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Rare Shakespeare work found in northern France

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Rare Shakespeare work found in northern France
William Shakespeare's first folio, Comedies, Histoires et Tragedies, a copy of which was found in northern France. Photo: Caso
12:44 CET+01:00
A library in northern France has unearthed a literary treasure that it has been sitting on unknowingly for two centuries - a rare copy of a collection of William Shakespeare's plays titled "First Folio" - printed just seven years after his death.

How on earth did a rare 400 -year-old copy of a Shakespeare work end up hidden away for two centuries on the shelves of a library in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France?

That’s the question being asked after the highly valuable manuscript - one of only 230 in existence - was finally unearthed at the library in Saint-Omer earlier this year.

In September, the library’s head of collections Remy Cordonnier discovered a copy of the 'First Folio'  - a collection of the first versions of Shakespeare's plays - when he was making preparations to host an exhibition on English language works.

The book otherwise known as "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies" has been described as "incomparably the most important work in the English language.”

"The 'First Folio' is one of the most famous books of all time," Cordonnier told The Local.

But the Cordonnier and his colleagues were faced with the task of certifying that the work was one of only a few hundred copies ever produced. 

Unfortunately the front page with the book’s title was missing, which made the task more difficult and probably explains why it remained hidden for so long under the noses of the librarians.

"Because the pages were missing the first thing we did was to compare it to an original 'First Folio' almost page by page, which was fairly easy to do via the internet," said Cordonnier. 

"After that I was 99 percent certain, but we still needed to bring in a specialist to confirm it."

Professor Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada, who was in London at the time, was asked to pop over the Channel to Saint-Omer to examine the tome.

Rasmussen only took "about five minutes", Cordonnier said, before confirming it was an authentic manuscript, printed in 1623, just seven years after Sharespeare's death.

Rasmussen wrote a book on the First Folio called "The Shakespeare Thefts" detailing his thrilling global hunt for what remains of the initial 750 copies of the book, a favourite for thieves across the centuries.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which houses the largest collection of Shakespeare material, says on its website that the First Folio is the only source for 18 of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth, "which would otherwise be lost."

But how did it end up in Saint-Omer?

On the book, the name "Nevill" was written, who Cordonnier believes may have studied in Saint-Omer and left behind the manuscript.

For him the fact it ended up in his library is not that surprising.

(François Decoster, Bruno Humetz and Rémy-Cordonnier look at the folio. PHOTO: CASO)

"Since the Middle Ages Saint-Omer has had very strong cultural and economic connections to England. There was a very important Jesuit college here which acted as a protection for Catholics fleeing from England."

The copy of 'First Folio' will be displayed for three months during the summer. Then it will be locked up for three years to preserve it from being damaged. Another version is held at the National Library in Paris.

Cordonnier says the book is damaged with the missing pages as well the binding becoming detached.

"It's not in good shape but all the damage is interesting to teach us about the history of the book," he said.

As for how much it's worth, Cordonnier says "it's difficult to say", but vows it will never be sold.

"I think the last copy sold by Sotherby's auction house went for something like €2.5 million, but it belongs to France's national heritage, so it is illegal to sell it," he said.

Despite being so rare, the copy is not even the library’s most treasured item, for it is home to around 150 books printed between 1450 and 1500 and 800 manuscripts from the Middle Ages, which have to be preserved in special conditions away from light and temperature changes. One of those is a rare copy of the Gutenberg bible.

"We have some mansucripts around 1,500 years old, so this "First Folio" is just one of many special books in the library," Cordonnier said.

Many of those rare works have to be kept under lock and key in a safe at the library.

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