On a large screen at the front of the classroom, a pair of gentle hands carefully unfold a time-weathered document. “Can anyone tell me what these are?” says a voice. The hands gesture toward two reddish discs attached to the paper by ribbon.
“Are they wax seals?” asks one of the students in class.
“That’s exactly what they are,” answers the voice. “In this case, they’re the signatures on a land deed dated from the mid-1500s.
The disembodied voice belongs to Dr. Scott Schofield in the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (CRRS) at the University of Toronto. This class represents a rare opportunity for these UPEI undergraduate history students to get up close and personal with some old and important books.
Dr. Raiswell's class examines a 16th century land deed
“It’s one thing to discuss old books, or even examine pictures of them,” says Dr. Richard Raiswell, Assistant Professor of History at UPEI and teacher of today’s class, “but it’s a very different thing to really examine them. To be able to go leaf by leaf through a book that was printed and bound half a millennium ago. I wanted to give our students the chance to really examine the very objects we’re discussing in class.”
Dr. Raiswell, himself a former fellow of the CRRS, arranged for this special video-conferencing session with the Centre’s archives.
“We talk a lot about how the printing press standardized the book,” explains Dr. Raiswell. “What we don’t talk about is that, really, each book from this time is unique. They weren’t sold as bound books as we have today, but a set of leaves. It was the responsibility of the buyer to bind the book, and we can learn a lot about the people of these times by examining how they did this.”
In one example, the students examine a 15th century book bound with the cast-away pages of a much older book from the 13th century.
“At the time,” says Dr. Raiswell, “the person binding the book probably thought they were using the useless pages of some old book. In many instances, that cast-away page is much more valuable to us today than the book itself.”
Dr. Raiswell also wanted his class to have a chance to see early techniques and attempts at censorship.
“In some cases, someone literally took a pen and drew an “X” through the text,” says Dr. Raiswell. “The offending text is still easily legible. It says a lot about the influence the editor, often the church, believed they had over people. They truly believed people wouldn’t read it simply because it was marked as censored.”
A censored page from the 1525 book “De harmonia mundi totius” by Francesco Giorgio
The class spent more than an hour and a half examining texts, including tiny pocket-sized reference books to giant bibles with elaborate illustrations. The classroom which made this experience possible, in UPEI's Duffy Science Centre, was created under the guidance of Dr. Sheldon Opps, Associate Professor of Physics.
“This opportunity is invaluable for the students,” says Dr. Raiswell. “As you can see from their reactions, they’re thrilled with seeing these objects first hand. It’s the sort of experience that can inspire them to further their studies and do their own research.”