A copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first-ever compilation of the Bard’s plays, published in 1623, has been discovered in the library of an ancient port town in northern France.
The book was uncovered when librarian Remy Cordonnier dusted off an 18th century copy of Shakespeare’s works for an exhibition on English literature in the northern French town of Saint-Omer.
“It occurred to me that it could be an unidentified First Folio, with historic importance and great intellectual value,” he told AFP.
The book, published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, was authenticated on Saturday by First Folio expert Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada.
Rasmussen said the 233rd copy was the first new version to be unearthed in a decade.
He said the book was “immediately identifiable” as an original due to its watermarks, the paper used and the fact that errors were still present that would have been corrected in later copies.
“What is really interesting is that it clearly came from the college of Jesuits in Saint-Omer, founded in the late 16th century during Queen Elizabeth’s reign when it was illegal for Catholics to go to college,” said Rasmussen.
The book is heavily annotated, with words corrected to more modern versions and with the part of a hostess in Henry IV turned into a male part, with words such as “wench” crossed out and replaced with “fellow”.
Rasmussen highlighted the “really good survival rate” of an estimated 750 original prints of First Folio.
The massive book of 36 plays was published at a time when printed plays were not considered literature, and sold for one pound at a time when a skilled worker could perhaps hope to earn four pounds a year, said Rasmussen.
Saint-Omer library director Francoise Ducroquet said that while most First Folio copies were valued at between 2.5 and five million euros, the damaged version, which is missing an entire play, found in her library would probably be worth less.
However she said the newest discovery would be stored in the library’s safe with other precious items.
Saint-Omer is an ancient port town that bustled with economic and cultural activity in the Middle Ages. Its library has 800 important manuscripts, 230 incunabula – books printed in Europe before 1501 – as well as a Gutenberg Bible.