Wyclif’s bones

The burning of Wyclif's bones.

The burning of Wyclif’s bones.

The early printed books in the Perne library are currently being catalogued, in order to prepare an electronic catalogue which will eventually be accessible to the public. Approximately half the volumes have now been examined by our rare books cataloguer, Allen Purvis. In addition to identifying and describing the books themselves, Allen is supplementing catalogue entries with provenance data and with information about the bindings of books. This post is the first of what will probably be several accounts of discoveries that have been made as a result of Allen’s cataloguing.

Like many other collections of early printed books, the Perne library has already been explored by eager eyes and hands in search of lost treasures lurking in the bindings of its books. Finds in the past have included an indulgence printed by Wynkyn de Worde, numerous incunable leaves, and many pages of manuscript. Similar binders’ waste material turns up in many volumes in the more obviously accessible form of a pastedown or end leaf.

Perne Library: shelfmark H.5.23.

Perne Library: shelfmark H.5.23.

That is the case in this instance, where a sheet of waste paper from an English printing shop has been used to provide the end leaves and pastedowns for a Latin work, printed in Louvain. The unlikely bed-fellows are an edition, prepared by Johannes Molinaeus (1525-1575), of the late eleventh-century canon law text, the Decretum, attributed to Ivo of Chartres (c. 1040-1115) , and sheets from an edition of the Actes and Monuments of John Foxe (1516/17-1587). Molinaeus was professor of canon law at the University of Louvain, and his work was published there by Bartholomaeus Gravius, on his own behalf and for the heirs of Arnold Birckmann (a family firm of booksellers, based in Cologne, but with strong connections to the international market in Latin books, both through the Frankfurt fair and through their own contacts in London and Antwerp). Both Molinaeus and Gravius maintained impeccable Catholic credentials throughout the religious upheavals of the mid-sixteenth century: Molinaeus was a member of the household of Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands, and Gravius served as University printer at Louvain, where he published authorised editions of the Bible in Latin, French, and Dutch with the approbation of both the University and the Emperor, Charles V. His son, Henricus Gravius, was eventually called to Rome to act as censor for the newly founded Vatican printing house.

Perne Library, shelfmark H.5.23, rear pastedown.

Perne Library, shelfmark H.5.23, rear pastedown.

The same folio sheet has been used as a pastedown by the binder at both the front and the rear of the book. It is blank on one side, and bound at the front of the book so that only one printed page is visible. At the back of the book, by contrast, both printed pages, numbered 100 and 105 are visible. The running head identifies the sheet as coming from the Actes and Monuments, better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, one of the most influential publications of the late sixteenth century and one of the most substantial productions of the London press of that time. Comparison with surviving editions of the Actes and Monuments quickly revealed that these pages corresponded closely to those of the same number in the first edition of Foxe’s work, printed by John Day (1522-1584), and published in 1563. The pages describe the ideas and appeal of the medieval English philosopher and ecclesiastical reformer, John Wyclif (c. 1320-1384), and detail the fate of his doctrines, which were condemned at the Council of Constance in 1415.  The woodcut printed on page 105 illustrates the fate of Wyclif’s remains, which had been buried at Lutterworth, where he was rector of the church at the time of his death. In December 1427, on the orders of Pope Martin V, Wyclif’s bones were exhumed and burned, and the ashes cast into the nearby River Swift.

Yet the pages reproduced here were not identical with those in any surviving edition of Foxe’s work. A number of small changes had been made in both text and woodcut in surviving copies of the 1563 edition, indicating that the waste used by the binder constituted discarded sheets from the production of the book. It is otherwise straightforward to find evidence for the hurried production of the Actes and Monuments, and for revisions being introduced in the printing house  by the author, who was still at work in the archives while the book was going through the press.  In their study of the making of Foxe’s book, Religion and the Book in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman have documented a number of examples of errors in casting off, otherwise unexplained shifts in the size of typeface being used, and the insertion of additional sheets and gatherings into the text, with resulting revisions to pagination. Evenden and Freeman also point to the haste with which woodcuts were prepared to illustrate the book, whose printing appears initially to have advanced faster than the engravers were able to work or to have been undertaken before they were commissioned. In this case, the sheet has been incorrectly imposed. Page 105 (the one with the woodcut) and page 100, which represent the inner forme of the sheet (corresponding to signatures L2v and L5r), have been transposed when being locked into the forme.  Had the outer forme of the sheet then been printed normally, bearing pages 99 and 106 (signatures L2r and L5v), the order of pages in gathering L would then have run 97, 98, 99, 105, 101, 102, 103, 104, 100, 106, 107, 108!

Incorrectly printed running title.

Incorrectly printed running title.

Clearly several pulls had been taken before the error was noticed: two of these incorrectly imposed sheets survive here at Peterhouse, and two further examples are known (incorrectly described as ‘proofs’ in the English Short-Title Catalogue), in the Cambridge University Library and at Lincoln College, Oxford (ESTC S113097; STC 11222a). This elementary error, remarkable in an experienced printing shop, was first discussed at length by the late Julian Roberts (‘Bibliographical Aspects [of] John Foxe’, in John Foxe and the English Reformation, ed. David Loades (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), pp. 36-51), who explained it as being the result of the confusion of compositors who had, for the first time, to incorporate a large woodcut in the text at this point.

