire, "Henry comes along and does the opposite," rejecting the Church's authority over his conduct and severing the Church of England from the Vatican forever.

    Without an authenticated connection to this history, says Massey, Jayne's book would fetch a price in the lower range of his appraisal.

    "As it stands, with no other association," he says, "the book is not worth a great deal of money. It's incomplete — it lacks volumes one and three. That kills a thing stone dead normally."

    But if Jayne finds a paleographer who gives her the answer she's hoping for, she could find herself in possession of a tidy sum. She has no particular affinity for old books, and came into possession of the incunable by chance. Thinking it was a Bible, her father bought it out of kindness to an elderly woman who said she felt unsafe with such an old and valuable artifact in her possession.

    "My father had a big heart," Jayne says, "but I'd sell it."

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
    U.S. Secret Service Archive (Palm Springs, 2009)
    Autographs of Aviation Celebrities (Spokane, 2008)
    Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
    Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
    Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
    Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)

    See the Madison, Wisconsin (2010) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.

    blog comments powered by Disqus