- notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, Oxford. Opinions expressed are strictly the author's own!

Author Archive

conservation survey notes 3

Today’s feature comes from MS 151 (a 13th century copy of letters by St Bernard of Clairvaux), f 161r – rubricator’s notes. At the very edge of the bottom of most pages are tiny notes. These will have been made by the scribe as he went along, to indicate the text for headings and anything else that needed to be added in red, for which he left spaces in the (black) main text.

Then he or another scribe went back through the text, adding paragraph marks, initials, headings and other decoration, usually (as here) in alternating red and blue inks. The rubrication notes were placed right on the edge of the parchment because they were always intended to be trimmed off, and they usually are – occasionally one that wasn’t quite close enough to the edge will remain, or at least the tops of the letters will, after trimming, but it’s rare to have them present, as in this one, throughout the manuscript.


Further decoration such as marginal foliage or figures, historiated initials etc, using more pigments and sometimes gold, (not present in this ms) was yet another layer of time and therefore expense in the book production process. Scribe, rubricator and limner were three distinct roles that might all be done by the same person, or by two or three different individuals.


conservation survey notes 2

Several things to say about Balliol MS 149, a 14th century collection of sermons – on f 122r, the most eye-catching feature is the big manicula, aka Nota Bene hands, used as pointers the way we might use arrows, highlighting, underlining etc. How many fingers??

The handwriting is also notable – more or less a documentary hand such as we would expect to find in charters and other administrative documents, here unusually used in a formal book context. And lots of different types of text correction: rubbing out and writing over, superscript interpolations indicated by the still-current caret ^, dotting under the word to be deleted, crossing out… why has crossing out survived and expunction (underdotting) not? More about types of errors and corrections and technical notes on same - see especially IV.vii and V.ii.


more about manuscripts

Updating our online lists of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts: the condition survey of medieval books is progressing well. Each time we finish another 50, the descriptor [good/fair/poor/unusable] is added to its list entry in square brackets, to indicate its current physical condition as assessed by Oxford Conservation Consortium staff in 2014. Those in Poor condition will not normally be produced for researchers, and those rated Unusable not produced at all, until conservation treatment has been carried out in order to prevent further damage during consultation. Poor or Unusable manuscripts may also not be fit to photograph safely, including by staff. If you do want to consult or request images from a manuscript that is not currently in a state to produce or photograph safely, please let us know – active research interest is of course a key factor in determining our conservation priorities.

This doesn’t mean that currently Poor or Unusable manuscripts will be inaccessible forevermore. The survey is being undertaken specifically to inform our decisions about what needs conservation treatment most urgently, and it stands to reason that those in the worst condition and which attract active research interest are most likely to be high on the list.

Neither does it mean that Fair or Good manuscripts can be handled with joyous abandon. (After all, they are all at least 500 years old in order to qualify for the title ‘medieval’.) Production of manuscripts is always at staff discretion, and readers are expected to arrive with good handling skills and/or be instructed in them – and put them to use!

More ‘before’ pictures of Interesting Problems in manuscripts coming shortly – and starting next year, we look forward to posting ‘after’ pictures of the ‘ex-poor’!


conservation survey notes 1

A new series of illustrated posts inspired by  interesting things encountered during the condition survey of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts - a bookworm’s-eye view of common and unusual problems and solutions, if you will. We begin with Balliol MS 156 (12 century Jerome on Isiaiah), f 2v. ??????????

At first glance the text looks rather abraded, as though it has been rubbed. But lift the page and the real problem becomes clear…


Classic iron-gall ink corrosion – the ink was made too acidic and has eaten away the parchment, leaving more or less, and in some cases letter-precisely, text-shaped holes. Fortunately, in this manuscript at least the problem does not continue past the first few folios – somebody must have made a new pot of ink with rather less acidic proportions! Also clearly visible here are several old parchment fills or repairs at the edges of the page.

report Nov 2013 – Feb 2014

A) Reader & visitor numbers by month

November: 7 researchers over 12 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), Swinburne & Clough papers, George Malcolm papers, Nicolson   diaries, Geach papers, Jenkyns paper.  70 non-research visitors.

December: 5 researchers over 6 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), George Malcolm papers. 24 non-research visitors.

