The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has recently acquired their oldest English print book: a 1507 copy of The Golden Legend.

The library is home to 800,000 rare books and is the largest rare book collection in Canada. The Golden Legend was originally compiled in 1260 by Jacobus De Voragine, a scholarly friar and later archbishop of Genoa. De Voragine aimed to encourage the faithful by preserving a vast store of information about the legends and traditions of the church. In the book, he wrote stories about the lives of saints. The Golden Legend was the most read book in the Middle Ages after the Bible.

Later in the fifteenth century, a man named William Caxton translated the book from Latin to English, also adding stories from the bible. This addition generated both negative and positive feedback. Caxton’s additions made the teachings of the Bible accessible to ordinary people, but it was also considered illegal at the time.

“Like most of our books from our rare book collection, I found them through dealer catalogues,” said Thomas Fisher Rare Book special librarian Pearce J. Carefoote.

Before the U of T library took possession of The Golden Legend, Carefoote explained that it was in London in a family’s private library. When asked what relevance The Golden Legend has today, Carefoote answered, “Well the stories themselves are quaint and fun but not historical fact. What makes it important is how this is from very early English.”

Traces of readership from the Reformation period — which marked the beginning of the Protestant movement — is apparent. A reader during this period leaves traces of themselves, within The Golden Legend, through the scratching out of any mention of the Pope.

The page about Thomas Becket — the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, who King Henry VIII disliked — was blotted out with an X.

The Golden Legend allows readers to enter into a world of the Reformation, the Middle Ages, early English printing, lives of saints, and more, making it applicable to many of the programs offered at U of T.

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