Collections ( Rare Books )

Book of Hours, Use of Reims

Number of Items: 3 items

This French devotional book from the Middle Ages invites you to leaf through its beautifully decorated and handwritten pages. View the complete book of 197 leaves, the binding only, or just the illuminated pages.  This book of hours would have been used by a wealthy individual to mark the times of day with prayers and psalms. It is illustrated with marginal images of dragons, musicians, apes, dogs, and hybrid creatures.

This Book of Hours, Use of Reims was created for the use of an individual in northern France. Its text, written on parchment, is in both Latin and Old French. The scribe has identified himself in a note as Paulinus de Sorcy.

While many medieval manuscripts feature images that are closely related to their text, this one is primarily illustrated with marginalia. These whimsical images enliven the borders of various pages. A man plays a harp. A monkey or ape inspects a vial of urine in a satire of medieval medicine. A hybrid creature wearing a habit preaches with an upraised finger from a green book. Monkeys display their hindquarters.

This manuscript was rebound in dark brown leather in the early twentieth century.

The original materials are available in UH Libraries’ Special Collections in Book of Hours, Use of Reims.

Exotic Impressions, Views of Foreign Lands

Number of Items: 16 items

This collection is comprised of a diverse array of books from the William R. Jenkins Architecture & Art Library’s Rare Books Room. Each one depicts a foreign land in etchings, photography, or sketches. Unlike typical travel literature, these books primarily evoke an exotic, picturesque locale in imagery. Some, like Fontainebleau, le Château: Album Artistique or Besley’s Eighteen Views of Devonshire (stamped Price One Shilling on the cover) are clearly travel souvenirs. Others, like Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, Illustrated, are scholarly works for an audience unlikely to visit the city of their own. The collection also includes an anonymous album of Victorian photographs taken in Edinburgh and inscribed by hand. The collection spans most of the 19th century, beginning with H.W. Williams’ Select Views in Greece, published in 1829.

Medieval Manuscript Leaves and Fragments

Number of Items: 12 items

The Medieval Manuscript Leaves and Fragments collection contains individual leaves and partial fragments from handwritten books which date from the 13th to the 16th centuries. The original books were all created in Western Europe. They were intended for religious study or liturgical use, and all but one were written during the Middle Ages. Although the original books are no longer complete, these leaves and fragments still convey the rich history and artistry of the Middle Ages.

The collection includes four leaves from 13th century Bibles, one from Cambridge and three most likely from Paris. The most ornate leaf in the digital collection is a hymnal page from a 14th century book (probably a psalter) which bears historiated initials, one featuring a youth carrying the True Cross and the other featuring John the Baptist with his symbolic lamb. The collection contains several other psalters and breviaries, including a “pseudo-Gregory” incorrectly attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. Written music is represented in this collection by two simple antiphonary leaves, one from the 15th century and one from the 16th century.

The original materials are available in UH Libraries' Special Collections in the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection.

Selections from the Franzheim Rare Books Room

Number of Items: 82 items

This digital collection presents examples of notable works housed in the University of Houston’s Kenneth Franzheim II Rare Books Room.  The room contains approximately 1000 rare or unique books, journals, and pamphlets on fine art and design.  Highlights of the collection include portfolios of building types, architectural product catalogs, and first editions of some of the 20th century’s greatest books on art and architecture.   The books in the collection date from the mid-16th century to artists’ books published in the 21st century.  The Kenneth Franzheim II Rare Books Room is located within the William R. Jenkins Architecture and Art Library on the first floor of the College of Architecture.

Ship of Fools Woodcuts

Number of Items: 119 items

In 1494, humanist Sebastian Brant published Das Narrenschiff, or The Ship of Fools, a moralistic poem that describes 110 assorted follies and vices as undertaken by different fools. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. The digital collection contains almost 120 items.

Originally written in German, The Ship of Fools devotes chapters to such offenses as Marrying for Money, Noise in Church, and Wanting to Escape Consequences of Evil. Most of the woodcuts depict a fool wearing the traditional jester’s cap in a variety of medieval settings, including aboard ships, in villages, in homes, and in the countryside. The majority are attributed to the artist Albrecht Dürer, with the rest attributed to the Haintz-Nar-Meister, the Gnad-Her-Meister, or two anonymous artists.

Born in Strasbourg, Germany around 1457, Sebastian Brant earned degrees in philosophy and law at the University of Basel. Brant was a devout Catholic and loyalist to the Holy Roman Empire, and he felt that in order to maintain Germany’s primacy in the Christian world, the German people would need to cast off decadence and live in a highly moral fashion. To that end, his Das Narrenschiff was an attempt to reach the German people in their own language and use satire to encourage them to discard their sins and vices.

Das Narrenschiff proved so popular that it went through multiple editions and was translated into Latin, French, English, Dutch, and Low German. The first edition of Das Narrenschiff was printed by Johann Bergmann von Olpe, a former fellow student of Brant's at the University of Basel. Bergmann also printed a number of later editions of Das Narrenschiff, including the 1498 Latin edition known as Stultifera Navis which is owned by the University of Houston Libraries. Das Narrenschiff had been translated into Latin in 1497 by a former student of Brant's named Jacob Locher, with full approval from the classicist Brant. Locher did not follow the text closely, but substantially embellished on it in the translation.

