Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2015 Issue

An Unknown Copy of Shakepeare's First Folio Discovered in France

First page in St. Omer First Folio with penned name “Neviile” (from Bibliothèque d'Agglomération de Saint-Omer website).

They aren't making old books anymore, but once in awhile, an unknown copy of an important antiquarian text appears. That happened late last year in a small town in northern France when a long forgotten copy of the greatest book in the English language was discovered on its library shelves. Hidden in the collections of the St. Omer public library was a first edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, better known simply as the First Folio. Compiled by a couple of Shakespeare's colleagues who wished to preserve his work, it was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died. At least 18 of the Bard's plays, including MacBeth, would have been lost forever were they not preserved in the First Folio.

 

The St. Omer copy is less than perfect. It was well-used and is missing the frontispiece and portrait of Shakespeare and some internal pages. The lack of the frontispiece is likely why the book was never recognized as a First Folio, but believed to be an 18th century edition. The book came to light when the librarian was searching for titles to display in an exhibition on links between England and the local region of northern France. Once the possibility that it was a first edition was realized, an American expert was called in to examine the copy, which he quickly recognized was an authentic first. As such, it is one of only two copies of the First Folio known to exist in France. It increases the total number of copies known to survive by one to 233. Around 800 copies are believed to have been printed.

 

How did this copy come to reside in a small library in France? The answer is that it has been there a long time. However, it has been in St. Omer the town even longer. Its roots trace back to the long gone St. Omers College, which opened three decades before the book was published in 1593. It was a Jesuit school, with the purpose of providing an education to English Catholics. What with the Protestant Reformation in England, and Queen Elizabeth less than positively inclined toward Catholicism, the teaching of the faith was outlawed in England. The Jesuits decided to provide an education for English Catholics in nearby northern France.

 

The name “Neville” written on the first surviving page of the St. Omer copy has led to two possible explanations of how it came to be a part of the Jesuit library. It may have belonged to Fr. Edmund Neville, a Jesuit priest who taught at the college in the 1630's. Another possibility is that it was brought to the college by Edward Scarisbrick, scion of an English Catholic family who attended the college in 1650 and used the pseudonym “Neville.”

 

A century later, tensions arose between the government of France and the Jesuits. In 1762, the college closed in St. Omer, moving to the Low Countries. Two years later, the Jesuits were expelled from France. The college moved again in 1794, this time to Lancashire, England, where it survives to this day as Stonyhurst College. Interestingly, they have their own First Folio, given to the college in the 19th century.

 

The old St. Omer college took much of its library with it when it moved from France, but the First Folio was left behind. It is highly annotated, along with being in somewhat rough condition. Plays were regularly performed at the college, and this was evidently a working copy, a relatively new book at the time. It would not have had historic significance yet when being used to perform plays by the English students, and such significance was obviously not appreciated when the college moved, not surprising for a rough copy missing its title page.

 

The existence of this copy in a Jesuit college has again raised the question of Shakespeare's religion. Some believe he was Catholic, though hiding his faith for political reasons. Of course, some people don't even believe Shakespeare wrote his own plays. The existence of a copy of his plays at least a decade after his death at a school for English students who liked to perform plays is hardly conclusive, even if it was a Catholic college, though it may spur more speculation.

 

You might think that this newly discovered masterpiece must be the most important book in the collection of this small town library in France. It is not. Amazingly, the St. Omer public library has a copy of the most important book of all, at least one volume of it. The St. Omer library also owns one of 48 extant copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    BROWSE NOW
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions