FANTASTICAL STORIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE

Histoires Prodigieuses Extraictes de plusieurs fameux autheurs.

Paris, Chez la Vefue Guillaume Cauellat 1597-98.

£9,500

16mo. Six volumes in three. 1) ff. (x) 191 (iii); 2) pp. 120 (viii) (last two leaves blank); 3) pp. 372 (iv); 4) pp. 80 (vi) (last leaf blank) 5) pp. 159 (i); 6) pp. 91 (v) (last leaf blank). Roman letter, some Italic. Cavellat’s woodcut printer’s device on each title, a larger version repeated on verso of last of volumes IV and VI, numerous nearly 1/2 page woodcuts in text, generally at the beginning of each tale, one fold out woodcut of a knife (often missing) in volume VI, floriated woodcut initials and headpieces. Light age yellowing, minor marginal spotting in places, light water stain to volumes II, V and VI, the odd marginal spot. Good copies, a bit short, finely bound in early C18th red morocco, covers bordered with a triple gilt rule, spines with gilt ruled raised bands, compartments gilt ‘a la grotesque,’ inner dentelles gilt, all edges gilt. 

A lovely set of this beautifully printed and illustrated popular work, a collection of stories of Monsters and extraordinary events. The original 40 stories by Boaistuau in volume I of this set were first published in 1560 and were hugely popular, leading to many further editions with additions by other authors, culminating in this set, with the addition of 15 stories in volume II by Claude de Tesserant, 17 in volume III by Bellesforest, 11 in volume IV by Rod Hoyer, 8 stories in vol V translated from the Latin of Arnauld Sorbin by Belleforest, and 6 anonymous stories (by I. D. M.) in the final volume.

Boaistuau and Belleforest’s popular reworking of these tales, and their other translations, had tremendous influence in England, especially on the playwrights of the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare included, who often used their stories as the basis for their works. The first manuscript of this work, now in the Wellcome Library, was dedicated and presented to Elisabeth I by Boaistuau.

“In the winter of 1559/60 Pierre Boaistuau, a French popular writer, set off for England bearing a book that he hoped to lay before the young Queen Elizabeth, newly installed on the throne of England. This book, later entitled Histoires Prodigieuses – which can be loosely translated as ‘Wondrous Tales’ – had not yet been published. It had been handwritten by a professional scribe in a fine Italic script, and was dedicated to ‘The Most Illustrious, Most Excellent and Most Virtuous Princess Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England. …

Histoires Prodigieuses is an example of a genre of literature that was immensely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries: tales of an admonitory or educative nature, drawn from biblical, classical or other reputable sources, that were nonetheless intended to astonish and delight the reader. It is not so much an original creative work of literature as a compilation and retelling of stories that derive largely from earlier authoritative sources and thereby gain added credibility and value. Boaistuau, whose final work it proved to be, had already published several such compilations before Histoires Prodigieuses in a brief flurry of activity from 1556, and indeed he helped establish the genre as his works continued to be expanded, reissued and translated by others after his death.’ Dr. Richard Aspin, Wellcome Library.

This famous collection of tales of a prodigious nature, describe natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, floods, storms), freaks of nature (e.g. Siamese twins), fantastic occurrences of spectres and phantoms, tritons, sirens and other marine monsters, and gruesome instances of excesses (e.g. of eating and drinking, corpulence, fertility, torture and cruelty, avarice, famine, and violent death). In the ‘Advertissement au lecteur,’ Boaistuau tells us that his stories are taken from many authors, and indeed he clearly identifies his sources from Plato and Aristotle, to Josephus and Saints Jerome and Augustine, to Polydorus Vergil and Sebastian Munster.

He pretends that he has compiled his little book to show how the anger of God and the violence of his justice are manifested in abominations of nature, so that men might search their consciences and be horrified at their misdeeds. Volume VI contains a story of a woman (undoubtedly possessed by the devil), who was stabbed in the side and lived for a year with the knife protruding from her until it was removed by a German doctor. The story is illustrated with a folding plate of a life size portrait of the knife as it was once removed from her body. One suspects that his real motivation was sensationalism, always a best seller.

The text is extensively illustrated with woodcuts of monsters and prodigies, which suggests the popular market. Pierre Boaistuau, called Launay (d. 1566) is described by the Nouv. Biog. Gén. as “un bon parleur et non sans une certaine érudition.” A most interesting, readable work. “The subject was a popular one and the blocks were well designed.” Harvard C16th. Fr. 103 on the first edition with illustrations. These later editions mention America, cf. Alden 595/9.

BM STC FR. C16th p. 70. Brunet I 982-3. Wellcome 898 (earlier edition).

L2153

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