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The Henry Ford's Oldest Book

May 27, 2015 Archive Insight

No one knows how it came to The Henry Ford. Last fall, it appeared on the cataloger’s desk. She noticed the book’s age, but she didn’t think much of it.

Recently, the curators went looking for the oldest items in their respective collections. I joined in on the mission, setting out to find our oldest book. I even used the card catalog in the reading room, which is not something one has to do very often these days.

For an American history institution, the result was surprising: It was a French version of Vegetius’s De Re Militari (Concerning Military Matters), published in Paris in 1536.


Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus was a writer from the Roman Empire in the late 4th century. His book on warfare and military science enjoyed popularity during the Middle Ages. It was considered a classic by the time celebrated printer Chrestien Wechel was publishing the works of Greek and Roman authors in his Paris shop.


For his edition, Wechel used Gothic type (or black letter) with woodcut initials. The spectacular 120 full-page woodcut illustrations were copied from a German edition of the same title, printed seven years earlier by Heinrich Stainer in Augsburg. The book is a folio in sixes, which means the printed sheets of paper are folded once, then gathered in groups of three, making six pages per gathering.

Our copy had multiple owners before coming to The Henry Ford, as evidenced by inscriptions on the title page and the bookplate of Léon de La Sicotière. La Sicotière may have been responsible for our book’s 19th century calf binding and marbled endpapers. So why did The Henry Ford acquire this book? We believe it was on account of the depiction of war carts and diving machines, the forerunners of tanks and submarines.

According to the Universal Short Title Catalogue, there are at least 75 other copies worldwide. To see the entire digitized book, check out copies at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (both of which have bindings more appropriate to the 16th century).

The Henry Ford’s copy is available for view at the Benson Ford Research Center.

Alison M. Greenlee is Librarian at The Henry Ford.

Europe, 16th century, by Alison M. Greenlee, books

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