University of Calgary acquires one of the oldest English books in existence

Bibliophiles take note: a 521-year-old treasure from medieval England — one of the earliest books ever published in English — is available to be read, and even be handled, in Calgary.

First published in 1495, the Polychronicon outlines the history of the universe

The pages of the Polychronicon were made from linen and cotton rags and are now 521 years old. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Originally published June 14.

Bibliophiles take note.

The University of Calgary has acquired a 521-year-old treasure from medieval England — one of the earliest books ever published in English.

Called the Polychronicon, the book chronicles the history of the universe, as was understood in the 14th century, and is available for viewing by the public.

Originally written in Latin in the 1300s by Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden, the work was translated into English by John Trevisa and printed in Westminster, England by Wynken de Worde in 1495.

There are only about 50 copies left in the world, and few are in such pristine condition (though the cover, boards and bindings had to be replaced).

"This was sort of a book that transitioned people into the Renaissance view of the world," U of C librarian Annie Murray told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Because Ranulf Higden was himself very devout and a monk who lived in a monastery for more than 60 years, the creation of the universe begins with God, it starts right at the beginning with God, works its way through the Roman Empire all the way up to the kings and queens of England in the 14th century.

"It's written in a lively and jolly way."

First published in 1495, the Polychronicon, one of the first books published in English, is available for viewing at the University of Calgary. (Falice Chin/CBC)

The original clasps have been replaced and Murray described the book as having a "Faintly Viking or Game of Thrones kind of look."

"The book itself, the text block, the actual part of the book we read is in very, very good shape for a book from 1495," she said.

"This paper would be made from linen and cotton rags, sort of chopped up and made into a paper and that paper lasts longer than the paper of Charles Dickens' day or early 20th Century."

And it turns out people treated books back then much the same way we do today.

"Readers over the years wrote in the margins of the book and there's a really good doodle in this book," said Murray.

"This doodle is probably [from] around Shakespeare's time."

A doodle in the margin of the Polychronicon, one of the earliest books ever published in English, shows a man wearing pantaloons and smoking a pipe. A copy of the book acquired by the University of Calgary libraries and resources is available for public viewing. (Falice Chin/CBC)

The drawing Murray described is of a man wearing pantaloons, smoking a pipe and leading a horse.

It may be one of the earliest books ever printed in English, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to read all of it.

Some of the spelling is vastly different than what we're used to.

"'Little' would be spelled l-y-t-y-l-l," said Murray.

"Writing, w-r-y-t-y-n-g-e, so the spelling of English got standardized over time, there was a bit more flexibility at this time."

The Polychronicon would have been a lot more exclusive when it was first printed.

Though it's written in English, some of the words in the Polychronicon will be hard to decipher by modern readers. (Falice Chin/CBC)

"When it was in Latin it would be [read by] rulers, nobles and clergy people. But when it was more readily available in an English printed edition, you would start to see the rise of the merchant class and the bourgeoisie, so different people would start to want to have books and own them," said Murray.

"Books were a status symbol, so it would be very special to own a book.

"A lot of books at this time, if you would go to a cathedral library or a big church to read, or a monastery library, often books had chains on them, so they would be chained to walls and shelves and lecterns, so you wouldn't steal it, that gives you a sense of what a special thing books were in the 15th century."

The Polychronicon is stored in a climate controlled room but is available to be read, and even handled, by the public.

Other items in the U of C's rare book collection include a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, several incunables in Latin and an illuminated Book of Hours from the 16th century.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener