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700-year-old manuscript newest acquisition of rare books at University of B.C.

Image Credit: UBC
October 20, 2013 - 7:29 PM

VANCOUVER - Students at the University of British Columbia have learned they can actually be amazed by a textbook — at least one that's more than 700 years old and written in a language they can't read.

The theological manuscript was scribed in Latin in northern France during the 1350s, said UBC history instructor Richard Pollard, who helped the university acquire it from a private collection in London.

"It was probably studied by university students in the 14th century," he said of the former academic best-selling title. "There are some notes in it that suggest that might be the case."

Pollard, a post-doctoral fellow who specializes in early European medieval history, said University of Paris would likely have been the place where post-graduate students used the introductory textbook, which includes red- and blue-colour letters.

The 400-page manuscript is kept in UBC library's rare books collection, where Pollard had shown his students books from the 15th century when they were studying that period.

"They were completely amazed that these books were anywhere in Vancouver, that UBC had them, these wonderful things from the 15th century."

Then along came the even older 14th-century theological book on Christianity called the Compendium Theologicae Veritatis, or Compendium of Theological Truth, which students leafed through as part of their studies.

Its seven sections on theological philosophy include creation, the fall, the incarnation, grace and the sacraments, along with prayers, Pollard said.

The manuscript is believed to have been copied on parchment by multiple scribes about 100 years before movable type and Johannes Gutenberg's printing press.

Compendium Theologicae Veritatis
Compendium Theologicae Veritatis
Image Credit: UBC

Beyond history students, it's a valuable resource for people studying the economics of book production hundreds of years ago, Pollard said.

"Getting the animal skins to make the parchment, employing a room full of scribes to write sections of the text to produce the book. Something like this would have cost the equivalent of thousands of dollars at the time."

The textbook on durable animal skin is likely to survive at least another 700 years, he said.

"When it's kept in a professional rare books library like here where it's going to be kept in a climate controlled environment and away from UV light there's no telling how long it could last given that we have parchment manuscripts that survive in less-than-ideal conditions from the fifth century."

The University of B.C. acquired the book in June for $15,000 with the help of a British firm specializing in rare books.

It will be featured at an exhibition at the university next January.

This theological manuscript was scribed in Latin in northern France during the 1350s.
This theological manuscript was scribed in Latin in northern France during the 1350s.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Smallbridge

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
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