A rare survival amongst the historical collections of the Russell Library

Margaret Connolly, MA, PhD, FEA Honorary Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews discusses a rare item from the collections of the Russell Library at Maynooth University.

RB 362 First page
A rare sixteenth century printed work from the collections of the Russell Library (RB 362)

A composite volume is one whose individual parts had separate origins, and which have been bound together to form a thematic collection or perhaps just for convenient storage. RB 362 may have been assembled for both these reasons. Its first sixteen items are all forms of prayer, mostly for specific fast days, but a few are prayers of thanksgiving that commemorate particular occasions. One celebrates the birth of a prince to James II and his queen in 1688 (this was James the ‘old Pretender’). Another records a naval victory in 1692. Another gives thanks for the discovery of a plot to assassinate William III by a ‘Horrid and Barbarous Conspiracy of Papists and other Trayeterous Persons’. All these forms of prayer were printed in London between 1685 and 1720. Two other items in the collection, which are printed letters to two English bishops, also date from the early eighteenth century. But the final item is not like the others.

Tucked away at the back of this volume is a copy of an early sixteenth-century printed book, Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God. This later Middle English devotional prose text was printed in London by William Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde. This fact is recorded at the end of the volume. The bottom of the last page is torn but the colophon survives intact, preserving the place of publication and the precise location of de Worde’s shop, at the sign of the sun in Fleet Street, with the date: ‘Anno d[omi]ni MCCCCC.vi’ (1506).

RB 362 Last page
Colophon from RB 362

The title page ascribes the work to Richard Rolle, the fourteenth-century English mystic, but Rolle did not write it. The ascription is a marketing strategy, designed to increase sales. And the book must have sold well, because Wynkyn de Worde issued a second edition about fifteen years later. From these two editions only ten copies in total are known to survive (STC 21259 and 21260). Of the first edition of 1506 there are only four other recorded copies: three in the UK, at the British Library, Durham University Library, and the John Rylands Library, Manchester; and one in the US, until recently in the collection of Paul Mellon, but its present location is unknown.

RB 362 Handwritten date
This title is incorrectly ascribed to the fourteenth-century English mystic Richard Rolle

The Maynooth copy of Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God is the fifth recorded copy, the only one in Ireland, and a very rare survival.

 

Margaret Connolly

University of St Andrews

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