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Senate House Library

Gregor Reisch’s Pearl of Wisdom


Written by
Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art

Explore the extraordinary Margarita Philosophica, one of the most treasured 'modern' encyclopedias of the Renaissance in our Special Collections... 

Imagine the essence of your entire University course contained in a single quarto volume. Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica (‘Philosophical Pearl’), is exactly that. 

Gregor Reisch (c.1470-1525) was a student at the newly formed University of Freiburg before becoming a Carthusian monk (1496) and subsequently prior (1502) in Freiburg, in south-west Germany. Reisch wrote the Margarita Philosophica over seven years from 1489-1496, dividing it by topic into twelve books and based it on his university course, which resembled mediaeval university courses everywhere: the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music), along with natural and moral philosophy. The book was a compendium of university knowledge, to present the essence of course content in palatable form. Much like mediaeval and Renaissance encyclopaedias, it was meant to be read through rather than merely used for reference purposes, although a table of contents, an index and clear layout from the first edition onwards assisted consultation. 

Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch

Philosophical Dialogue 

For readability, Reisch used a time-honoured pedagogical form which continued into the nineteenth century of a dialogue between a pupil and a master. The master’s answers to his pupil’s questions and observations extend from a sentence to well over a page. Typically, they draw upon earlier writings as a symbol of authority. Reisch calls particularly upon the four Church fathers, Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose, and especially several works by Augustine. Others quoted include Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Averroes, Euclid, Virgil, Boethius, Gratian, Justinian, and, moving into the High Middle Ages, Duns Scotus, John Peckham, and Peter Lombard. 

Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch

World view and local representation

The Margarita Philosophica, contains a world of knowledge but also has a very local quality to it. It was first published in Freiburg, possibly under Reisch’s supervision, and contains a hand-coloured woodcut illustration of the spire of Freiburg’s Gothic cathedral at the header of Chapter Twelve, ‘On rain’, just one of many featured illustrations. In Book Nine, ‘On the Origin of Natural Things’ there is a doubtful advertisement today in view of the touristic presentation of Freiburg and its locality for sunny weather (‘Über Baden lacht die Sonne’; ‘The sun laughs over Baden’). The woodcuts were designed by Alban Graf, a graduate of the University of Basel, who read a manuscript of the text in order to illustrate it relevantly, and the edition shown here was printed in Strasbourg. With the Margarita Philosophica capturing Freiburg, Basel and Strasbourg, a triangle of cities near each other, it also captures the wonderful story of the book’s origin and connections.

Yet the book’s impact was far from just local. Indeed, it was one of the most successful Renaissance examples of a work of its kind. Margarita Philosophica underwent at least twelve editions from its first publication in 1503 to 1600, and was used widely. Not only is it known to have been prescribed at some universities, such as Heidelberg and Louvain, but copies were recorded in university towns as far flung as Burgos, Innsbruck, Oxford and Cambridge. Thus the Margarita Philosophica helped to shape the world view of sixteenth-century educated men. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it has been the subject of translations, facsimile reproductions, and some studies.

One of the Founding Collections

Senate House Library has three editions of the Margarita Philosophica, all of which entered the Library among the founding collections of 1871. Two of the editions, from 1508 and 1515, are from the library of the mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871). He collected mathematical books, and the sections of the Margarita Philosophica devoted to mathematics and astronomy in the quadrivium show it to have been an integral item in his collection. De Morgan’s books date from 1474 onwards, so that for him a post-incunable (i.e. a book printed between 1501 and 1515 or 1520, after the earliest, ‘cradle’ stage of printing) was no longer outstandingly early. 

The edition from 1504, previously belonged to former Vice-Chancellor George Grote (1794-1871). As Grote was a Classical historian, his main interest would have been in the linguistic sections of the trivium. Unlike De Morgan, Grote was concerned exclusively with text, not with the materiality of books, and this was the earliest book but one in his collection. It retains an early binding and contains some annotations by a sixteenth-century reader. You can also read more about books formerly owned by Grote in Karen Attar’s blog posts on Talking Humanities for 2021.

Margarita Philosophica is featured in the SHL150 online gallery celebrating the 150th anniversary of Senate House Library’s collections in 150 items. 

Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art