Antique Books BAPSO Library 2010 Saint-OmerAntique books from the Agglomeration Library of the Saint-Omer area
©Antique books from the Agglomeration Library of the Saint-Omer area|Photo Carl - Tourisme en Pays de Saint-Omer

A First Folio of Shakespeare in Saint-Omer

It’s that kind of story that only happens here… The story of a treasure hidden in a library and forgotten by all until pure chance and an inventory that will reveal a rare manuscript: a 1623 “First Folio” from the works of Shakespeare.


In 2014, Rémy Cordonnier, head of heritage collections at BAPSO (Bibliothèque d’Agglomération du Pays de Saint-Omer), was going through volumes in preparation for an exhibition on English literature when he stopped on a Shakespeare manuscript listed as dating from the 18th century. Quickly, the layout, the language used, the patina of the leather gives him the feeling of an older edition.

He even thinks the manuscript might be a First Folio, a first edition. Here, the first compilation of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, dating from 1623, seven years after his death. There must have been about 800 volumes of this edition, of which only 232 are still preserved in the world. By happy coincidence, Eric Rasmussen, a leading Shakespeare scholar at the University of Reno in Nevada, was visiting London to prepare for the five hundredth anniversary of the author’s death. Delighted with the discovery, he flew back and forth almost immediately after being contacted. A few minutes of analysis of the work were enough to convince him: it is indeed a first folio. This is the 233rd copy in the world and the 2nd in France (the other is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France).

To be or not to be: yet it had been there for 400 years

It is relatively easy to imagine that this First Folio was carried by a Catholic Englishman fleeing persecution by Protestants in England. The copy is in “good condition,” but is nonetheless missing about thirty pages, including the title page, which explains how it could have remained in oblivion for four centuries. On the first page of the book is the name Neville, which could be the pseudonym of a certain Edward Scarisbrick, member of a large English Catholic family, who would have taken refuge with the Jesuits of Saint-Omer in 1650, according to the Shakespearean specialist Eric Rasmussen. A theory among many others and one whose mystery remains.

Annotations, handwritten corrections and remarks complete the work and help add life to this unique work.

This First Folio will also join an impressive collection of 800 manuscripts and 230 incunabula (works printed in the West before 1501), as well as a genuine Gutenberg Bible. All of these works are the subject of fairly recurring exhibitions in this lovely library and archive room worthy of a movie set.



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