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Changing the Face of Special Collections
by Melissa Van Vuuren


One of the newest acquisitions in Carrier Library’s Special Collections is a 1586 edition of Nicholas Sander’s De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani.  This Latin text, first published in Rheims in 1585, (with the translated title of On the Origin and Progress of the Anglican Schism), is considered Sander’s most influential work, according to Mark Rankin, Assistant Professor of English, who requested the book’s purchase.  Special Collections Librarian Tracy Harter commented, “I’m thrilled that we may house it in Special Collections and that it can be used to support the curriculum.”

Image of the book De origine ac progressu schismatic Anglicani
De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani


An Early Modern Artifact

According to Rankin, Sanders (c. 1530-1581) “was notorious for his support of the attempted overthrow of the English government by a foreign Catholic power during the 1570s and 1580s.”

Following its first publication, the text was widely reprinted and significantly expanded in subsequent Latin editions in 1586 in Rome and Ingolstadt, 1587 and 1588 in Ingolstadt, and 1610 and 1628 in Cologne.  Additional copies of the 1586 edition housed in JMU Special Collections are also located in select university and research libraries around the world, including Stanford, Cambridge, Yale, and Notre Dame. 


De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani “represents the first published account of Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome written by an English Catholic writer,” says Rankin.  Books such as De origine are valuable not only for their intellectual contents but also as artifacts of a particular time and place in history.  For Rankin, the book sheds light on “how Elizabethan writers conceived of their past” as a means to “make sense of the challenges facing their present,” the history of reading, and the makeup of Elizabethan intellectual circles. 


The book is all the more important for JMU scholars because it is not included in major Medieval and Renaissance resources such as Early English Books Online, Pollard and Redgrave’s A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640, or the English Short-Title Catalogue. Possessing this edition of De origine in Special Collections provides students with new opportunities for original scholarship and research projects.  As Rankin says, it “affords students an opportunity to get beyond modern, edited editions and wrestle themselves with the challenging and compelling issues that underlie literary, historical, and humanistic studies.”

Title page from De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani
De Origine's title page

Shifting Collection Priorities

Special Collections contains some of the more unique and valuable pieces in the library, such as manuscript and archive collections, photographs, scrapbooks, ledgers, oral histories, and a select number of rare books and periodicals.  Many of these primary source materials document the history of James Madison University and the central Shenandoah Valley, and are used to support the JMU curriculum and the wider community of scholars. 


De origine is an indicator of increasing interest in Special Collections for curricular use.  While certain classes have consistently used Special Collections materials to complete assignments, particularly History classes using documents on local history, the collection has seen increased use in recent semesters.


Harter said, “Special Collections hasn’t typically been considered an active or accessible place.  A lot of faculty and students are beginning to realize that they can come up here and actually use the collection.”  Acquiring books such as De origine will help to broaden the focus and heighten the visibility of Special Collections.


Besides De origine’s impact on student learning at JMU, Harter notes that this acquisition has helped her “to redefine, or revisit, what our criteria are” for the Special Collections.  “It’s made me think differently.”  Harter hopes “to see this as part of a larger effort to be more receptive to faculty who have an interest in Special Collections as it supports the curriculum.”


Rankin says, “I envision this collection as containing interesting books that can be used to reveal and rediscover the intellectual ferment and controversy of the age.  I think that too often students can be lulled into believing that nothing older than living memory can be of sustainable interest. Disabusing them of this misconception is where a collection of rare books and manuscripts in Medieval and Renaissance studies can do really productive work.”        


For Rankin, “the chief importance of Medieval and Renaissance studies is to comprehend the origins of our own beliefs and values as a society and to understand how this era of the past is both astonishingly similar as well as remarkably foreign to our own.”


The purchase of De origine began with discussions regarding developing a collection of 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century texts to support the new Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor.  Such a collection would enable students to have hands-on experience learning about print culture, intellectual history, and the history of the book. Rankin and Special Collections Librarian Harter hope that De origine could serve as the cornerstone of a collection of rare books pertaining to Medieval and Renaissance studies.

To find out more about Special Collections, see their web site, or contact Tracy Harter at harterts@jmu.edu. For more information on how you can support Special Collections, contact Reba Leiding at leidinrm@jmu.edu.


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