Exhibitions Update: Recusant Books at the Burns Library


The printing of books, as an art and industry, has been documented from any number of perspectives. The arduous setting of type, the business of publication and distribution, the craft of binding — these are some of the many things we consider while thinking about the history of the book. But in past centuries, when the printed page, folded, sewn, and bound, was as much a conduit for subversion as intellectual exchange, the authorship, publication, or even possession of certain books could, at times, be exceedingly dangerous. The John J. Burns Library is currently presenting an exhibit of rare books that explores just such a period in the history of England. These books, now on display in the first floor gallery, were produced during a time when clandestine presses, hidden in garrets and cellars, churned out biting works of controversy, doctrine, and impassioned apology.

The recusant exhibit includes both the New Testament (1582) and the Old Testament (1609) of the Douay/Rheims Bible -- the first Bible printed in modern English, and an extraordinarily important book.

The recusant exhibit includes both the New Testament (1582) and the Old Testament (1609) of the Douay/Rheims Bible — the first Bible printed in modern English, and an extraordinarily important book.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the political fallout from the Reformation was tearing Europe asunder, as the opposing ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism were used by rival empires, countries, and families to make war on one another. In this context, church and state were often inseparable, and rejecting the religion of one’s king or queen was commonly seen as a subversive attack on the legitimacy of one’s national government. This was particularly true in England, where the monarch was the head of both the Anglican Church and the secular state. Thus English Catholics, who eschewed Anglican communion and recognized the Pope as their spiritual leader, were seen as adherents to a foreign power, and were frequently accused of treason. Beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I and extending for nearly a century, English Catholics were required to attend Anglican masses or risk a series of penalties ranging from fines to confiscation of property to imprisonment. Those Catholics who refused to comply were known as recusants (from the Latin recusare: to refuse).

This exhibit explores the printed output of the recusant era, and features books that typify many of the important facets in the intellectual sphere of recusant life. A number of the titles on display were printed on the presses of Catholic colleges for English exiles, which sprang up in places like Duoay, Rouen, and Rome. The so-called “controversial” works of the era, which belong to a literary genre defined by strident advocacy and acrimonious dispute are also well represented, their title pages giving evidence to a bitter conflict carried out through print. In addition, the exhibit highlights the biographical details of prominent figures like Reginald Pole, the influential English Cardinal; Robert Parsons, the controversial Jesuit leader and intellectual; Saint Edmund Campion, the clandestine missionary and martyr, and many others.

Through this exhibit the curators sought to represent the recusant period not only via the frictions between Catholic and Protestant, but also through the international political tensions of the era and the power struggles within the recusant community itself, with an emphasis on the consequences of an intolerance espoused by all sides in this complicated conflict over religious doctrine.

If you can’t visit the exhibit this summer, then be sure to take a look at this Flickr set, which features photographs of the books in this exhibit.  If you would like to learn more about this exhibit or about our fine collection of recusant and recusant-related literature, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Jay Moschella, Senior Special Collections Cataloging Assistant, John J. Burns Library
One of the display cases showing a set of books printed at the English recusant colleges in Douay, St. Omer, and Rouen. (photo: Kevin Tringale)

(Above) A display of books printed at the English recusant colleges in Douay, St. Omer, and Rouen. (photo: Kevin Tringale)

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
Aside | This entry was posted in Exhibits & Events, Featured Collections & Books, Flickr Sets, Rare books, Staff Posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Exhibitions Update: Recusant Books at the Burns Library

  1. I only wish I could step through a doorway and suddenly appear in Cambridge so I could visit this exhibition. Burgess Needle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s