Treasures Unveiled (6): An incunable with Bede’s inimitable presence…

In the sixth vignette in our series shedding light on Durham Cathedral’s rich Collections, Treasures Unveiled, we travel back in time to the twilight of the mediaeval era.  This portrait focuses on Durham Cathedral Library’s newest acquisition, bought at a Sotheby’s auction in May 2014: Summa de Casibus Conscientiae (Strassburg, 1474), the work of Astesanus de Ast (d. c. 1330).  Publication is often attributed to the printer of Henricus Ariminensis, Georg Reyser.  This incunable (a book printed before 1500) is still in its original binding, which conceals a wonderful surprise: the paste-downs are made from ninth century manuscript fragments of In librum Genesim by the Venerable Bede (672/673-735)!  These are some of the oldest surviving fragments of his commentary on Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

The Venerable Bede: luminary with a legacy

Bede was a theologian and historian, regarded by many as the ‘Father of English History’.  On account of the significant Viking invasions at the close of the eighth century and into the ninth, and the subsequent destruction of many early Northumbrian libraries, earliest existing copies of Bede’s work tend to date from the ninth century and come from mainland Europe – in particular modern-day Germany, as do these fragments.

Durham Cathedral’s Canon Librarian proudly shows this precious, hidden fragment of local heritage: 9th century Northumbria meets 15th century Strasbourg (© Durham Cathedral Library)


This demonstrates Bede’s early international reputation and importance, which has endured over many centuries; his tomb enjoys a fitting, spectacular setting in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of Durham Cathedral.

Astesanus of Asti: illuming the letter & spirit of the law

The book itself, Summa de Casibus Conscientiae or ‘A Summary of Cases of Conscience’, is  in fact a set of eight volumes focusing on topics such as the Sacraments, civil law, morality (including the Ten Commandments), marriage, the ordination of priests, and so on.  It is a folio of formidable proportions, perhaps requiring a substantial lectern for really comfortable reading!  The text is in itself an object of beauty, with a clear, elegant Gothic type and bold, stunning initials in red and blue, gracefully executed by a rubricator.

Astesanus, thought to be born in Asti, a village in the Italian region of Piedmont, was a Franciscan canon lawyer and theologian: this seminal work stood distinct amongst the late Mediaeval body of writings in ecclesiastical law.

The purchase of this volume was made possible through a £10,000 grant from the Friends of National Libraries, and a grant from a generous private donor.

Further reading:

  • Bede’s World (2014) The world according to Bede [online]. [Accessed 16 December 2014].  Available at: <>
  • Brown, George Hardin.  A companion to Bede.  Boydell Press, 2009
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. (ed.)  Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of  the English people: a historical commentary.  Clarendon Press, 1988


We hope you have enjoyed this vignette, and that we’ve whetted your appetite for further delights from our collections…

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