“More Properly Rudeman”: Great Stories Behind Our Great Charters

Amongst all the potential categories Jesuit scholars could have chosen when organizing St. Ignatius College’s first library catalogue, they considered the subject of legislation important enough to include within their six final subdivisions. In such a category, there are certainly some paramount pieces that historians would expect to see, perhaps none more than the revolutionary 1215 English charter best known as the Magna Carta. Well, the catalogue does not disappoint. It includes not one copy of the Manga Carta, but two. Moreover, each reprinting of this landmark legislation carries with it a unique story along with enigmatic elements for we modern historians to unravel.

The oldest copy of the Magna Carta in the first library catalogue is entitled Magna Carta in F and was published in 1529 by an English printer named Robert Redman. Historians of print are most assuredly familiar with Richard Pynson, one of the most pivotal figures in fifteenth and sixteenth century English book making. Well, it was in Redman that Pynson found not only a virulent rival, but also an unlikely successor.

Mark of Richard Pynson

Mark of Richard Pynson

According to most sources, Redman followed directly in Pynson’s footsteps working to loosen his monopolistic grip on legal printing. While Pynson originally published an edition of the Magna Carta in 1508, Redman released his own version in 1525. This is, in all likelihood, the version available in Loyola’s library (with only a few additions). Considering its modest dimensions of 14 cm and subtitle of “Necessarye for all yong studiers of the lawe,” it is perfectly reasonable to infer that this book was meant to be used as an academic supplement. It is also reasonable to assert that this supplement was relatively successful since it would prove to not be Redman’s last foray into printing. He went on to earn the exacerbated ire of Pynson, the latter calling Redman, “more properly Rudeman, because among a thousand men you will not easily find one more unskillful.” Despite Pynson’s obvious indignation, Redman progressed smoothly in his profession. After the old printing master died, Redman assumed control of his Fleet Street offices and machinery. It is indeed from Fleet Street where our Magna Carta in F originates, a product of a bitter competition won, in the end, by Redman.

In addition to its interesting history, our Magna Carta in F also includes a feature not left by the publisher:

Unidentified Magna Carta in F Inscription

Unidentified Magna Carta in F Inscription

This unidentified inscription continues to confound us here at the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project. If any fellow historians out there could decipher it or provide some insight into its meaning, it would go far in adding to the great story of this great charter.

Speaking of great stories, the second Magna Carta featured in the first library catalogue dates back 1602. This version’s most prominent feature is its calfskin binding emblazoned with the initials R.B.

Magna Carta Book Cover

Magna Carta Book Cover

It is quite a remarkable coincidence that with another Magna Carta comes another set of initials beginning with R. As seen above, Richard Pynson monographed all his publications with an R.P. symbol. Redman followed suit using an R.R. symbol in the exact same style. However, since this 1602 text was printed by Englishman Thomas Wright, it is highly unlikely that the R.B. relates to the book’s publication information. According to a source uncovered by Dr. Robert Bucholz (whose own initials are also remarkably coincidental), Wright acquired a patent on common law books in 1589 and it is possible that this edition, much like Redman’s, was intended as an academic supplement. At 15 cm, it is certainly adequately sized for easy transportation, and it is also notable for the presence of underlinings and frequent annotations. So, who exactly was R.B.? Perhaps he was a lawyer or law student who once held this treasured tome in his private collection. At this stage of research, though, that answer is difficult to concretely ascertain. What is clear is that whoever R.B. was, he took great pleasure in this great book now held securely by Loyola University Chicago.

– Michael J. Albani, Provenance Project Coordinator. Featuring the much appreciated input of Dr. Robert Bucholz.

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