Bühler’s Colophons

Curt F. Bühler (1905-1985) wrote an article about the false information which had been found in the colophons of incunabula. A colophon is a statement found at the end of a manuscript or book which relates information about the “author, title, place, published-printer, and date”.[1, p.398] An incunabula is any book printed before 1501.

Colophons started appearing in manuscripts and then made their way into books. The word colophon originally meant “the head or summit of anything”.[2, p.ix] The earliest use of the word has been traced to the early 1600s. The definition given by Bühler has been traced to Warton’s 1774 “History of English Poetry” quoted in the New English Dictionary.[2, p.x] Possibly this more recent meaning derives from the name of the high altitude ancient Greek city known as Colophon. Put concisely, the colophon is a short bit of important information which summarizes all the information found in a MS or book. The study of colophons had been given very little attention by the turn of the 20th century and it appears to me the study has not made much progress since.[2, p.xvi]

Bühler reported that colophons became increasingly more common after 1457 and that there are a great number of colophons which provide misleading, vague, or incorrect information. Bühler named Alfred W. Pollard as a person who, in 1905, briefly covered this topic of false information in colophons. I don’t currently know of any other people who have spent considerable time investigating this topic, and so it might have been in 1905, around the turn of the 20th century, that anyone decided to pay any mind to this topic.

Bühler identified three main types of false information in colophons: “Accidental, Deliberate, and Dubious”. He identified Accidental as the largest category, and within that category, impossible dates were most common. He reported that out of all the dates he had seen in colophons, 400 CE was the earliest of them. In contrast, he had found a book from the 1400’s claiming to have been printed in 1600.

“Dates such as 1005, 1071, 1099, or 1514, 1519, and 1588 are not uncommon among the incunabula.”
– Bühler (1970)[1, p.399]

Negligence and typographical misprints are two reasons identified for these impossible dates. Roman numerals became problematic when an L (50) or a C (100) was dropped because it resulted in the printing date being 50 to 100 years off from the real date. Transposing Arabic numerals proved sometimes to be problematic too, where 1500 was exchanged for 1005, nearly 500 years off the mark. Bühler remarked that the examples of this are countless and are due to the printer’s lack of care for including the correct dates. All of these are considered by Bühler to be accidental, mechanical errors.

He continued his article by talking about errors caused by sheer ignorance, and commented that these types of errors are possibly even larger in number than the mechanical ones. Ignorance of calendrical systems is one realm of ignorance which resulted in false information. With different calendars being used across the world, and printers uneducated about how these different calendars line up with each other, these types of errors were bound to happen. He pointed out that these issues aren’t limited to incunabula by giving an example of this happening in the 20th century where a single book claimed to be dated to 3 different dates. This is analogous to a person claiming to have been born on 3 different days.

Another issue that was brought up is when a printer copied the date from an older edition of a book and included it in the newer edition. Say a book was originally printed in 1475 but the printer was printing in 1499. The issue arises when the book incorrectly claims to have been printed in 1475 instead of 1499. The same type of issue arises when the printer copies the location in which a book is printed. Say a printer is printer in Rome but is copying a book that was originally printed in Madrid. The issue occurs when the printer in Rome prints a book that says it was printed in Madrid. It becomes doubly confusing when a printer in Rome is printing a book in 1499 which claims to have been printed in Madrid in 1475.

Bühler mentioned an unusual instance where four different versions of the same work were produced. There were four different printers named across the four different versions and so the question as to who the true printer was is raised. He concluded this issue by saying it’s probable that the four men worked together as partners. This does make me wonder what are the full extent of methods available for determining who printed a specific work.

Alfred William Pollard also mentioned in his foundational 1905 essay on colophons that there are issues which can arise when trying to establish the dates in which a book was printed. One such issue based on sheer ignorance can be exemplified by Theodoric Rood thinking that there were 5 years in an Olympiad, not 4. This caused Rood to be off by about 75 Olympiads (300 years) when he claimed that a book printed in 1485 was printed in the 297th Olympiad since Christ.[2, p.170]

The next type of false information is that type which was created on purpose, the intentional falsification. Determining if an error was made on accident or on purpose can be severely difficult. Bühler reported being certain of only one example of a date being intentionally fabricated. It was an edition of Eusebius printed for Octavianus Scotus by Bartholomaeus de Zanis on the 3rd of November, 1497. Due to legal problems, Zanis recalled his books and held onto them until he was allowed to sell them again in 1500. When the time finally came, he rereleased them with the printing date claiming they were printed on the 10th of November, 1500.