January: 7 researchers over 10 days consulting Hill   papers, medieval mss (2), Nicolson diaries, David Urquhart papers, Jenkyns   papers. 11 non-research visitors.

February: 11 researchers over 18 days consulting Medieval   mss (2), RBD Morier papers,  David   Urquhart papers, Chalet papers, AL Smith papers, Jowett papers (2), Pugin   drawings, Mallet papers, Nicolson diaries, Morier family papers. 8 non-research visitors.

Researcher profiles: 30 individuals. Nearly all researchers in person are academics and grad students (mostly external to Oxford), with the occasional family historian, Old Member or independent researcher. Research visits range in length from a few hours to several days, sometimes more; most are a day or two. The length of a visit does not reflect the number of documents produced or the amount of attention/assistance required.

B) Remote enquiries

Nov: 96
Dec: 64
Jan: 86
Feb: 81
total: 327

Number of remote enquiries in 2013: 924 (avg 77/month, nearly 4 new ones every working day)

C) St Cross activities


  • Planning a set of book dummies demonstrating stages of codex construction and composition from Martlet Bookbinders (Dr Allan Barton)
  • Planning ‘Maps & Monsters’ school session with Library staff for Access Officer’s school groups
  • Temporary kitchen hoardings are looking nice with photos (by ACS and Ian Taylor) mostly of items from the college archives & captions from Dr Jones’ 750th exhibition (St Cross in Sept/Oct ‘13)


  • 7600 images posted on Flickr in response to research enquiries Nov 13 – Feb 14. 600 000+ views of individual images (cf 300K in October, 400K December, 500K January).
  • Browning letters project – meeting with project leaders from Baylor University, Waco TX; conference call with them plus head of digitising re technical matters & visit to Texas in May for Browning’s birthday-related events
  • Social media Nov-Feb:
    • Facebook: 29 posts, mostly expanded & illustrated versions of tweets. 295 total likes
    • Twitter: advertising talks/events, Movember heritage photos & quiz based on Balliol portraits (several Old Members liked this!), live tweets during NaNoWriMo sessions, images online notices, WW1 resources notices, Balliol Novelists for NaNoWriMo; 105 new, total 678 followers. I have been recommended as an innovative customer-facing tweeter! (must be a good thing…)
    • Blog: 13 new posts, avg 800 views/month, top search terms: latin grace, Balliol family, chapel stained glass, officer cadets in WW1
    • Volunteer (s) – Will Beharrell from UCL library course, 4 days moving vestry unit collections and listing Richard Hare letters. Very helpful at just the right time!


  • Medieval mss condition survey is well underway, 125+ done since January – not catalogue descriptions or adding to Mynors. This is the first survey of the mss’ physical condition in modern times. We will be able to compare this with reader and enquirer data plus teaching/exhibition requirements to determine conservation treatment priorities, and notify potential researchers in advance of the occasional temporary access restriction where necessary, for years to come.
  • Investigating possibility of test case photography of title deeds with Melissa Terras at UCL with Polynomial Texture Mapping



  • NaNoWriMo Come Write In sessions on Thursday mornings
  • biweekly meetings of medieval mystics reading group (Prof N Palmer, SEH)
  • Unlocking Archives 7 (Ian Mertling-Blake) on the Book of Kells
  • Unlocking Archives 8 (Lynda Dennison) on the Cambridge Index of Images in Oxford College Library Manuscripts
  • MSS and early print seminar for 2nd yr English students by Balliol Fellowsray
  • Adam von Trott exhibition for participants in symposium at Mansfield College

December: tour & display for Latin in Medieval Britain lexicography conference; Anna visit to Durham Cathedral Library

January: Balliol Fellow & group of MPhil students for early printed books workshop (FG)

February: Balliol Fellow and (Balliol +) students for medieval mss seminar


William Gray and his books – lecture


Dr Katherine Zieman

formerly Assistant Professor of English and Medieval Studies at Notre Dame University
will give two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Hilary term:

‘Miraculous Multitasking and Other Stories in the History of Attention’

on Thursday 20 February 2014, 5.00pm (5th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

‘William Gray and His Books’

on Thursday 13 March 2014, 5.00pm (8th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

William Gray was the single most important donor (by far) to Balliol’s 15th century library. More than half the surviving library of medieval Balliol came from Gray.

Lecture Room XXIII is underneath the Senior Common Room, near the top right corner of this map of Balliol.




reading closely

tcd1An interesting enquiry from last year, demonstrating that the internet is a brilliant research tool, but that like any source it needs careful interpretation, and that not all immediately available information is correct or complete.

The enquirer requests information on William Hussey 1867-1939, son of Thomas Hussey of Kensington, stating that the images sent with the enquiry, of a Ladies’ Challenge Cup medal,  clearly show that WH rowed for Balliol when they won that particular race in 1891.

The enquirer has probably searched for something like ‘ladies challenge cup 1891’ and found the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies’_Challenge_Plate for the Henley Regatta’s Ladies’ Challenge Plate race, won by a Balliol crew in 1891, and concluded that Hussey must have been part of this crew.

In fact the medal shows nothing of the kind, and a closer look reveals quite a different story.

First I checked whether William Hussey had indeed been a member of Balliol – the college registers are not 100% infallible, but they are pretty good. No result, so back to the medal for other clues. A little more scratching around online revealed several things that didn’t add up to support the Henley & Balliol assumption:

  • Date: Henley is always held over the first weekend in July, but 1 July 1891 was a Wednesday. (thanks Time and Date!)tcd2
  • Race name: the Ladies’ Challenge Plate race at Henley has never been known as the Ladies’ Challenge Cup – it is the only Henley trophy that isn’t the Something Cup.
  • Winner name: the LCP is an Eights race, not an individual one, so even if each member of the winning Eight had a commemorative medal, it would not be inscribed ‘won by [any single name]’. Cf. Henley commemorative medals at http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18783/lot/59/, a particularly nice find after searching for images of the LCP medals for visual comparison.
  • Double-checking with another source – even supposing everything else was somehow wrong, we have a photograph of the Balliol Eight that did win the LCP in 1891; the rowers were: Rofe, Rawstone, Darbishire, Mountmorres, Fielding, T Rogers, Farmer, F Rogers, cox Craig-Sellar. Not surprisingly, no Hussey.

So if it was not at all connected with the Henley Royal Regatta or Balliol’s win there in 1891, what is this medal? Balliol-based evidence stops here, but ‘we have no further information about this’ seemed a bit abrupt when most of what I had already found out was from non-Balliol sources anyway. Besides, by this time I wanted an answer to the puzzle, if I could find one!

Look at it again – the intertwined letters on the medal look like T C D, in a distinctively Irish style, and Trinity College Dublin’s Regatta does include a Ladies’ Challenge Cup race. But to check up further, one might try looking at the club’s own site: http://www.tcdlife.ie/clubs/boat/archive.php. The answer is probably in Raymond Blake’s book, In Black and White: A History of Rowing at Trinity
College Dublin
. My research ends here; I can’t spend any more time on this enquiry, and the answer won’t add to knowledge of the Balliol archives.

And there are still questions: why should the medal read TCD when TCD’s boat club has been known as the Dublin University Boat Club since 1847? Is the DUBC (TCD) Ladies’ Challenge Cup race rowed by singles or eights? Is there any evidence at all that this is a rowing medal?

It’s rare that answers to archival enquiries are either complete or absolute – often, the best we can hope for is to add another interesting piece to the puzzle, or point in another direction.

MSt Session on Early Printed Books


Post by Rachel McDonald, Assistant Librarian

On Tuesday, Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church hosted a session on early printed books for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in English Literature 1550-1700, specifically the course on ‘Bibliography, Theories of Text, History of the Book, Manuscript Studies’.  The session was led by Dr Adam Smyth and the books on display were chosen for the manuscript interventions that they contain, which evidence readers’ interaction with the texts and the actual physical books.  They included:

  • A 1633 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (also containing The Defence of Poesie and Astrophel and Stella), with scraps of manuscript music in the binding and an ink geometrical diagram on the front free endleaf;
  • Margaret Cavendish’s Poems, and Phancies (1664) with four lines of verse in ink on the inside upper board;
  • A volume from the extensive tract collection of Nicholas Crouch (student and fellow of the College, 1634-1690) containing pamphlets on natural wonders such as floods and earthquakes, alongside pamphlets detailing murders and other news items!

manuscript annotation in Balliol’s copy of Margaret Cavendish’s poems, as above.

As well as supporting the students’ studies in a very obvious and tangible way – yes, the students were allowed to handle the books! – the session provided them with an insight into the practicalities of academic research in this field.  Like some of the items on display, there is much early printed material in college libraries that is uncatalogued or, at the very best, under-catalogued.  Fiona (Acting Librarian) encouraged the students to take advantage of the expertise and knowledge of College Librarians, and warned against relying on SOLO for a definitive answer to all college collection enquiries.

what’s all this then?


St Cross does not look quite its usual serene self at the moment; the aforementioned kitchen refit on the Broad Street site has precipitated a move of several hundred boxes of modern personal papers from the recently-encroached-upon Music Room to St Cross. Above, the first tranche of Broad Street arrivals, plus 250 brand new archive boxes.


Several collections housed in the non-archival standard cardboard boxes shown here were moved out of the vestry repository to make way for the Broad St influx, and are being transferred to archival boxes before moving back into another repository. This is because the old boxes are 1) nowhere near acceptable quality for permanent storage of archival collections, 2) large and therefore too heavy to move safely when full, particularly if stored at floor level or at any height requiring a step or ladder and 3) prone to handles falling off and/or bottoms falling out, a major preservation and handling hazard!

The orderliness is deceptive – that’s about 70 big boxes tidily stacked in the chancel, the contents of which will occupy at least 200 green boxes.

Copy of DSCN1173

Happily this time, this photo is also spatially deceptive – this little repository unit, which has just been emptied of what’s now waiting in the chancel, will hold nearly 800 green boxes. By next week it will be full again.

Copy of DSCN1174

I have had invaluable help with all this adjusting shelving, reboxing and putting away for a few days in the last couple of weeks from Will Beharrell, formerly a successor of Fiona’s as graduate trainee in the Codrington Library at All Souls’ and now a librarianship student at UCL, whom I thank very much for this work and his excellent start on a list of Richard Hare’s correspondence.  However, there is a lot more to come, and until it’s all squared away I won’t be getting much else done, because the boxes need to be shelved in the repository so they are secure and easy to produce, and they cannot just sit around occupying the nave and chancel when readers and other visitors need the space and a good atmosphere to work in.

The Unlocking Archives series of talks on interesting discoveries in Balliol’s special collections will run again this year, starting next month!

new year, new kitchen

2014 sees a complete refit of the kitchens under Balliol Hall. The kitchens serve hundreds of meals a day, and not only during term time but for staff and Fellows all year round and for conferences and outside catering much of the year as well. Balliol has very good food! but the kitchens badly needed updating. So for most of this year, all Balliol catering will be produced from a temporary kitchen in the Garden Quad. This necessary addition is in itself a bit of a blot on the landscape of Balliol’s green and pleasant pocket-handkerchief, so Balliol took inspiration from New College’s cunning disguise of its temporary kitchen (and dining facility) from last year, plus the lovely special collections features on the hoardings still up around the New Bod (OK, Weston Library) construction site, and has mounted a display of images and captions from Balliol’s history, drawn from last year’s 750th anniversary exhibition.

Copy of DSCN1175

First, an unusual view of the dorse of Dervorguilla de Balliol’s personal seal, rather than the more often seen face featuring her portrait. The side shown is the first known use of the Balliol shield as we know it today, the Galloway lion and the Balliol orle.

Copy of DSCN1176

Next come documents from the first century of Balliol history, a medieval donor portrait in stained glass from the chapel and an image from one of the manuscripts copied and decorated for the college’s 15th century Old Member and benefactor (particularly of the library!), William Grey, later Bishop of Ely.

Copy of DSCN1178

A good range of media is represented – works of art on paper, oil paintings, handwritten documents of various kinds on parchment and paper, coins, silver vessels, photographs, books… I hope the plague letter in the middle of the photo above is going to acquire a caption at some point – written in English by Thomas Sackville, first Baron Buckhurst and first earl of Dorset (c.1536–1608),
the Lord Treasurer and Chancellor of the University, and dated 29 August 1604, it warns the college, which has decamped to property it owns in Woodstock to escape an outbreak of plague in the city of Oxford, to keep within the boundaries of its own property and not to go anywhere near the royal court, which is also staying in Woodstock.

Copy of DSCN1179

There is a long break in the pictures for the rather interesting decades between 1892 and 1933, but perhaps the door in this blank space is symbolic – with WW1 commemorations beginning this year, we will be investigating the history of those decades from many angles and in a lot of detail elsewhere! (here on the blog for instance)

Copy of DSCN1180

So far the pictures extend to the 1980s – will images from the most recent 30 of Balliol’s 750 years appear around the next corner? stay tuned…

remote enquiries 2013

Today, to use a seasonally inappropriate phrase, I’ve been making a list and checking it twice, and according to said list I received 871 enquiries last year. That’s remote enquiries (some college, mostly external) each requiring some individual research/checking and a substantive reply, not including simple requests for appointments or reprographics, nor including researchers in person at St Cross. Average 72/month – quietest month September with 51 (when we were closed to researchers but open to the public for much of the month), busiest November with 96. When I started in this post 9 years ago the average was 35/month.

old books, new year


An important new project has started at St Cross: the conservators at OCC just down the road are undertaking a full condition survey of Balliol’s medieval books. This is not about adding to Mynors’ or others’ catalogue descriptions of the books or their texts, but rather it’s the first survey of the mss’ physical condition in modern times. Through similar projects for several other Oxford college collections, OCC has developed a comprehensive template for noting practically anything that can go wrong with a book, from binding details and ink or pigment corrosion to old repairs or infestations. By comparing this with reader and enquirer data plus teaching/exhibition requirements we will be able to determine conservation treatment priorities for years to come. Some of the manuscripts may not be in a safe condition to produce without conservation repairs, so the survey will also make it possible to alert potential researchers of any such temporary access restrictions further in advance. We expect the survey to occupy an average of half a day per week of a conservator’s time for much of this calendar year

Above, a conservator examines the main text and several marginal inscriptions of different later dates to check for flaking ink or pigments. At the same time she is giving a master class about her observations to library staff and a visiting UCL LIS student.

Update mid-February 2014: We have already completed nearly 10% of the survey. For the most part, the archivist and library staff are taking it in turns to carry out data entry (into a sortable, searchable database version of the conservators’ detailed and comprehensive survey template) while a conservator examines and comments on each manuscript. This speeds up the process considerably and maximizes the conservators’ valuable time for MS examination rather than paperwork. Meanwhile all concerned are learning huge amounts about medieval manuscript structure and production, the (often painful) history of book repair or ‘repair’, the particular features of Balliol’s individual manuscripts and the relationships between and among groups of books in the collection as a whole. We will be posting some photos of weird and wonderful features we find!

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

novelists in the archives

This morning saw the last of four Thursday morning Come Write In sessions for NaNoWriMo – (inter)National Novel Writing Month. Over the four mornings, we’ve had an average of 4 (out of a possible 7) novelists – 9 different people -  come for 3 hours each time, 10-1 more or less, and bash out an average of a couple of thousand words each per session. Now that’s productive! I haven’t been writing a novel but doing various regular work tasks, from filing to photography, and it’s been encouraging to me to have other people beavering away at their own work here without needing to ask me questions or request their next box of material, as researchers necessarily do.

The event was advertised through NaNo channels – the local Oxfordshire NaNo Facebook group and the Oxfordshire forum on NanoWriMo.org. It was open to any member of those forums, but because there is a limited number of seats in the reading room, I asked participants to sign up in advance so that we weren’t oversubscribed. I used Twitter to live tweet during the sessions and report the total word count by the participating novelists in each session, mentioning @OxonWrimos and using hashtags #NaNoWriMo and #ComeWriteIn for each tweet.

Everyone has been struck by the atmosphere of St Cross – the combination of ecclesiastical and bibliothecarial architecture and furnishings seem to inspire both calm and industry. And since the under-floor heating is working much more effectively than it did last winter, nobody has frozen to death either! All in all, a good place to work. This is good news – NaNoWriMo was a test case, so more similarly structured writing sessions on other themes will be coming up in the new year.

At today’s session, one of the participants had some research questions about ancient books. I’m posting the answers here – but without any clues about their connection to what will happen in the novel. We’ll all have to wait to find out… But to make an educated guess, you could read the first two books in the series, Paradox Child and  Therianthropy - I’ll post a link to the third one when it appears. I look forward to seeing St Cross in print!

