Map of 16th century Europe

How Did Shakespeare’s ‘St Omer’ Folio Get To France?

In light of the recent discovery of a ‘new’ Shakespeare folio in St Omer, France, many people have been wondering just how it got there.

It’s amazing how history repeats itself – how events and processes pass into history and then come round again. The political and social theme that’s emerging in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century as the big one in the Western democracies is the movement of people. The final battle between the incumbent American president and his opponents is on this issue and the stresses that threaten the European Union have immigration at their centre.

Just as in 21st century Europe there were very porous national borders in 16th century Europe. Elizabethan England was an attractive place for people seeking work, just as 21st century England is today and migrants crossed the Channel in large numbers, just as they do today.

Map of 16th century Europe

Map of 16th century Europe

The parallels go further: for example, the attitudes of the established population of England to immigrants are similar in both time periods. Forgetting that in both cases they were, and are, all descended from immigrants the English were and are uncomfortable about the economic and workplace implications of net immigration. In both cases the people were at odds with their governments. In modern Britain the government encourages immigrants who have the skills that can make a strong contribution to the national economy. Queen Elizabeth’s government had exactly the same policy. At the same time, English migrants move from England to live and work in other European countries just as they have always done.

Given the fluidity of people across Europe in the 16th century it should not seem so surprising that the 233rd known Shakespeare first folio was discovered not in London, Stratford or elsewhere in the UK, but in northern France.

The place is significant as St Omer is close the Calais, the main crossing place from France to England. The scholars who have been considering this find have lost no time in going about the scholarly business of speculating as to how the book came to be in St Omer. The librarians called in a remounted folio expert, one Mr. Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno. The book is part of a collection inherited from a long dissolved Jesuit training college. Mr Rasmussen thinks that its location may tell us something about Shakespeare’s religious affiliations – that perhaps he was a secret Catholic. Rasmussen has made that connection for some reason, possibly because it would make a nice addition to the ‘evidence’ for that. But he is moderate about it. The discovery of the folio in St.-Omer provides a bit more ballast, he said, if hardly a smoking gun.

It may simply be that a traveler stayed the night at the Jesuit college and left the book there by mistake, as people do, or that a teacher from England worked and died there and his books were just collected up and left in a loft for a few centuries, or a college librarian or teacher bought a copy while visiting England. With such a volume of traffic anything could have brought the book to St Omer. It could have nothing to do with anything Shakespeare did.

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