The newly discovered leaf is one of just two surviving fragments from this medieval handbook; the other, which consists of eight double-sided leaves, is housed in the British Library in London. Delbecque says that the leaf “had previously been pasted into another book for the undignified purpose of reinforcing its spine,” according to the press release. A librarian at the University of Cambridge rescued the leaf from its ignoble fate in 1820, but did not seem to have realized that the text was a Caxton original.
The University of Reading unwittingly purchased the leaf in 1997, when the institution acquired a vast collection that belonged to the late typographer John Lewis. For 20 years, the Sarum Ordinal leaf sat, unnoticed, in a box filled with thousands of items—until Delbecque’s keen eye recognized the text as a bona fide historical treasure.
“It is incredibly rare to find an unknown Caxton leaf,” Delbecque says, “and astonishing that it has been under our noses for so long.”
After decades spent in obscurity, the pages are getting some time in the spotlight. They will be displayed in the University of Reading’s special collections department until May 30.