The St Andrews Rolevinck: A Gem in the University’s Collection
The St Andrews copy of the German monk Werner Rolevinck’s 1478 world history has already received attention as one of the treasures of the library. I first came across it in the winter of 2015 while attending a St Andrews workshop on incunabula led by Falk Eisermann, head of the Union Catalogue of Incunabula at the Berlin State Library and was immediately intrigued by the copious annotations which ran parallel with Rolevinck’s printed text. Further study has revealed that these annotations may be far more important than I had initially assumed and this blog post is by way of an interim report on what is, in fact, a uniquely important piece of Scotland’s historical and theological heritage.
This volume was donated to St Andrews by William Guild, Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen (1586-1657) at the time of his death. When Christine Gascoigne systematically studied Guild’s library in 2009 she identified three earlier owners: Alexander Fraser, a scribe or clerk from late sixteenth-century Aberdeen, the Catholic bishop and historian John Leslie (1527-1596), and William Foular, a pre-Reformation Dean of Haddington (fl. 1465-1487). Foular evidently acquired the book – in which he wrote his name no less than three times – soon after it was published and his ownership of what was the first printed world history is itself an unusual event in late fifteenth-century Scotland.
What is more unusual, however, are the copious annotations Foular made in his new book. He added in parallel with the history written by Rolevinck his own version of Scottish history, from the age of the mythical Gathelus and Scota to the reign of James I. Research is ongoing, but he appears to have derived much of his knowledge of Scottish history from the Scotichronicon of his fellow-Haddingtonian Walter Bower (1385-1449). Foular reshaped Bower’s narrative, however, compressing and honing it into a Scottish thread within world history and valiantly standing up for Scotland’s identity and independence. One passage in Rolevinck’s chronicle describes Scotland as being a part of England and Foular has angrily scored this through, writing beside it: “falsus est” – “this is untrue”!
The volume’s later ownership by the historian John Leslie suggests that it may have been one of the sources he used for his own History of Scotland (1578), making it a previously unknown link between Scotland’s medieval and early modern historians.
Several decades later the volume had migrated from Bishop Leslie’s study to that of William Guild, mentioned above. It was almost certainly Guild who added a later and equally fascinating layer of annotations. One of the “Aberdeen Doctors”, he was a moderate in the theological battles of the seventeenth century and his annotations show him grappling with one of the thorniest points of contention in those battles: the role of tradition versus scripture in Christianity. Guild read Rolevinck with an eye to church history, drawing manicules and writing notes in the margin beside passages referring to the institution of bishops, the use of holy water, iconoclastic controversies in Byzantium, and numerous other episodes in the evolution of the early church. What began as sober, factual comments, though, becomes increasingly emotional as Rolevinck describes some of the less respectable moments of the medieval papacy. Guild’s pen scratches more fiercely and his righteous anger comes through in marginalia excoriating the “arrogance” and “depravity” of the medieval popes. Like so many early modern Protestants, Guild looked to medieval history for evidence that reform had been, and continued to be, necessary, but here his annotations give us a unique view into the process of reading and thinking which could lead to such beliefs. It also provides a new context for many of the historical arguments Guild made in his 1626 polemical pamphlet Popish Glorying in Antiquitie Turned to Their Shame.
Much remains to be done before we can fully understand the complex intellectual narratives encoded in this book and its annotations, but we already know enough to recognise that it is a remarkable time capsule, passing through some of the most turbulent centuries in Scottish history and bringing with it traces of those times in the form of its unique collection of annotations. Ongoing research should help us better understand those annotations as well as the scholars and culture which produced them.
Kelsey Jackson Williams
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow