One day while working in the archives of the special collections of the University of Reading in Berkshire, England, librarian Erika Delbecque happened on an unusual find: two pages, printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper, which had languished unseen for two decades.
The leaves had been purchased with a collection of other loose pages in 1997, and the significance of these two pages in particular had been lost. But when Ms. Delbecque saw the pages, she knew that this leaf was something special, tipped off by the "trademark black letter typeface" and hand-drawn paragraph marks in red.
Upon closer inspection, the library found that the pages were from "Sarum Ordinal or Sarum Pye," a handbook written in Latin containing instructions for the organization of religious feast days for English saints. Sarum Ordinal is one of the earliest books ever printed in England, with the pages dating from 1476 or 1477. That's a little over three decades after the moveable-type printing press had been introduced to Europe by inventor Johannes Gutenberg, representing the quick spread of the printed word that helped jump-start the Renaissance across the continent.
"Printing had arrived in Western Europe by 1450, but printing with moveable type was invented in Germany and then spread to Italy and elsewhere on the Continent," Daniel Hobbins, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "The Englishman William Caxton learned the new process in Cologne and Bruges, but only established a press in England in 1476. The discovered pages belong to a book printed during Caxton's first year operating his press in England."
William Caxton was born in 1422 in Kent, England, and created a successful career for himself as a diplomat and merchant based in Bruges, Belgium. But history would come to know him as the man who established the first printing press in England, which would eventually bring works by Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Sir Thomas Malory to the literate British public. Caxton's translation of a text by French author Raoul Lefèvre entitled "The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye," would also become the first book ever printed in the English language.
"In the world of rare books, certain words have special, almost magic, resonance, and Caxton is one of them," early printing specialist Andrew Hunter told ITV. "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."
Mr. Hunter, who did an appraisal of the rare document, said the pages were worth up to £100,000 ($129,000). Even though there were likely many, many copies produced of Sarum Ordinal, there are only eight other pages known to exist, all of which are currently held in the British Library. The original handbook is thought to have been about 160 pages in length, and was the first book known to have been advertised in the English language.
"Before this discovery, only a few pages of the book were known at all," says Dr. Hobbins. "We have complete manuscript copies of this text that predate Caxton. What makes these pages valuable is the evidence they provide for early printing, not for the text itself."
But despite Sarum Ordinal's place in history, the pages did not receive the kind of respect and care one might usually expect.
"The leaf had previously been pasted into another book for the undignified purpose of reinforcing its spine," Delbecque told the BBC. "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."
Now that the pages have been positively identified, however, they will be prominently displayed in the university's Special Collections department starting this week. Instead of lurking in an archive, it will serve as a reminder of the epoch-defining impact of the printing press on 15th-century Europe, which led to new movements in art, culture, science, and philosophy that continue to affect the world today.
"The printing press made possible infinite reproduction of a text ... not just books, but leaflets, flyers, and eventually pamphlets, which became particularly important for Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation," says Hobbins. "By the fifteenth century, manuscripts (handwritten books) were much cheaper than they had ever been before, partly because of the introduction of paper into Western Europe, which drove down the cost of the writing material, formerly parchment. But you still had to find someone to copy the text, and that could take months or even years in the case of a book such as the Bible. The new printing press was still labor intensive, but it did away with the scribe and made book production into a much more industrial process."