A 700-year-old book—the oldest in UBC Library’s collection–helps bring history alive
Call it a textbook for the ages.
Aided by the expertise of a UBC instructor who specializes in early European medieval history, UBC Library recently acquired a manuscript whose scholarly impact stretches back to the 14th century.
The main text in the petite, vellum-bound volume – which originates in France and was copied in Latin sometime in the 14th century, possibly during the time of the Black Death pandemic – is called the Compendium Theologicae Veritatis (or Compendium of Theological Truth).
A 14th-century bestseller
This work, an introduction of sorts to theology and the oldest book in UBC Library’s collections, was a highly popular tome for university students more than 700 years ago. In 2013, it’s set to be a vital classroom text once again – this time for UBC history students enrolled in Richard Pollard’s undergraduate classes on the early, central and late Middle Ages. That’s because Pollard, a postdoctoral fellow in UBC’s Department of History, is using the text as a valuable teaching tool in his courses. Students can leaf through the text during sessions in the RBSC seminar room. They can also compare the manuscript to other texts – particularly, early printed books referred to as incunabula.
“There are all kinds of things that students can learn just by looking at this book,” says Pollard. “It brings students into the period in a way that lecturing in a classroom doesn’t. It allows an entry to somebody’s mind from the past.”
Indeed, this manuscript – as both text and artifact – is cross-disciplinary, and holds appeal for students of history, art history, English, the history of education, the classics and religious studies. Pollard notes that the manuscript is also useful for graduate students learning paleography, the study of script (the Library’s copy is written in script known as Gothic or textualis, which originated in the 12th century).
This book, which may have been copied by multiple scribes, also contains a secondary work, likely an extract from Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher and theologian. In total, it runs about 400 pages that consist of highly durable parchment. “This book has survived for 700 years, and it will survive for another 700 years quite happily,” notes Pollard.
Its pages are also adorned with multiple colours of ink for ease of reading, and even feature some annotations – much like modern-day notes scribbled in a book’s margin – indicating that someone used it for study in the past.
From Medieval France to UBC
Pollard identified the manuscript for acquisition with the help of Maggs Bros. Ltd., a well-known antiquarian bookseller in London, England. It was purchased from a private collection belonging to James Stevens Cox, described as an “endearing personality” whose interests included wigmaking, beekeeping, publishing and more. Pollard recommended that UBC Library acquire the available manuscript, based on a few factors: the text’s status as an academic “bestseller” in the late Middle Ages; its script, which provides research and learning opportunities for students and scholars; and its reasonable price.
The manuscript is stored in the vault at Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), located on level one of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. While it’s the first of its kind in the Library’s collection, it’s likely not the last.
“In the coming years, we hope to build a teaching collection of medieval manuscripts,” aided by the input of faculty members from UBC’s English and History departments, says Katherine Kalsbeek, RBSC Literature Librarian.