A book with a history

For the last few years, a team of rare books cataloguers has been working hard to record the volumes held at Ushaw College. The College closed as a Catholic seminary in 2011, but not before building up an impressive collection of rare materials over its nearly 200-year existence. The collection covers a wide range of subjects, from theology to natural history. And many have an interesting story to tell about themselves, such as this rather large volume.

First surviving page of an antiphonary in Latin printed by Christopher Plantin in 1572
The first page of Ushaw Library XVI.J.1.18, which has seen some action during its life.

Different types of books were used in Catholic church services, including the antiphonary (a book containing the music used in the Divine Office). This one was published by the Antwerp-based printer Christopher Plantin in 1572-73 for use in the churches of the Spanish-occupied southern Low Countries (most of modern day Belgium).

Without a title page, the cataloguer had to find other evidence for when the book was printed and by whom. Fortunately, printers often used the final page to record this information (in the colophon).

Ushaw XVI.J.1.18.2
On the final page of the antiphonary, there is a statement of who it was printed by and when, right up to the day it was completed! In this case, Plantin is using Roman numerals for the year (1572) and the Roman dating system for the day (1 May).

But, what else can this book tell us about its history? It has clearly seen some action: it has lost several leaves and some that are still there have been repaired (such as in the first image). Where printed words are missing because of damage to the paper, someone has written them in. The binding is also later than the printed text. Parts of the original book have been removed, leaving only the sections that would have been useful during the church service.

The book did not escape the horrors of World War 1. There is a handwritten note at the front of the volume by the Reverend Roger Morrissy (1884/5-1958), priest of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Sunderland. Morrissy says Lt-Col. Ernest Vaux (1865-1925), an owner and director of the Vaux Breweries in Sunderland, had found the antiphonary among the ruins in the area around Ypres. When he was unable to find the owner of the book, Vaux brought it back with him to Sunderland and gave it to Morrissy. Through him, the volume arrived at Ushaw College, some twenty years after it had been discovered in Belgium.

If you are interested in learning more about the book collections at Ushaw, have a look at https://www.dur.ac.uk/library/asc/localother/ushaw.htm/. The team also occasionally do group tours of the Big Library. Get in touch via ushaw.library@durham.ac.uk, also if you would like to make an appointment to see materials.

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