An extraordinary Papal document that’s nearly 800 years old has become a valuable teaching and research tool at UBC, thanks to a history instructor’s passion and the university library’s restoration efforts.
The medieval gem, called a Papal bull, was written in 1245. A legal decree issued in Latin by Pope Innocent IV to the Italian convent of San Michele in Trento, it features the signatures of the Pope and 13 cardinals (including future pope Nicholas III).
While there are other Papal bulls elsewhere in Canada, most are from the 15th century or later. UBC Library’s bull, which is housed in Rare Books and Special Collections and has also been digitized, is among the oldest of its kind in Canada. “UBC has acquired something really exceptional,” says Richard Pollard, an early European specialist and instructor in UBC’s Department of History. “It’s very useful as a representation of medieval documents generally.”
The document as patient
The story of the Papal bull’s arrival at the UBC Library started in 2013, following the acquisition of a medieval manuscript that’s also the oldest Western book in the Library’s collections.
That manuscript was well-received, and a committee of faculty members from UBC’s English and History departments was formed to explore further additions to bolster a teaching collection of medieval material. The Papal bull was one of the items recommended for purchase and the library acquired the document for approximately $15,000 last May from Bernard Quaritch Ltd., an antiquarian book and manuscript seller in London, England.
The bull arrived at UBC Library two months later in good shape, although there were some concerns. Among those was the fact that the document, which consists of sheepskin or calfskin parchment, had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.
Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”
She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”
Connecting and captivating students
It’s good news for medieval scholars such as Pollard, who has featured it in his history course focused on the European early Middle Ages. The bull would also appeal to students of classics, literature, law, theology and art history, he says.
“It’s very useful in and of itself as a historical document. From the student perspective, though, it’s the direct connection that matters,” says Pollard. “It’s all very abstract to them until they see this. This is the stuff of history. Everything we know about the 13th century comes to us through such documents.”
Arlen Bourque, a UBC history major and one of Pollard’s students, agrees. “When I saw the Papal bull for the first time, I was absolutely captivated,” he says. “The degree of sophistication used by our ancestors is simply astounding.”
A new area of collecting
Indeed, the bull – which measures about 2 ft by 1.8 ft (62 cm by 56 cm) – is an enthralling medieval document. Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross – likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem. “They wrote far more carefully than we do in the Middle Ages,” notes Pollard. “They paid much more attention to what things actually sounded like.”
In addition, a leaden seal features images of St. Paul and St. Peter and a flowing tail of a blue ribbon and red and yellow silk. This seal is actually the part of the document that is formally referred to as the “bull”; it’s pierced through the parchment and acts as an authenticator.
“By bringing documents such as this to UBC Library, we help bring history to life,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, Acting Head of Rare Books and Special Collections. “It’s a new area of collecting for us, and the student response has been incredible. It’s very inspiring for them.”
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