I first came across Arthur the Theologian, while assisted by a Boston College student, I completed spring cleaning in the Conservation Lab at the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections. In a drawer we found a piece of mat board with a yellow post-it note attached to it. A tiny, brownish-colored worm was encapsulated with adhesive tape onto the post-it note. Beneath the encased body is hand-written “Arthur the Theologian”, followed by this brief biography, “Life: ate through a 1582 edition of the New Testament. Died sad death in index, (probably not of starvation), just 3 pages from the end”. I felt that this humorous bit of archival information warranted further investigation.
Starting with the remains of Arthur, a closer study revealed that this was not a dead worm, but rather a molted exoskeleton left from an early nymph stage by a Lepisma saccharina, the insect commonly known as a silverfish. So Arthur had not died a sad death, but had experienced a growth spurt, likely aided by his diet of hand-made flax paper from the New Testament. The presence of the molted exoskeleton made me to want to look at that edition of the New Testament. Would there be evidence of Arthur’s consumption on this early printed volume, indeed, had the book even remained intact? A check in the Boston College University Libraries’ online catalog showed that a 1582 edition of the New Testament is still held in the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections.
Armed with the call number I headed for the O’Brien Fine Print Room, where books printed by notable and historic printers are kept. There I easily found the New Testament on a shelf adjacent to other finely printed books on religion. Taking the book off the shelf, I noted that it does have some minor paper losses and that they are typical of the feeding pattern of the Lepisma saccharina, so Arthur left a visible legacy. The volume was not destroyed; it had been carefully stabilized more than twenty years ago in the conservation lab by Chela Metzger, then an intern working with Marilyn Heskett, Book Conservator at the time. Both Metzger and Heskett were trained in book conservation at my alma mater, the North Bennet Street School in Boston’s North End. Chela currently is the Conservator of Library Collections at the University of Delaware and Marilyn retired from Boston College some years ago.
Now that I had the 1582 New Testament in hand, I couldn’t resist learning more about its history. It turns out that Arthur, although technically not a theologian, i.e. a person versed in theology—the study of divine things or religious truth—had led me to a very important Catholic New Testament. This version of the New Testament, the first printed in Modern English, was translated from the Vulgate in 1582 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by English exiles in France. Gregory Martin was the translator and was assisted by editors William Allen and Richard Bristow at the English College of Rheims. The 1582 New Testament together with the Old Testament, also translated and edited by this team of English Catholic exiles, has become known as the Douai Bible. I had heard of this version of the Bible, but had never before held a copy of the first edition in my hands. It is during moments like this that I am reminded that I have an out-of-the-ordinary job.
In my work as conservator I have had the privilege of working in institutions with significant historic collections: at Harvard’s Baker Library I worked on European imprints from the 17th and 18th centuries; and, at the Boston Athenaeum, books owned by George Washington and General Knox were among the volumes that I repaired. Now that I am at Boston College, I encounter much earlier important books, such as Books of Hours and the Jesuitica collection; as an added bonus, many of the books serve to help me continue to learn about my Catholic faith. In the course of my daily job I come across amazing archival materials, not always because I know to find them, but because I am: responding to a question posed by a curious student; assisting a faculty member with books to be exhibited; preparing books to be digitized; collaborating with a library colleague; or coming upon, by chance, a fascinating lead, such as the short biography of Arthur the Theologian.
- Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns Library