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Image for the news item 'Rare book of the week' on 21 Apr 2020

The most beautiful of Emmanuel’s older rare books is also one that prompts many questions. It is a copy of Cicero’s De Officiis, that was printed on vellum at Mainz in Germany in 1465, but at some point the borders on its title-page and three other pages were richly illuminated. It is the earliest printed book in the Emmanuel library, yet it has also been given the appearance of a late-medieval manuscript. As a book, it looks both forward to the new world of printed copies and also back to the world of manuscripts as hand-painted artefacts.  

But who was it made for? All four borders are so liberally bespattered with Tudor royal badges that the book appears to proclaim its royal ownership with some emphasis. Borders and initials display the red rose of Lancaster, the coroneted portcullis, and shields of the arms of France quartering England (on one page contained inside the Garter) and supported by yales (fabulous horned beasts). But what leaps out is the profusion of triple and single ostrich feathers in a coronet with scrolls bearing the motto ‘ic dien’ (‘I serve’) – the emblems of Princes of Wales.

The consensus is that this book was made for the short-lived Prince Arthur (1486-1502), elder son of Henry VII and elder brother of Henry VIII. The initial on the title page depicts a young man in a richly ermine-trimmed gown, evidently with a tutor. But why the borders were apparently painted so long after the pages were printed is another unanswerable question.

The borders display beautifully-painted forget-me-nots, red roses, wild strawberries, sweet peas, daisies and acanthus scrolls, along with several doves and a small dog. The daisy was a favourite flower badge of Arthur’s pious and learned grandmother, the formidable Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), foundress of both Christ’s and St John’s Colleges. But daisies are ubiquitous in the borders of late-medieval manuscripts, so what could be another pointer to ownership might be, well, just a daisy.

HM The Queen, when shown the book during her 1984 visit to mark Emmanuel’s Quatercentenary, immediately asked ‘How did this get here?’  It is an excellent question, but unfortunately unanswerable. It is unlikely that it can ever be known how this book left royal ownership, but it is recorded to have been in Emmanuel before the end of the sixteenth century. So many things are unknowable about this book, but one thing at least is certain: this thing of beauty has been in the College for almost the whole of Emmanuel’s history.

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