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University of Calgary acquires rare 15th century book

Medieval chronicle penned by English monk anchors discussions on early printed texts at Congress 2016
May 31, 2016
English professor Murray McGillivray and Annie Murray, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections, leaf through the Polychronicon, a long chronicle authored by Ranulf Higden, an English Benedictine monk, more than 500 years ago.  Photo by Dave Brown.

English professor Murray McGillivray and Annie Murray, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections, leaf through the Polychronicon, a long chronicle authored by Ranulf Higden, an English Benedictine monk, more than 500 years ago.  Photos by Dave Brown, University of Calgary 

Pages throughout the Polychronicon feature markings added by readers over the centuries. Photo by Dave Brown.

Pages throughout the Polychronicon feature markings added by readers over the centuries. 

The new leather cover and binding of the 521-year-old Polychronicon. The tooling and design work replicate the original.

The new leather cover and binding of the 521-year-old Polychronicon. The tooling and design work replicate the original. 

It’s an artifact so unique it belongs to a special category of books: incunabula. On its own, you’d call it an incunable. Basically, the Polychronicon is very old and very rare.

An incunable is a book created during the infancy of the printing press, the period between 1455 and 1500.

The University of Calgary’s Libraries and Resources (LCR) has acquired a rare copy of the Polychronicon, one of the earliest books ever printed in English. It was originally written in Latin by Ranulf Higden, translated into English by John Trevisa and printed in Westminster, England by Wynken de Worde in 1495.

“We are fortunate to not only acquire a significant early printed work of medieval history, but also to acquire one that is written in English, the first English incunable we’ve acquired,” explains Annie Murray, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections. “This English translation of the Polychronicon is both an accessible text and a fascinating historical object.”

Murray led a manuscript and incunabula workshop at Congress 2016. She says many scholars don’t understand the language in early-printed books, so the texts are often studied more as historical artifacts than works of literature. The fact that the Polychronicon is in English enhances its teaching and research value.

Students will have hands-on learning experience 

English professor Murray McGillivray was the first scholar to visit Archives and Special Collections to see the book when it first arrived. He plans to use the Polychronicon for experiential learning in his Middle English literature courses and give students the opportunity to turn the pages and explore the book for themselves. 

“There’s something about an actual physical book that is centuries old that imaging can’t come close to duplicating,” says McGillivray, who chaired the session Early Printed Books and their Context during the conference of the Canadian Society of Medievalists at Congress 2016.

“It is super exciting for students and researchers to have this in our collection! These extremely rare books from the first few decades of printing are incredibly valuable research and teaching resources.”

That makes the Polychronicon a treasured addition to the University of Calgary’s rare book collection, which includes a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, several incunables in Latin and an illuminated Book of Hours from the 16th century.

But a 521-year-old book can’t be shelved right away alongside other literary artifacts in its new home. The Polychronicon’s cover, boards and binding had to be completely replaced. Canadian book binder Courtland Benson created a new leather cover and replicated period tooling and design work.

Book came with notes in the margins

And it turns out doodling dates back centuries. The Polychronicon has multiple handwritten annotations in its margins, an intricate drawing on one page and “Robart Biard oeth (owns) this booke” written in a blank space in the 17th century.

More than 8,000 scholars in more than 70 disciplines are attending Congress 2016, Canada's largest academic conference, now underway at the University of Calgary from May 28 to June 3.