An amazing discovery in a municipal library in France has left the book and antique world reeling as one of the world’s rarest books – a 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s first plays has been found on the shelf. Much Ado about Something you could say…
Imagine being a librarian and picking a book of the shelf to set up an exhibition. It’s big and heavy and it’s been there for a long time. You blow the dust off, sigh that the front cover is missing and flick the pages. Your heart starts to beat, your eyes widen. You wonder if this could be something special?
You might think this an unusual thought process for a librarian in a little local library in northern France but this isn’t any old library. Saint Omer is a typical rural French town, with a lovely town square, Saturday morning market, boulangeries and churches, surrounded by picturesque countryside. But it used to be a very important centre of learning and from the 7th Century onwards, the monks who founded a monastery here collected books. St Thomas à Becket sought refuge at the monastery in 1165 and though there is no proof it is almost certain he would have sat and read some of the books that were there at that time.
For centuries, the book collection grew and grew with tomes from all over the world. The monastery of St Bertin was largely destroyed during the French Revolution but the ruins remain, testament to its former glory. The prized book collection was miraculously saved when it was confiscated during the heady days of the revolution and the books became public property. They still are – including a Gutenberg Bible, one of only 48 known to survive; some works in this incredible collection of 50,000 books date back to the 7th Century.
So we can forgive Rémy Cordonnier, the director of the library’s medieval and early modern collection, when he picked up the book and wondered if it could possibly be something special.
First folios of Shakespeare’s plays are incredibly rare and precious. It is hard to know just how much such a book might be valued at, but certainly the price runs into several million dollars. Only 232 copies are known, one being in the Bibliotheque National de France. Only 800 were printed in 1623, seven years after the great playwright died and as none of the original manuscripts are known, this edition is taken to be the most definitive text for around half of Shakespeare’s plays.
232 copies until now that is, since the St Omer library was visited in November 2014 by an American Shakespeare expert who travelled to France to authenticate the volume. Declaring it “magnificent”, he knew within minutes that it was absolutely genuine. Although damaged much of it is in astonishing good condition and it has become the 233rd known surviving copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
“It was very emotional to realize we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world,” Monsieur Cordonnier said. “I was already imagining the reaction it would cause.”
There are some notes scribbled in the book and the name “Neville” is inscribed on the folio’s first surviving page. It is possible that the book was brought to St. Omer in the 1650s by Edward Scarisbrick, a member of a prominent English Catholic family who went by that alias and attended the Jesuit college, founded when Catholics were banned from England’s universities.
When I asked Monsieur Cordonnier how it could have lain undiscovered for four centuries on the library’s bookshelves he advised that several pages are missing including the title page and introduction “so it had been catalogued for years as an 18th Century edition, but while preparing an exhibition for next summer on English language literature in our collection, I tried (and managed) to identify more precisely which edition it was…”
A real life Antiques Roadshow moment in rural France and it will be on view in the summer 2015 English literature exhibition at the library, Saint Omer.
Visit this unique library at 40 rue Gambetta, 62500 Saint-Omer (approximately 30 minutes from Calais port). Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 9am-12am and 13h-18h. Website: www.bibliotheque-agglo-stomer.fr