The signature of John Prideaux, Bishop of Worcester from 1641 to 1650 is found on the title page of a 1509 printed book classified SEL.B.50.4. SEL is short for SELECTED which indicates something of particular interest, given a special place on the Library shelves, and protected by storage in a specially-made archive box. It is a handsomely bound copy of the once hugely popular Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend, a collection of stories about Christian saints and significant days in the Church year. The content, the book itself and the presence of the Bishop’s signature are all of considerable interest. The picture below shows the book’s sturdy worked-leather cover and binding.
The title Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend is derived from the original Legenda Aurea Sanctorum, meaning Golden Stories of the Saints. There were many different such collections in the Middle Ages, but the Legend Aurea was by far the most popular. There are around 900 manuscript copies surviving in libraries all over Europe, and after the arrival of printing it outstripped even the Bible in the number of copies made. The author was Jacob de Voragine, an Italian Bishop, who compiled it around 1260 in a simple, readable Latin, which is its format in the Worcester volume. Bishop Jacob admitted that he had borrowed much of his collection from other sources!
The pages are made from a thick, heavy paper, twenty-five centimetres by seventeen centimetres. The text is presented in two columns, each of fifty-nine lines plus a larger heading. The picture shows the verso side of the page numbered Folio xiii describing the life of Saint Thomas à Becket, named here Thomas of Canterbury. Handwritten notes have been added at the bottom of this page.
Each saint is introduced with a pictorial capital printed from a carved woodblock. This is the capital letter T introducing the article on Thomas of Canterbury or Thomas à Becket as he is usually called in England. The picture shows Thomas praying as he awaits a stroke from the sword of his attacker.
Another larger printed woodblock can be seen on the title page Folio i, showing the bookseller’s device or mark, a complex pattern of crowned beasts, intertwined plant forms and religious symbols. Around three sides of the central image are these words: La Marque de Jacques Huguetan libraire or the mark of the bookseller Jacques Huguetan.
The title of the book Legenda Aurea is printed in red above the mark and is introduced with a smaller but still elaborate woodblock capital letter L. This part of the text can be translated as
This Golden Legend is set out in an elegant form and appears with the great approval of the censors.
In 1509 the censorship of printed books and manuscripts was more to do with accuracy of reproduction than approval of content, although this was to change radically a few years later with the advent of the Reformation. Underneath the picture the Latin text gives more information about where to buy the book and it again is here translated:
The books are sold by Jacques Huguetan of Lyon, bookseller of this town in the street of the merchants, in the narrow lane that leads down to the river.
The French city of Lyon was an important centre of the printing trade. Merchants’ Street still exists there and there is still a narrow printers’ alley leading off it!
The handwritten lines on the page are also of interest and give information on the book’s ownership. In the right-hand margin by the side of the printer’s mark is the Bishop’s signature, Jo Prideaux meaning John Prideaux, Bishop of Worcester between 1641 and 1650.
It is said that more than 600 books in Worcester Cathedral Library originally belonged to him, and many of them also bear his signature. He was consecrated in December 1641, and soon became a supporter of the Royalist cause. In 1643 his name headed the list of Worcestershire delinquents, and in 1644 his son William died at Marston Moor, a colonel in King Charles’ army. The entire episcopate was formally abolished in October 1646 but John Prideaux was released with his books. He retired to Bredon where his son-in-law was Rector, died there in 1650 and was buried the churchyard.
Other handwritten items on the page show who owned the book before Bishop Prideaux: the top line says (in scrawled Latin) James Cook and the next paragraph includes the name of John Barnard of York. This is a book of great interest and well worthy of a place among the SELECTED volumes of Worcester Cathedral Library.