A bonus of our book conservation programme is the occasional rediscovery of Library treasures, and this sixteenth-century edition of the plays of Terence is a marvellous case in point. Our book, Le grant therence en francoys tant en rime que en prose, is the second airing for the more than 150 woodcut illustrations which were printed in Lyons in 1493 by Johann Trechsel, before making their way to Paris where they were re-printed by Guillaume de Bossozel in his 1539 edition of the plays.
As the title suggests, each play is printed in Latin with a French verse translation probably by Gilles Cybille and a French prose summary of each scene probably written by by Guillaume Rippe.
Whether or not each miniature stage-set represents an actual performance of the play is subject for enthusiastic scholarly debate, yet it is undeniable that these illustrations are a remarkable depiction of medieval theatre, from the courtesans plying their trade in the street outside to the cunningly depicted interior with three tiers of seats, the stage and the orchestra.
The play unfolds in the smaller blocks which show the characters on a stage with a backdrop of ‘houses’, each front door labelled with the name of one of the various characters, into which they may come and go as the story dictates.
The cuts bring the world of the Graeco/Roman comedy to life so well that, as Trechsel boasted, ‘even the illiterate can read and understand the comic argument thanks to the images that we have juxtaposed with each scene’. Certainly we did not need to brush up our Latin and French to laugh at the convoluted ins and outs of the farce: a sign of a successfully illustrated book!