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Medieval Caxton pages buried in a box, Reading University Finds

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A unique example of 15th century printed text by English printer William Caxton has been unearthed at the University of Reading.

The two pages are from a medieval priest handbook dating back to late 1476 or early 1477, which was among the first books printed in England by William Caxton’s pioneering press. No other copies of the pages, printed either side of a single leaf of paper, are known to have survived.

It was found in the University’s archives by Erika Delbecque, Special Collections librarian, while she was cataloguing thousands of items illustrating the history of printing and graphic design. The find has been verified by Caxton experts and valued at up to £100,000 by a specialist.

The surprise find will go on public display in the University’s Special Collections department, within the MERL museum on London Road, from 9 May until 30 May.

Ms Delbecque said: “This well preserved item is the only one of its kind, and one of just two surviving fragments from this medieval Caxton book in existence.

“The leaf had previously been pasted into another book for the undignified purpose of reinforcing its spine. We understand it was rescued by a librarian at the University of Cambridge in 1820, who had no idea that it was an original Caxton leaf.

“I suspected it was special as soon as I saw it. The trademark blackletter typeface, layout and red paragraph marks indicate it is very early western European printing. It is incredibly rare to find an unknown Caxton leaf, and astonishing that it has been under our noses for so long.”

It is written in Medieval Latin and is from a book called the Sarum Ordinal or Sarum Pye, which instructed priests on how to prioritise religious feast days for English saints.

The page was part of a collection that previously belonged to late typographer John Lewis and his wife Griselda, a writer and book designer. It was purchased by the University for £70,000 at auction in 1997, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The leaf then lay hidden among many thousands of other items in the archives for almost 20 years before being identified.

Copies of the Sarum Ordinal were produced in Westminster, before the Reformation, and consisted of around 160 leaves. The text was originally established as a manuscript by St Osmund, the Bishop of Salisbury, in the 11th century. It would have been owned by clergymen and consulted on a regular basis, but was discarded after the Reformation.

Only one other surviving fragment of the book exists, consisting of eight double-sided leaves, which are held at the British Library in London.

Dr Lotte Hellinga, formerly Deputy Keeper at the British Library and an expert on Caxton, said: “It is very rare that an unknown piece of printing by William Caxton is brought to light. The example found in Reading belongs to a different part of the book than those held in the British Library.

“Its condition is good, considering that it spent some 300 years bound in the spine of a book, and another 200 resting forgotten in an album of fragments rescued from other bindings.”

Early printing specialist Andrew Hunter, of Blackwells Books, who carried out the valuation of the leaf, said: “In the world of rare books, certain words have special, almost magic, resonance, and Caxton is one of them. Thus the discovery of even a fragment from among Caxton’s earliest printing in England is thrilling to bibliophiles, and of great interest to scholars.

“If this were ever to come on the market there would definitely be competition for it; it would be a great prize for a private collector, and a feather in the cap of any institution.”