This book was a gift of the Rockwell Fund, in memory of James Wade Rockwell.

The original materials are available in UH Libraries’ Special Collections in the Stultifera Navis.



Brant, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools. Translated by William Gilles and with the original woodcuts. London: The Folio Society, 1971. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. New York: Encyclopedia Press, c1913-c1914. 

Die Holzschnitte zu Sebastian Brants Narrenschiff. 121 Bildtafeln Herasgegeben von Manfred Lemmer. [Leipzig] Insel-Verlag, 1964.

Heritage Book Shop (Los Angeles, Calif.). The Antiquarian Book Fair, Olympia 2, London. A Selection of Items on Display in Stand 43, June 7-10, 2001. Los Angeles, Calif.: Heritage Book Shop, 2001.

Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.

Theodor de Bry's America

Number of Items: 24 items

These detailed copper plate engravings depict the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World and their encounters with native peoples. They are taken from the sixteenth century book Americae, volume IV of Theodor de Bry’s Grandes Voyages series, a collection which gave many Europeans their first visual representations of North America.

The engravings highlight not only the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the West Indies, but atrocities perpetrated by the Spanish on the Native Americans. Plates show the Spaniards hanging the Native Americans on board a ship, throwing them to the dogs, and attacking them with swords and muskets. Other plates depict the Native Americans pouring molten gold down the Spaniards’ throats, and drowning one of the Spaniards in the sea. Because De Bry had never seen any Native Americans, he made them resemble idealized Greco-Roman figures.

Theodor de Bry was born in 1528 in Liège, Belgium, where he trained as a goldsmith and engraver. He fled Liège around 1570 to avoid persecution by Catholics, eventually settling in Frankfurt. He began working on the multi-volume Grandes Voyages in 1590, and completed the first six volumes before his death in 1598. The books were published in both German and Latin. His wife and son carried on the project, releasing twenty-one more volumes through the year 1634. Americae, volume IV was based on Giralamo Benzoni’s eyewitness travel account Historia del Mondo Nuovo, and most of its engravings were based on earlier illustrations by Johannes Stradanus.

The University of Houston Libraries’ copy of Americae, volume IV is a first edition printed in German, with the exception of the title page which comes from a first edition printed in Latin. This copy is missing plates 2, 3, 19, 21, and 23, as well as its original map of the West Indies and adjacent coasts.  The Libraries would like to thank Valeria Nardi for her translation of the book’s title page.

The original materials are available in UH Libraries’ Special Collections in Americae pars quarta, sive, Insignis & admiranda historia de reperta primùm Occidentalis India à Christophoro Columbo anno M. CCCCXCII.

Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Woodcuts

Number of Items: 174 items

Published in 1658, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents depicts both real and fantastical creatures in detailed woodcuts. A wide swath of the animal kingdom is represented, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and marine life, as well as an array of mythical beasts. The digital collection contains 175 of these illustrations from the book, presented alphabetically by animal.

Entries in the digital collection include the original titles taken directly from Topsell’s work, as well as the modern names of the animals. For example, Topsell’s “Bear Ape Arctopithecus” is now known as the three-toed sloth. Also on display here are bees, scorpions, frogs, crocodiles, goats, apes, bison, snakes, lizards, camels, sea serpents, tortoises, and many other animals.

Topsell’s mythical creatures are particularly interesting, such as the “Hydra,” with two claws, a curled serpent’s tail, and seven small mammalian heads; the “Lamia,” with a cat-like body, hooves on the hind feet, claws on the front, and a human woman’s face and hair; and the “Mantichora,” with a lion’s body and mane, a man’s face and head of hair, and a grotesquely smiling mouth.

Born in 1572, Edward Topsell attended Cambridge before becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. He published several books on religion and other matters during his lifetime. In 1607, he published his illustrated work Historie of Foure-footed Beastes, Describing the True and Lively Figure of Every Beast. This was followed by The Historie of Serpents; Or the Second Booke of Living Creature. The illustrations that Topsell used in his books came directly from earlier works by Swiss physician, naturalist, and author Konrad Gesner. Gesner’s four volumes of the comprehensive Historiae Animalium included both real and fantastical animals, and each entry described the animal from Greek, Roman, Arab, and medieval sources, adding contemporary observations. A detailed woodcut depicted each animal.

In 1658 – some 20 years after his death – his zoological books were reissued together as part of a three-volume work called The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (which also features The Theater of Insects by Thomas Moffet, not included in this digital collection).

The original materials are available in UH Libraries’ Special Collections in The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents .


Edward Topsell Bibliography

Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts; A Selection of 190 Sixteenth-Century Woodcuts from Gesner's and Topsell's Natural Histories [by] Konrad Gesner. New York: Dover Publications, [1971].

The Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1922. [Edward Topsell entry]

Gesner, Konrad. Beasts & animals in decorative woodcuts of the Renaissance. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.

Willy Ley. Introduction to The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects. New York: Da Capo Press, 1967. 

Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.


Bibliography for Identification of Beasts and Serpents

Primary Source

The Simon & Schuster Encyclopedia of Animals: A Visual Who's Who of the World's Creatures. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.


Secondary Sources

Dave's Mythical Creatures and Places

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages