Annals of the Bodleian Library

I recently smooth-read Annals of the Bodleian Library. I was a bit familiar with the holdings of the Bodleian Library, because they have one of the very best collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world. So when a book that seemed to be describing the holdings of the Bodleian entered the Smooth-Reading Pool, I thought I’d take a look.

I learned many things about the library. First, I learned that it started out in St. Mary’s Church, in a room just 45 feet long and 20 feet wide. It was established by Bishop Thomas Cobham in 1367. I remember seeing prints of Medieval libraries, with books chained to the shelves so that they could not be removed. The Bodleian started out with chained books, too. Apparently, before 1367,

… there were indeed some books kept in chests in St. Mary’s Church, which were to be lent out under pledges, as well as some chained to desks, which were only to be read in situ; but this University chest soon gave way to the formal Library …

Many of the first books were donated by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who funded most of the building of the library and school of divinity in 1426. “… Between the years 1439 and 1446 he appears to have forwarded about 600 MSS, which were for the time deposited in chests in Cobham’s library….” Because of the generosity of Duke Humphrey, it soon became necessary to build another building, which at the time Annals was written was still the main reading room at the Bodleian. The Duke stipulated that anyone who made a donation (or at least a significant donation) was to be remembered in the prayers of the church on the anniversary of their donation; it was agreed that this would be in perpetuity.

I was shocked when I read the following:

… the Library was destroyed. For in 1550 the Commissioners deputed by Edward VI for reformation of the University visited the Libraries in the spirit of John Knox, destroying, without examination, all MSS. ornamented by illuminations or rubricated initials as being eminently Popish, and leaving the rest exposed to any chance of injury and robbery. The traditions which Wood has recorded as having been learned at the mouths of aged men who had in their turn received them from those who were contemporaneous with the Visitation, are abundantly confirmed by the well-known descriptions of Leland and Bale of what went on in other places, and therefore, although no direct documentary evidence of the proceedings of the spoilers is known to exist, we may believe that Wood’s account of pillage and waste, of MSS. burned, and sold to tailors for their measures, to bookbinders for covers, and the like, until not one remained in situ, is not a whit exaggerated. One solitary entry there is, however, in the University Register (I. fol. 157a), which, while it records the completion of the catastrophe, sufficiently thereby corroborates the story of all that preceded, viz. the entry which tells that in Convocation on Jan. 25, 1555-6, ‘electi sunt hii venerabiles viri, Vice-cancellarius et Procuratores, Magister Morwent, præses Corporis Christi, et Magister Wright, ad vendenda subsellia librorum in publica Academiæ bibliotheca, ipsius Universitatis nomine.’ The books of the ‘public’ library had all disappeared; what need then to retain the shelves and stalls, when no one thought of replacing their contents, and when the University could turn an honest penny by their sale? and so the venerabiles viri made a timber-yard of Duke Humphrey’s treasure-house….

Now I know why there are so many fragments of illuminated manuscripts floating around! I’ve often wondered why only bits and pieces of some of the most beautiful manuscripts were preserved.

And then came Mr. Thomas Bodley. He entered Magdalen College, and soon became interested in re-establishing a library. The author says,

… All around him he doubtless found traces of the recent destruction; his stationer may have sold him books bound in fragments of those MSS. for which the University but a century before had consecrated the memory of the donors in her solemn prayers; the tailor who measured him for his sad-coloured doublet, may have done it with a strip of parchment brilliant with gold, that had consequently been condemned as Popish, or covered with strange symbols of an old heathen Greek’s devising, that probably passed for magical and unlawful incantations. And the soul of the young student must have burned with shame and indignation at the apathy which had not merely tolerated this destruction by strangers, but had contentedly assisted in carrying it out to its thorough completion. Himself a successful student, he became eager to help others to whom thus the advantages of a library were denied….

Then follows the history of Mr. Bodley’s donation of the library building, and the donations of books he purchased. The Annals continue with a year-by-year listing of what the author considered to be the most important purchases and donations for each year, up through 1867. It sounds boring, I know. But, to a book-lover, it’s fascinating reading. I was intrigued to see that it wasn’t just rich people who gave donations to the libraries. It was also families whose book collections spread across generations. It was an individual who stumbled across a manuscript he felt would be of interest when shopping in a souk in Turkey. Donations came from musicians, architects, historians, and “everyday” people who knew someone who knew someone who had heard of the Bodleian Library.

At the time that this book was written, only certain people were allowed to use the books in the Bodleian. I’m curious to know if that’s still true. I know that I can research the illuminated manuscripts on-line. There are digital photos of all of them, which can be accessed from my home computer. I think Mr. Bodley would be excited and pleased about that. He knew the value and importance of books and that they be made available to a wide range of readers.

The appendices are almost as much fun as the rest of the book. They give detailed descriptions of some of the collections and how the library came to possess them.

I think this book is a valuable addition to PG. I hope you’ll set aside some time (be forewarned: it’s a long book, heavily footnoted) to do some exploring within its pages.

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