On Thursday 26 September a group of seven students from the James Madison University in Virginia came with their teacher, book historian Mark Rankin, to view sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century books in the Senate House Library collections. The topic of the session was martyrology, and students pored enthusiastically over illustrations in two sixteenth-century editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. These included a set of twelve half-page woodcuts and a large folded leaf of plates depicting the gruesome tortures suffered by some of the martyrs, from the extraction of finger nails to the inevitable burning alive. The overtly Protestant nature of the illustrations was pointed out: for example, how in one instance a man’s dog was burned with him because he had held it up in mockery of the mass, and how the Pope was shown in a house window – with a woman. (Also displayed was John Bale’s Actes or Vnchaste Examples of the Englyshe Votaryes, condemning the allegedly intemperate activities of monks.)
Beyond martyrology, students saw examples of early printing. A copy of the encyclopaedia De Proprietatibus Rerum from approximately 1471 served multiple purposes: to show a book printed by William Caxton in Cologne before he commenced printing in England; to demonstrate the hybrid nature of early printing, with initials added in manuscript in red and blue; and to point out different perceptions of learning over time, with medicine here being viewed as belonging to the humanities. Shakespearean sources also featured, with two editions of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Attention focused on Macbeth, for which Holinshed provides the major source, and vocabulary was compared between Holinshed and the First Folio: were the three witches weird, as described by Holinshed, or were they wayward, the adjective used in the First Folio and then abandoned? The highlight for the students was indubitably the sight of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Troilus and Cressida received special mention, the reason being that the text is in the volume but not listed in the table of contents.
Early printed books can be exciting and mysterious. The students experienced this; and watching their journey of discovery, the message came across clearly to the facilitating staff too.