New Brunswick's 300-year-old books have some spicy stories to tell

The book of Common Prayer, looking every one of its 350 or so years, is the oldest book in the New Brunswick Archives. (New Brunswick Archives - image credit)
The book of Common Prayer, looking every one of its 350 or so years, is the oldest book in the New Brunswick Archives. (New Brunswick Archives - image credit)

They're faded, yellowed, wrinkled and worn, but don't let that fool you.

The oldest books in the New Brunswick Archives have stories to tell, stories of chair throwing and controversy, of history and histrionics.

You just have to know how to find them.

Josh Green, the archives' acting media unit manager, spends much of his time doing just that, researching the books' history and following the trail of their ownership.

In a recent interview with Shift NB, Green told the stories of two of the oldest books in the archives' library and how they caused an uproar in their day, hundreds of years ago.

The oldest book, The Book of Common Prayer, dates back to between 1660 and 1683, putting it at about 350 years old, give or take a few years.

New Brunswick Archives
New Brunswick Archives

"Just in one century, this book caused a lot of row," Green said, noting that slight variations in the text of the book from decade to decade "caused or nearly caused a number of wars."

Several decades before the version now held in the archives was printed, King Charles tried to impose the prayer book in Scotland, which didn't go over well with his Scottish subjects.

"In fact, there was a riot and there were engravings showing people throwing chairs at the priests and so on," Green said.

After Charles the First lost his head, the book went out of use or was banned, until King Charles ll brought it back, using the version now in the archives.

"But the controversy didn't end," Green noted.

"Throughout the rest of the 17th century, there was trouble with everyone in England ... and Scotland looking out for anything that looked particularly Catholic. So if they interpreted any changes in their prayer book to be overly Catholic, then it would cause trouble and there'd be more chair throwing."

New Brunswick Archives
New Brunswick Archives

Green said it isn't known who owned the book originally, but whoever owned it made "little notations in it that give clues, and it seemed like it was used over possibly quite a long time period."

There book contains prayers for the Queen and Prince Charles – "the owner of the book has crossed it out and written in Duke of York, which is spelled Duck of York," Green said – and its margins are littered with little notes and "a lot of little hands pointing with the fingers guns" to favourite passages.

Considering the inflammatory times it lived through, the book has held up remarkably well. As has the second-oldest book in the archives' collection.

Samuel Clarke's The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity was printed in about 1712 and contains the theologian's views on the nature of the Trinity, a topic that has been debated for some 2,000 years, Green said.

New Brunswick Archives
New Brunswick Archives

Not surprisingly, he said, "this was a controversial book when it came out."

"It caused a bit of uproar because people were saying, 'Well, I don't really like the way that you are interpreting the Bible,' essentially, or 'This doesn't seem very orthodox and it doesn't seem terribly in line with Anglican views.'"

Two years later, Clarke responded to the controversy by printing an apology, of sorts.

"And I love that he basically says 'Sorry, not sorry' at the end of it," Green said.

Clarke wrote "by that reverend body who are still offended at him if they shall think him worthy of such an honour or with any other learned persons, though they think he ought to accept such as published these advertisements about conferences which never were and triumphs which never existed, but an imagination."

In other words, Green said, "I think he's basically saying there really isn't a problem here and this isn't as provocative as you think it is."

Green will return to Shift next Monday, Nov. 29, to share stories of the third oldest book in the provincial archives, an atlas showing "the world as it was once thought to be."