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Thirteenth-century Papal Bull repaired and digitized

By Glenn Drexhage

An extraordinary Papal document that’s nearly 800 years old has become a valuable teaching and research tool at University of British Columbia, thanks to a history instructor’s passion and the university library’s restoration efforts.

Detail of the Papal bull, which consists of sheepskin or calfskin parchment. Credit: Don Erhardt

The medieval gem, called a Papal bull, was written in 1245. A legal decree issued in Latin by Pope Innocent IV to the Italian convent of San Michele in Trento, it features the signatures of the Pope and 13 cardinals, including the future pope Nicholas III.

Now housed in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections the document also been digitized. “UBC has acquired something really exceptional,” says Richard Pollard, an early European specialist and instructor in UBC’s Department of History. “It’s very useful as a representation of medieval documents generally.”

The Papal bull was purchased by the university for approximately $15,000 last May from Bernard Quaritch Ltd., an antiquarian book and manuscript seller in London, England. The bull arrived at UBC Library two months later in good shape, although there were some concerns. Among those was the fact that the document, which consists of sheepskin or calfskin parchment, had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

It’s good news for medieval scholars such as Pollard, who has featured it in his history course focused on the European early Middle Ages. The bull would also appeal to students of classics, literature, law, theology and art history, he says.

“It’s very useful in and of itself as a historical document. From the student perspective, though, it’s the direct connection that matters,” says Pollard. “It’s all very abstract to them until they see this. This is the stuff of history. Everything we know about the 13th century comes to us through such documents.”

Arlen Bourque, a UBC history major and one of Pollard’s students, agrees. “When I saw the Papal bull for the first time, I was absolutely captivated,” he says. “The degree of sophistication used by our ancestors is simply astounding.”

UBC’s Katherine Kalsbeek and Richard Pollard admire the Papal bull acquired by UBC Library. The medieval document, written in 1245, is likely the oldest of its kind in Canada. Credit: Don Erhardt
UBC’s Katherine Kalsbeek and Richard Pollard admire the Papal bull acquired by UBC Library. The medieval document, written in 1245, is likely the oldest of its kind in Canada. Credit: Don Erhardt

Indeed, the bull – which measures about 2 ft by 1.8 ft (62 cm by 56 cm) – is an enthralling medieval document. Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem. “They wrote far more carefully than we do in the Middle Ages,” notes Pollard. “They paid much more attention to what things actually sounded like.”

In addition, a leaden seal features images of St. Paul and St. Peter and a flowing tail of a blue ribbon and red and yellow silk. This seal is actually the part of the document that is formally referred to as the “bull”; it’s pierced through the parchment and acts as an authenticator.

“By bringing documents such as this to UBC Library, we help bring history to life,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, Acting Head of Rare Books and Special Collections. “It’s a new area of collecting for us, and the student response has been incredible. It’s very inspiring for them.”

Click here to access the Digital Copy of the Papal Bull

Papal monogram  rota



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