St Albans School solves ‘mystery’ of whereabouts of lost centuries-old Latin book

PUBLISHED: 15:00 18 January 2017

St Albans School archivist Nigel Woodsmith with the school's oldest printed text book which has been returned from the University of Cambridge.

St Albans School archivist Nigel Woodsmith with the school's oldest printed text book which has been returned from the University of Cambridge.

Danny Loo Photography 2016

A page torn from a 900-year-old Bible discovered in a dungeon at a local school has been recycled to grace a book with connections to St Albans’ first printing press.

Nigel Woodsmith, archivist at St Albans School, has successfully reunited the independent institution with a perfect copy of the world’s first printed school text book.

The recent presentation of Elegantiolae marks the end of a decades-long quest to return a copy of the Latin handbook of rhetoric to its historic home, where a particular local version of it was originally printed.

Apart from the fact the school has finally been reunited with the historic title for the first time since 1539, what makes the copy extra-special is that it has been clad in part of a page from a 900-year-old Bible.

This remnant was found by chance in one of four dungeons beneath the Abbey Gateway – attached to and still part of the centuries-old school, and the location of one of several printing presses established in England five centuries ago.

MYSTERY

The search for the book was prompted by the publication of an article in the Herts Advertiser in 1983, about a mystery surrounding the first printing press in St Albans.

The story noted that in a room at the Abbey Gateway “one of the earliest illustrated printed books was produced five hundred years ago.

“One or two privileged scholars of the old St Albans School may have been allowed to peep at the primitive printing machine at work.

“William Caxton first brought the art of printing from Bruges to London in 1477. His printing shop was situated within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. Just three years later the St Albans press was set up.”

However, the article’s author went on to ask: “Who was this early local printer? Because printing was a new art regarded with much suspicion by the 15th century gentry, he did not leave us his name. Many early printers, however, disguised their name in the first words of their works.

“The St Albans printer began two of his books with the words: “Insomuch as…” and consequently be became known by the name of ‘John Insomuch’.”

Curious about the Herts Ad story, Nigel Woodsmith began trying to solve the mystery of the local printer’s correct identity and what happened to the text book.

DISSOLUTION

His mission was helped by a ‘chance’ conversation over dinner at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, about early English typography.

It was revealed that the Elegantiolae, presented to the school as its first Latin Grammar centuries ago ‘disappeared’, only to reappear when it was given to Cambridge University at the start of the 18th century, as part of the Royal Collection.

Nigel explained that when King Henry VIII closed down Catholic monasteries, priories and convents, “there was a great bonfire of books from the Abbey and school at Romeland at the dissolution of the Monastery”.

He added: “Until a copy was [recently] returned to St Albans, the collection in the university library held the only copies of the first book to be printed in St Albans in 1479.”

As a result of his quest, Dr Suzanne Paul of the university’s library arranged for a copy of the Elegantiolae, the world’s first printed school text book, to be returned to the place of its creation, St Albans School.

FORGER

Nigel said a London based expert, “a master forger”, had created a facsimile of the 18-page-long text book, while the cover was “an actual page from a German bible. I find it fascinating that it has beer stains on it!

“Covers of early books were made from recycled pages – this is a 900 year old sheepskin [parchment].”

The Bible page was found 30 years ago, folded up to the size of a small book, inside a dungeon at the school.

The archivist said he did not want the original version of the Latin text book returned to the school, as “Cambridge is better able to look after ancient manuscripts”.

He also successfully set about establishing the “most plausible explanation as to the real name of the man who has become known as the schoolmaster printer, John Insomuch”.

Nigel was chuffed to find out that the evidence as to the true identity of the schoolmaster printer had been “staring St Albans School pupils in the face for hundreds of years”.

The earliest commemoration of benefactors of the school mentions that John Haule presented the institution with its first Latin Grammar.

Research into Cambridge University records identifies John Haule as a student there in the 1470s. He went off to study printing in Germany, and later returned to England, to St Albans Abbey where he set up a printing press, using the St Albans script.

Nigel has now embarked on another mission – he is keen to “find someone who can create the St Albans script as a computer font – it doesn’t exist as a font, and is such high quality”.

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