Another instance of intentional fakery can be seen in the location of printing being faked. In one case, a batch of books was printed in Ferrara but they claimed to have been printed in Venice. I think the point of this was because the books were made for sale in the Venetian market, and so the idea of buying local might have increased the amount of sales.

Pollard’s 1905 essay mentioned that he was only aware of only one example of intentional deceit in the colophons of incunabula. For about 400 years, it fooled bibliographers by containing a false name and false location of printing. The false information is found in an edition of Politian printed by Bernardinus Misinta of Brescia. For short, it can be called “Misinta’s Politian”. I think he is believed to have done so to avoid punishment for copyright violations. Pollard briefly mentioned that imprints containing false information became more and more common throughout the 16th century due to the increase of restrictions crafted by the courts.[2, p.159-160]

“In Italy, too, piracy flourished in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, especially in Milan… and in Venice…”
– Bühler (1970)[1, p.401]

Bühler singled out Uldericus Scinzenzeler as another example of someone who perpetuated intentional deception. Scinzenzeler pirated books from all over Italy. He masqueraded his Lombardian productions as Sienese, Neopolitan, and Venetian ones. It’s no mystery as to why he chose Siena. The city had a large reputable market for legal texts and Scinzenzeler’s books were mostly law books.

Rome, Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Brescia are just some examples of the false printing locations included in the colophons of books printed in Venice. Even a number of famous printers were guilty of such falsifications. This phenomenon is not limited to Italy. Examples can be found in Germany, France, and potentially Spain.

Bühler’s final category contains those books which the information is generally uncertain or dubious. Another issue with Roman numerals was brought up. This issue resulted from the inclusion of the day and month after the year. When this is done, it’s typically difficult to determine if it’s the year or the month which the numerals are being attributed to. There are ways to determine the proper date though. For example, Ghirlandi, Tubini, and Alopa’s Aesop has a date of “MCCCCC.v.Kal.Aprilis”. Due to Alopa not being a part of the trio by April 1st, 1505, the only date possible is March 28th, 1500.

Bühler expressed suspicion towards the multitude of instances of two large works being printed by one printer in a relatively short amount of time, sometimes even on the same day. For example, a pair of editions containing over 600 pages each were issued by Anton Koberger of Nürnberg. Both claim the date of issuing as September 30th, 1494. Bühler’s use of the word issued and not printed throws me off a little bit. I wasn’t able to find any clarity when I looked for some, but I’m curious is issued and printed are synonymous. If they are, perhaps printing two large editions at the same time was an uncommon practice in the 15th and 16th centuries. If not, I’m curious as to what issued means. Bühler gave a few more examples in the footnotes and used the word issued there too.

Bühler was of the opinion that some of the colophon dates are meant to be approximate dates, not literal dates. This means that the information could be accurate, but that this potential issue needs to be kept in mind when conducting research on a book’s origins.

“…this, so far as I am aware, is the first serious attempt to analyze the misinformation contained in the colophons, to discuss the possible origin of such erroneous details, and to classify the results into specific groups.”
– Bühler (1970)[1, p.405]

Bühler mentioned that more recent forgeries would make for an interesting study. He specifically mentioned Chrysostomus Hanthaler, a Lilienfield librarian who created fake lists of rare books which he used to substantiate his intentionally falsified history.[2]

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[1] – Bühler, Curt F. “False Information in the Colophons of Incunabula.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 114, no. 5, 1970, pp. 398–406. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/985806. Accessed 19 Nov. 2020.

[2] – Pollard, Alfred William. “An Essay on Colophons: With Specimens and Translations” (1905). https://books.google.com/books?id=HkThAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

[3] – https://exhibits.library.jhu.edu/exhibits/show/fakes-lies-and-forgeries/species-and-genres/falsified-lists-of-impossibly-. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

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