About two months ago, U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library purchased a 1507 copy of The Golden Legend, making it the oldest English book currently found in the library’s collection. This book was extremely popular in the Middle Ages, and the library believes that acquiring this ancient classic will be beneficial for the U of T community.
P.J (Pearce) Carefoote, the medieval manuscript and early books librarian at U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, explains that the library staff is constantly browsing through catalogues in search of rare classics that will complement the programs offered at U of T.
In this case, Carefoote came across The Golden Legend in an electronic catalogue from a dealer in London, and knew that U of T had to obtain the vintage copy.
“We look for things that will fit the educational needs of our students and the research needs of our professors,” says Carefoote. “We didn’t have anything that old in English at the library. We are always trying to find earlier instances of English printing, so I recommended [the book] to the purchasers.”
Prior to this purchase, the oldest English text residing at the library was from 1527.
For those unfamiliar with the work, the The Golden Legend is a collection of the lives of the saints, and was originally written in Latin during the 13th century by the Italian Jacobus De Voragine, a member of the Dominican Order of Priests and the Archbishop of Genoa.
By the 15th century, the compilation was translated into most modern languages, including Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish.
It is unknown who first translated the work into English. The second translation into English was done by William Caxton, who is known for introducing the printing press to England. The copy now owned by U of T is Caxton’s translation, which was printed by one of his apprentices.
At the time, translating the Bible into English was considered illegal in England. Caxton, however, included small excerpts of Bible passages translated into English at the beginning of his edition of The Golden Legend. Carefoote believes that this risky behavior makes the 1507 copy extra special.
“[They are] not entire translations, [but] this is the first time in print [where] you get Bible stories in the English tongue,” Carefoote says. “There are earlier manuscript versions, but this is the first printed Biblical material in English.”
Another important quality to note is that this version has been visibly censored by one of its past owners. Carefoote thinks that at some point between the 1530s and the 1540s, the copy had belonged to an individual who practiced the new Protestant religion during the Protestant Reformation.
Words like “pope” have been clearly struck out, as well as the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in an attempt to censor the text.
“I’d definitely be interested in visiting the library and taking a look at this book. I appreciate the value of classical texts such as these, because they can be used to further our understanding of the time period from which they originated,” says Shayna Jan, a second-year history major at UTM. “Primary sources allow us to get a glimpse into the past, and new discoveries are certainly helpful in decoding exactly how people lived and thought.”
Alongside this 1507 copy of The Golden Legend, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is home to the first printing of Shakespeare in 1623, which is the only copy in Canada. In addition, they own early editions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as first editions of scientific texts, including works by Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei.
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is open to the public. Everyone, especially students, is encouraged to visit the library to physically browse through U of T’s newest—and oldest—printed English text.