BOETHIUS. De consolatione philosophiae.

Cologne, Heinrich Quentell, 31 Oct. 1493


4to, 199 x 141mm. ff. 192 unnumbered ll., ¶6 A6 a-i6 k8 l-z6 []6 A-E6 F4. Gothic letter, main text (in larger type 7:80G) surrounded by commentary (in smaller 6:63G). Large woodcut of Boethius lecturing to disciples to t-p, author’s engraved portrait (C17) by de L’Armessin pasted as frontispiece to fly. Few outer edges untrimmed, old repair to extreme lower outer blank corner of t-p and last 4 ll., uniform light age yellowing, first gathering and 2 ll. slightly browned, t-p and last verso (blank) a trifle dusty, little nick to outer edge of C2. A very good, well-margined copy in late C18 English straight-grained crimson morocco, marbled eps, covers bordered with gilt roll of interlacing fleurons and tendrils, raised bands, compartments single gilt-ruled, gilt-lettered green morocco labels (defective), inner edges gilt, a.e.g. Late C18 armorial bookplate (Joly family?) pasted over Philip van Swinden’s, c.1780, to front pastedown, another (C19) of Reginald Cholmondeley, Condover Hall, to ffep, numerous late C16 marginalia (the odd one just trimmed, affecting perhaps a letter) in brown ink throughout, a few late C15 interlinear or marginal notes in Germanic hand.

A very good, well-margined copy, in a charming C18 English binding, of this exquisitely printed incunabular edition of Boethius’s ‘De consolatione philosophiae’, including the famous commentary assigned to Thomas Aquinas, but probably written by the Oxford Dominican Thomas Waleys (1287?-1350?). With its extensive reader’s annotations spanning nearly a century, this copy provides a remarkable snapshot of Renaissance Boethian scholarship. Rebound in the late C18, it has surprisingly retained generous outer margins and the odd untrimmed outer edge.  

One of the most influential early Christian philosophers, Boethius (477-524AD) was a Roman politician in the service of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths. He probably studied in Athens where he became fluent in Greek and acquainted with important Hellenic philosophers. Imprisoned by Theodoric for high treason, he famously wrote ‘De Consolatione philosophiae’ in 523-24, eventually leading to his execution. This milestone of Western philosophy reflects on the negative turn of events in Boethius’s hitherto very successful career. In a fictional dialogue, Lady Philosophy consoles him, as they discuss the evanescent nature of worldly fame and riches, virtue, the ills of fortune, human folly, passion, hatred, free will, justice and predestination, with Boethius’s Christianity heavily tempered by Hellenism. Waleys’s commentary was one of the most successful and most reprinted. Boethius’s work was taught at grammar schools for its elegant Latin and educational content, and lectured on at universities for its philosophical value.

The late C15 annotator provided, as often required of students, interlinear paraphrases for sections of Books I-III – paraphrase being ‘an aspect of pedagogy handed down from Classical Antiquity, which spans grammatical and rhetorical construction’ (Love, p.129).  He provided synonyms of most words or phrases, seeking to follow the original meaning whilst slightly altering the lines, as well as clarifications (e.g., ‘philosophi’ for ‘Anaxagore’). He also added the odd marginal note, e.g., a reference to Cicero. The late C16 scholarly annotator, well-acquainted with Greek, cross-referenced interpretations from Nicolaus Crescius’s 1513 edition, with one instance of criticism of the latter attributions, Johannes Murmellius/Agricola’s commentary ([1514]; Basle, 1570) and the Lyon edition of 1581. (In his first reference to them on the t-p he also specified the book format.) Among his interests were Boethius’s prosody, on which he noted the meaning of the metre ‘Alcmanium’ from Murmellius, as well as Platonic, Epicurean and Stoic doctrines. He also quoted from Ovid, Boethius’s original Greek, and Ficinus. He crossed-out a repetition of two words – probably the compositor’s oversight – and a couple wrongly-spelled or misread. 

Rev. Philip van Swinden was appointed preacher at the Dutch Chapel in St James’s by the Bishop of London, in 1773. Reginald Cholmondeley (1826-96) inherited Condover Hall, Shropshire, in the 1860s; among his guests in the 1870s was Mark Twain.

ISTC ib00797000; Goff B797; HC 3384* = 3385; Voull(K) 263; BMC I, 278; BSB-Ink B608; GW 4556. R.C. Love, ‘The Latin Commentaries on Boethius’s De consolatione’, in A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages (2012), pp.75-134.