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The Book of St Albans

Posted on: 22nd June 2015 By: Elizabeth Adey

The Book of St Albans is an important example of an early printed book in English. The first edition was printed in 1486 in St Albans, on what may have been the third printing press in England.   It gathers together a collection of advice on hawking, hunting and heraldry with a chapter on fishing added in 1496. Since then, it has been through many editions. The image above comes from a late 15th century copy of the book printed by Wynkyn de Worde which held by the Museum of St Albans.

The book is often credited to Dame Juliana Berners of Sopwell.  It is likely that she wrote a verse on hunting in the original version. As time progressed, she became associated with the whole book. An early 19th century reproduction of the book included a long introduction fleshing out her biographical details and providing a character sketch. 

William Burton (1575-1645), a Leicestershire historian, considered her to be Lady Julian Berners, the Prioress of the Nunnery of Sopwell near St Albans and daughter to Sir James Berners, of Berners Roding in Essex. The nunnery was built by Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham around 1140, beside the River Ver. It originated as an enclosed community of nuns under the protection and authority of the monastery. While Dame Juliana Berners’ name does not come up in the surviving lists of Prioresses of the Nunnery, it was thought to provide accommodation to learned women, who would have been given the title of ‘Dame’. 

Not only has doubt been cast over the accuracy of Dame Juliana’s family history, some historians question her very existence.  Academics and local historians continue to speculate about the Book of St Albans and her supposed authorship.  Meanwhile her name is still remembered today and has featured particularly in angling clubs named after her in the United States of America.                

To find out more about Medieval St Albans visit our free exhibition Medieval Lives and Liberties at the Town Hall which runs until 11th July 2015.