International Women’s Day is celebrated on the eighth of this month, and with its call this year for bold action in forming a more gender-inclusive and better working world this is a good moment to highlight a recent rare book accession to Durham University Library’s Special Collections. This is a Latin New Testament in octavo format printed in Paris in 1551 (Shelfmark SB 2525). It contains a large number of woodcut illustrations of New Testament scenes, but probably its most interesting feature is that it was printed by a woman.
We know very little about Yolande Bonhomme. She was probably born about 1490 and was the daughter of Pasquier Bonhomme, who had been active as a printer and bookseller in the 1470s and 1480s. She married Thielman Kerver, originally a native of Koblenz, who had started his printing business in Paris in the late 1490s. He specialised in illustrated devotional works and had his premises on Rue St Jacques, an important centre of printing for many centuries. Thielman seems to have been briefly succeeded in the early 1520s by Jacques Kerver, perhaps due to ill health. Thielmann died in early 1522 and Yolande was described in a Book of Hours printed in February 1522 as “Veuve de Thielman Kerver”, that is “widow of Thielman Kerver". Jacques, who may have been a brother, disappears from the record and the business was continued by Yolande from that point. It was not unknown for a widow to take up her husband’s business, although Yolande is a particularly early example in the printing trade. The family were generous benefactors of two local churches, the church of the Trinitarians or Mathurins and Saint Benedict’s just off Rue St Jacques in which Thielman and their son Jacques are both known to have been buried.
Yolande used her late husband’s emblem, seen above, on the title pages of the works she produced throughout a career of thirty years but she often retained her maiden name in the imprints of her output. She also continued Thielman’s interest in illustrated religious works for the popular market and the New Testament of 1551 is a fine example of this genre, and is quite possibly the first New Testament printed by a woman. The woodcut on folio 29 depicts the presentation of the head of John the Baptist to Salome and is signed in the bottom left hand corner “I.F.”. The artist is probably a Swiss wood engraver named Jakob Faber who had worked for Thielman Kerver. He traded in France as Jacques Lefèvre and was active into the 1550s. Yolande and Thielman had several children including Jacques Kerver who went into business about 1535 and was still trading in the 1580s. Yolande died in 1557 after a long and successful career in the predominantly male world of Paris printing in the first half of the sixteenth century.