Rare 16th century book lands in Harrisonburg

Story by Jim Bishop

print1.gifElwood E. Yoder of Harrisonburg can’t quite believe what he had in his hands – a rare book printed in 1539 in Strasbourg, Germany.
Not only that, but the thick tome was printed on the very press that is featured in Yoder’s novel, Margaret’s Print Shop, published in 2005 by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa. His book tells the story of Margaret and Balthaser Beck, who ran a 16th century printing business in Strasbourg and both joined the early Anabaptist movement.

Yoder, who is chair of the Bible and social-studies departments at Eastern Mennonite High School, received an e-mail “out of the blue” from Bruno Weber in Switzerland regarding an old book he found. The Webers were retiring and “apparently found the book while cleaning out their house,” Yoder said.

“Weber knew virtually nothing about Anabaptists or Mennonites, but he found my name on the Internet in connection with my book, and through our back and forth conversation he learned more about Anabaptist origins in Switzerland,” Yoder continued. Weber eventually offered to place the volume in the rare book room of the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University.

The book, a translation from the Latin of Flavius Josephus’s A History of the Jews by Caspar Hedio, a Lutheran preacher in Strasbourg, is written in very old German, Yoder said. A German student studying at EMHS “had great difficulty” reading the old script, he noted.

The only other copies of the book with the same date that Yoder knows of is in the Yale University library and at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Other known copies are at three locations in Europe.

“I find it remarkable to have a copy of a book printed by the Beck press,” Yoder said. “I’m uncertain when Margaret Beck died, so I can’t prove that she worked on this book in 1539, but I’m guessing that she did, since we know she established the press in the mid 1520s and lived for some years after 1525, the official start of the Anabaptist movement, and printed many books and pamphlets in her shop.

“Bruno Weber could just as easily have given the book to some major library in Europe, so I’m especially grateful that he felt the rare book room in the Menno Simons Historical Library would be a good place for it,” Yoder added.

Yoder is a 1981 graduate of EMU and earned a masters degree in education from Temple University and is a senior master of divinity degree candidate at Eastern Mennonite University. He has taught Bible and social-studies courses on the high-school level for 25 years.

He plans to bring his classes to EMU’s Hartzler Library in the future to see the book, adding that “a visit to the rare book room is an education in itself.”

“Books published during the 16th century are always intriguing – this one especially so, because it was produced by an Anabaptist family,” said Lois B. Bowman, librarian in the Menno Simons Historical Library librarian. “We have numerous books of that era about the Anabaptists, but this one was literally handled by one or more of them. Now we can touch it too.”


Jim Bishop is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.


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