1. medieval herbals and recipe books:

  • Balliol College MS 367, a thousand-year-old antidotarium, or book of medicinal recipes
  • Balliol College MS 329 C15 copy of anonymous texts ‘On the Virtues of Herbs’ and ‘Book of Remedies’, both in Middle English. Images & transcriptions of recipes for: Dragannes, Lavender, Mint, below
  • Leiden, University Library MS VLQ 9, Pseudo Apuleius, Herbarium (early medieval)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library images from 3 11th and 12th century herbals

2. medieval monstrous races:

  • the Map Psalter, British Library MS Add.28681 f.9
  • cf the world map, celestial map and barely-visible drawings of monstrous races on ff. 68r ff. of Montserrat, Abbey Library MS 1, the Llibre Vermell (Red Book) of Montserrat
  • British Library’s Medieval Monsters page
  • and a few printed books:
    • Alixe Bovey’s Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts
    • Elizabeth Morrison’s Beasts Factual and Fantastic
    • John Block Friedman’s The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought

3. herbal recipes and remedies: details from Balliol MS 329


Dragancia: Dragancia ys an erbe th[a]t me clepyth Dragannce Addyrworte or cerpentyne The v[er]tu of this erbe ys [an = if] he be stampyd and dro- nke w[th] wyne he puttuth a wey all man[ner] ?vermis Also it helyth akyng of erys an they be a noyntyd th[er] w[ith] Also yf the powdyr be blowe in to a mannys nose it clansyth the nose and kepyth it from renyng Also it woll dystroye the gowte the cankyr and the festryng of gowtys wounds and he muste be gathryd in the monythys if June and July

Lavandula-MS329-f018v Lavender: Lavandula ys an erbe th[at] me clepyth lavandyr The vertu of this erbe ys yf he be ?soode in wat[er] and then drynke th[at] wat[er] and it ys good to hele the palsseye this er- be ys hot and dryeMenta-MS329-f021r

Mint: Menta ys an erbe th[at] me clepyth mynte The v[er]tu of this er- be ys yf he be ete it woll sle wormys in a mannys wo- mbe Also yf a man have eny botchys or bylys or swellyng th[at] rennyth in a mannys hed take this erbe and stampe it and ley it to the sore and it woll make it hole Also yf a manys tehe stynke sethe it with wyne and eysell and with the lyquor wesche the tethe ther with and then take the powdyr of it and robbe the tethe there with harde and thu schalt have a swete mowthe Also it ys good for swace and to make a man to have good appetyte Also when ther schall eny medsyne be geve to dystroy ve- [rmis?] it ys good to geve it with the juse of this erbe for he h- athe v[er]tu to dystroy ve[?rmis] Abd tger ys many p[ro]o[er]cys of it for it ys gote and drye

special collections study session

Copy of DSCN9107

setting up at the medieval books end


setting up at the early printed end

 Today saw another group of Balliol undergraduates – second-year English students this time – visiting St Cross for an introduction to medieval and early printed books. A selection of manuscript and printed books was on display, and library staff and tutors collaborated on teaching two 45-min sessions, with the students swapping ‘stations’ halfway through. I was talking the whole time, so didn’t get any photos of students engaging with manuscripts – and I would have liked to hear the EPBs presentation! The students were able to see early editions of texts they are studying this term, and although Balliol’s medieval books don’t run much to literary works, they will be following up this more general introduction to handling, navigating and using medieval books with a visit to the Bodleian next week, where they will be able to see manuscripts of texts they know.

Copy of ms-348

MS 348 – pocket-size Bible, demonstrating VERY tiny writing and painted initials

Outline of introduction to medieval book production

Preparing to write

  • Making parchment
  • Assembling pages: bifolium, quire/gathering, collation, hair/flesh sides

Copy of mss-264

MS 264 – particularly good catchword, more or less engulfed in a dragon doodle

Tools & Materials

  • Parchment/vellum
  • Quill pen
  • Paper
  • Inks
  • Paints
  • Gold leaf
  • ink horns, knife, book stand, pounce (pumice), awl, ruler, dry point


MS 228 – showing pricking, ruling, inkwork capitals, alternating red & blue initials


