Rare books and special collections acquired a medieval papal document

The UBC Rare Books library and committee of professors from the English and history departments have just finished restoring their most recent acquisition. The papal bull document, a legal decree issued in Latin by Pope Innocent IV to the Italian convent of San Michele in Trento, includes the signatures of the Pope and 13 other cardinals, all restored to a recognizable print.

UBC early European history professor Richard Pollard was instrumental in the collection and purchase of the $15,000 document in the spring of 2014.

"It’s a perfect example of a standard medieval document," said Pollard on the papal bull. "There’s a sense that students think that all this history was handed down through the heavens, and we don’t really have any understanding of where the story was learned."

The main reason for purchase of this document, which dates back to 1245, is to use it as a teaching tool.

"The idea behind getting the document was so students could look and understand something about the sources of medieval history," said Pollard, who brings his 300-level classes to the Rare Books Collection for a number of classes each semester.

The importance of having the actual copy of the document, rather than simply a digitized version is eminent, Katherine Kalsbeek, acting head of Rare Books and Special Collections remarked upon the collection of such a rare document. "There’s something so impactful about seeing the Pope’s mark from that time and the cardinals who signed it; it’s quite amazing to see."

The document, when compared to other similar bulls from a similar period highlights the standardization of the processes involved in their inception. "People have a tendency to believe, particularly about the Middle Ages, that people were stupid, but the document is so carefully put together, both from a technical point of view, but also from an organizational point of view, a linguistic point of view," said Pollard.

Each sentence in the document ends with a rhythmic pulse, making the flow of each line feel uniform and sophisticated. The levels of literacy, the evidence of business transactions and the ability we have to touch, smell and look closely at the document underlines the importance of having the document here on campus.

When examining the papal bull closely, one can see where corrections have been made on the pages by the way the light shines on the ink, one can read the actual words printed on the parchment, and one can even smell the manuscripts, giving hints as to what animal the document came from, which gives indications to geographical details of its conception.

Although the document has been digitized and is available online, both Pollard and Kalsbeek are in agreement on the impact of the physical manuscript. "I want students to know that this is their resource," said Kalsbeek, encouraging students to view the document, whether involved in a medieval studies, English, History or not.

"Going to see it actually makes it relevant," said Pollard. "I think that students really respond well to having an actual piece of the past in a way that has a greater psychological impact than the ephemeral nature of digital objects."