The woodcut as amended, here taken from the 1576 edition of the Actes and Monuments, Perne Library, shelfmark E.11.17

The woodcut as amended, here taken from the 1576 edition of the Actes and Monuments, Perne Library, shelfmark E.11.17

The waste sheets testify both to such confusion and to the ongoing work of revision. While the pages were being reset, the engraver modified the picture of the burning of Wyclif’s bones, introducing a caption to indicate what the figure on the right, who appears to be emptying a bowl of liquid into the passing river, was in fact doing: ‘the ashes of Wickleffe cast into the riuer’. At the same time, several changes were introduced into the text, the most significant of which was an attempt to clarify the passage on page 105 which mentions playing ‘Parmenos part in the comody, that is to worke wyth reason, against mad folly.’ This was a reference to the figure of the slave, Parmeno, in Terence’s comedy, The Eunuch, who counsels his master that ‘If you think that uncertain things can be made certain by reason, you’ll accomplish nothing more than if you strived to go insane by sanity.’ The final printed text described Parmeno’s part as ‘to ioyne perfect reason and mad follye together’, which perhaps made the classical allusion less wrong, if scarcely right. At the same time, the running titles to the text were also corrected, so that page 100 bore the right heading for text appearing to the left of an opening (‘Actes and Monuments’) and that page 105 bore the heading ‘The burning of Wickleffes bones’.

The Bishop of Lincoln's commissary pours Wyclif's ashes into the River Swift.

The Bishop of Lincoln’s commissary pours Wyclif’s ashes into the River Swift.

At the time of his death, Andrew Perne (c. 1519-1589), Master of Peterhouse, owned two copies of the Actes and Monuments. It may very well be that one of these, which is now lost, was the first edition. Peterhouse, to whose library Perne bequeathed ‘one of the best & largest sort in foilo or in quarto that I haue at Cambridge… of any historie’, acquired from him a copy of the 1576 edition of Foxe’s work, also printed by Day. Foxe’s account of Perne’s behaviour as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge during the reign of Queen Mary represents one of the principal sources for his life, and is partially responsible for Perne’s reputation for religious prevarication.

The burning of the bones and books of Bucer and Fagius, from Andrew Perne's copy of the Actes and Monuments, Perne Library, shelfmark E.11.17

The burning of the bones and books of Bucer and Fagius, from Andrew Perne’s copy of the Actes and Monuments, Perne Library, shelfmark E.11.17

In particular, Foxe dwelt on Perne’s role in another act of the exhumation of the bones of heretics, which again led to a posthumous auto da fé. On 6 February 1557, the remains of Martin Bucer (1491-1551), the Strasburg Protestant reformer and later Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and of his friend and colleague, Paul Fagius (1504-1549), who had been appointed as lecturer in Hebrew at Cambridge, were dug up and publicly burned along with their books on the market square.

Perne, as Vice-Chancellor, took charge at the ceremony, and gave an oration condemning the heretics. Foxe was scandalised by this ‘shameful railing’, despite or perhaps because of the fact that Perne in 1560 also presided over the formal rehabilitation of Bucer and Fagius, after the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. Foxe’s account of the burning of the bones of Bucer and Fagius drew heavily on a Latin description by Conrad Hubert, and its English translation by William Golding. It was abbreviated somewhat in later editions of the Actes and Monuments, which nevertheless continued to carry a woodcut illustration of the event.

Perne as Vice-Chancellor, from Foxe's Actes and Monuments.

Perne as Vice-Chancellor, from Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

This pictured Perne at the head of a procession crossing the square, and circling the pyre to which the bones of the dead Protestants and the pages of their books were being consigned. In Perne’s own surviving copy of Foxe, one of the pages describing this event has a small burn mark, probably caused by the fall of hot wax from a candle. The late Patrick Collinson, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, liked to suggest that this was evidence that Perne ‘in private deeply regretted his unconscientious conduct on this occasion’ (quotation from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Whether or not that is so, Perne certainly continued to own the writings of both Bucer and Fagius, as well as many books printed by the latter on his press at Isny, and ensured that they came to the library of his College on his death.

Perne’s collections also included works of Catholic theology and ecclesiology, such as the edition of the Decretum prepared by Molinaeus. We have seen that the binder that Perne employed on his copy of this book had access to waste from John Day’s printing shop. Day kept jealous control of the sale of most of his products, and it is just possible, therefore, that Perne’s book itself came from one of the shops that Day kept on Cheapside or at Aldersgate. Although there is little evidence of Day’s involvement in importing foreign books for sale, he certainly had contacts at this time with foreign journeymen, typefounders, and printers, several of whom he employed in the production of the Actes and Monuments.


Clearly Perne cannot have acquired his copy of the Decretum before 1563, given the presence of waste from Day’s printing shop produced during that year. The tools to be found on the binding, which consist of a heraldic roll, showing the Golden Fleece and a falcon (Oldham, HE. k(1) 766), and a smaller roll with a metalwork design (Oldham, MW.a(4) 860), have been found together elsewhere on books that appear to have been bound in London during the period 1550-1562. It would be interesting to discover whether any other books with such a combination of tools can be shown to have any connection to John Day. Until that is known, it is safer to assume that Perne acquired his copy of the Decretum from another source, and had it bound by a binder who perhaps knew Day and bought waste paper from his shop. In the process, he acquired a book that made a remarkable and unintended connection between two acts of heresy hunting. It is sadly impossible to know what reaction the man who burned the bones of Bucer and Fagius displayed on opening his newly bound book and seeing in its pages the two pictures of the burning of Wyclif’s bones that the binder had placed there.


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