  • Page sequence
  • Scribal error
  • Types of correction
  • Palaeography
  • Abbreviations
  • Rubrics, leaving space for initials/diagrams
  • Scribe vs limner
  • Book curses, provenance notes, scribal colophons, University Chest pawn notes

Copy of DSCN9110

MS 93 – marginal drawing


  • navigation: pagination/foliation, contents list, index
  • gloss/commentary/interlinear notes/annotations/marginalia
  • index, headings, rubrics, mnemonic annotations/symbols/figures, manicula, catchwords

Copy of mss-235MS 235 – diagrams within & related to text, incorporating drollery/grotesque figures


  • Penwork: initials, doodles, calligraphic figures & faces
  • unfinished decoration
  • illuminated initial
  • historiated initial
  • miniature
  • diagrams
  • marginal images & relationship to text

Copy of DSCN9108

MS 81 – unfinished border decoration showing planning stages, space left blank for initial; bas-de-page dragon added later


  • structure
  • pastedowns & flyleaves
  • security – clasps, chains

Copy of DSCN9111

MS 301, showing vandalism, painted border, later index, main text with surrounding gloss

Now that we’ve had a successful first go with enthusiastic participation and lots of questions from students, plans are already in train for some good props for looking at early binding structures and techniques, as well as an online overview of medieval book production basics with lots of illustrations from Balliol’s collections. There are already several good online guides to the topic, but drawing illustrations together from widely dispersed digital collections is not always easy, so we’ll play to our strengths. Link will be posted here when it’s ready.

Some sources & further reading:

General introductions to medieval books’ production, construction, use

Specialist blogs & sites

Introductions to archival research:

More about Balliol’s special collections:

Copy of DSCN9117

a few printed resources for manuscript studies

Medieval books on display:

Guest post – Farewell to the Library chairs

Welcome to our second guest poster, Mary Addison!

This post was originally published by Mary Addison on 16 November 2013 at http://www.addisonembroideryatthevicarage.co.uk/2013/11/16/farewell-to-the-library-chairs/, and is reposted here with the author’s kind permission.


Balliol library Chair 1950?-2013.

An Oxford college library is a wonderful place to work in but has lots of potential for distracting staff away from library housekeeping. Not only are the books an ever present source of temptation but the buildings and fittings themselves constantly vie to catch your attention – from the acanthus leaves carved into the top of oak bookcases (James Wyatt 1791-4), the ceiling bosses (also late C18th and including simple circlets of leaves, a green man and an ourobouros – the coiled self-devouring serpent ) to the bits of medieval stained glass which, in Balliol Library, include the earliest representation of the coat of arms now universally recognised as that of the university itself.


Balliol College Library: Photograph of 1962 of the New Library (now known as the Reading Room)

The Arts and Crafts style oak chairs, a variant on the Windsor chair, were also a striking presence.  Over the years broken spindles and legs have been repaired by the college workshop and until recently there always seemed to be enough spare parts. Over the last year, however, it had become increasingly apparent that new chairs were needed … and imminently.


Balliol College Library: old library chair with cushions

A supplier and style of chairs were chosen – an arcane process done behind closed doors and probably involving smoke, mirrors, hot towels, and baton changes as the Librarian, rather like Dr Who, went through several manifestations (Librarian/Acting Librarian/Librarian/Acting Librarian covering for the Librarian on maternity leave – all within 6 months). Surprisingly quickly a prototype appeared and took its place in the library accompanied by a box for comments.


Balliol College Library: The Old Library with the new chair (2013)

At first, armed with my dislike of the idea of change, I  thought there was too much of the G-Plan domestic dining room chair of the 60s about them but closer inspection revealed they were sturdy with well-made joints, very generously sized, had comfortable seats and back rests in well padded leather. They were quite – but not too – heavy, so no rocking  back on the 2 back legs with these chairs.


Balliol College Library: the Reading Room with the old chairs


Balliol College Library: the Reading Room with the new chairs

I dreaded the changeover. I had loved the old style chairs which brought with them a whiff of the country house style of the early 1930s. On the day of the swop over, those of us not involved in the logistics of chair moving kept to our lower library lair and out of the way as an enfilade of the old chairs were marched through the middle of our office on their way to temporary storage in the annexe.


