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Norwich Cathedral Library to celebrate oldest book’s 550th birthday

Norwich Cathedral Library's oldest book

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More than 8,000 historic books fill the shelves of Norwich Cathedral’s library, and next month its oldest printed book will be celebrating its 550th year with a very special tea party.

Gudrun Warren, the Cathedral’s librarian, is holding the tea party on Friday 2 February, just ahead of the landmark birthday of the Cathedral’s copy of Lactantius’s Divine institutes which was printed in Rome back in 1474.

“We often mention the oldest book in the library, so its 550th anniversary seems a perfect opportunity to look at the book in a bit more detailWe know the printing was completed on 12 February 1474 (Old Style calendar), hence why we are having the party in February.” said Gudrun.

The tea party – which will include a short talk about the book and its context – is open to all and will take place in the library on Friday 2 February from 2.30pm until 4pm.

People will be given the chance to find out more about the centuries-old text which was written by Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius who lived from about 250 AD to about 325 AD.

Gudrun said: “Lactantius was born in Africa and became a teacher of rhetoric, working for the Emperor Diocletian and later Emperor Constantine. Under Diocletian, Christians faced persecution and in the light of this Lactantius wrote a defence of Christianity called Divinae institutiones, or Divine institutes. Lactantius was greatly admired in the Renaissance for his classical style of writing, being known as the “Christian Cicero”. This popularity explains why his work is represented among the earliest Italian printed books.”

The book – which is written in Latin with occasional Greek references – comprises 258 leaves of paper and gives some insight into printing trends from its time.

Gudrun said: “The first letter of sections is omitted from the printing; it was expected that these letters would be supplied by a calligrapher or illuminator either simply in a different colour, or more extensively as a decorated initial. This was not done professionally in our copy, although an owner has written in most of the initials otherwise lacking.”

The book includes handwritten annotations by at least two of its readers over the centuries, but how the book came to the Cathedral library remains something of a mystery.

Gudrun said: “We don’t know when or how the book came to the Cathedral but it appears in our oldest printed library catalogue, dated 1819. This may tally with the age of its current binding, which is probably early 19th century; the binding bears a gilt-embossed stamp of the Cathedral badge.”

The 19th century binding is currently in need of restoration and this work will be undertaken later this year.

In addition to the tea party, there are also plans for more events to mark the book’s 550th birthday and they will be announced at a later date.

The tea party is open to all and will take place in the Cathedral library on Friday 2 February from 2.30pm until 4pm. If you would like to attend, please contact the Cathedral library by calling 01603 218443 or emailing