Balliol College Library: the Old Library with the old chair


Balliol College Library: the Old Library with the new chair

The new chairs came in 3 lots and after the first batch were in place in the Old Library (1791 but in part going back to early C15) I emerged with some trepidation and a slightly heavy heart to survey the new character of the library. But the funny thing was, although my critical faculties were poised for attack and my aesthetic sensibilities were ready to take a bruising, the library looked little different from before. Excellent.


Balliol College Library: 1928 design

The practical advantages also became apparent very quickly.  While the old chairs were mainly loved for their looks, the increased comfort of the new chairs wheedled its way into the students’ hearts. Indeed,  suddenly people remembered how the the spindles on the back of the old chairs were a torment and how the oak seat, though hollowed out in an attempt at bottom friendliness, needed more than one of the custom-made cushions which albeit in plentiful supply had got thinner and thinner with age. Now, girls (usually) could be seen working with their legs tucked up into the chair and one or two people even fell asleep with head lolling on the back rest (as opposed to slumped on the table in front).  (Were they too comfortable?) Bags could be hooked more easily over the back of the chair which should help keep the floor free of at least some personal belongings. From our point of view each chair occupied a smaller floor area and the arms slipped under more of the desks and tables; even shelving books was easier.  People liked them. What a relief.


Balliol College Library: Library chair 1950?-2013

The old library chairs had been part of the library for about 80 years, which sounds pretty amazing for a set of chairs. All of the ones we replaced must have been more than 50 years old as they appear in a photograph of 1962 when the mezzanine was put in to make the Reading Room (see above) as we know it today. (It was originally the dining hall until a new one was built by Waterhouse in the C19th). The College Archivist did some rootling around in her archives and came up with an original order and drawings for a similar chair dating from 1928. Hand annotation on these papers indicate certain modifications were to be carried out and that further amendments could also be made. In fact there were considerable changes. The carved Catherine Wheel (St.Catherine is the college’s patron saint) disappeared as did the little table top going across the arms at the front. Our chair has slightly more elegant legs and the design origins in the Windsor chair are also more apparent. Indeed, virtually the only design element linking our chairs with the 1928 drawing is the very unusual curve of the arm when viewed from the side, but this feature is so distinctive as to make me feel certain that chair and drawing have a familial relationship. The Archivist suggests that there may be further drawings and letters in amongst college documents which might resolve these issues and give us a firmer date for the chairs’ first appearance. Such research is tempting but at the moment it is not a high priority project.


Balliol College Library 1959 (Before major internal reorganisation) with old library chair

We were all fascinated that the firm supplying the 1928 chairs and the joinery was based in St Aldates. If there was a workshop, the company must have occupied quite a big footprint and as yet we haven’t worked out quite where. Much land there belongs to Christ Church and buildings may have been converted for different use, knocked down or may even still be there but behind buildings fronting on to the road. This is also another area for further research. If anyone knows anything about it, we would love to hear from you.


A letter of tender (26/10/1928) for Balliol Library chairs from Thomas S Bott, shop-fitter, display case maker, proprietor of machine joinery works under his name at 35 St Aldates, Oxford.


Balliol College Library: a corner of the Reading Room with old library chairs


Balliol College Library: corner of the Reading Room with new library chairs

Report May – October 2013

This paper reports on activity at St Cross and the Lonsdale Curator’s work May – October 2013, since the last meeting of the library committee in April. Once again it’s been a busy and successful 6 months, with many researchers, record numbers of remote enquiries, and increased and diversified use of St Cross.


A)   Reader and visitor numbers by month

B)    Remote enquiries

C)   Activities & events at St Cross

D)   New accessions

A) Reader & visitor numbers May – October 2013

No.   of individual researchers in person Days   with readers in/days open* Seats   occu-


Visitors   (non research) Collections   consulted
May 14 16/20 23 ca 85 TH Green papers, Chalet papers, Jowett Papers (3), Nicolson diaries (2), RM Hare papers, medieval MSS (3), Morier Family papers, Leigh-Cook papers, TH Green papers, David Urquhart papers, Mallet papers
June 11 9/15 14 50+ RBD Morier papers, Clough papers, David Urquhart  papers, college records, Nicolson diaries (2), TH Green papers (2), OU Labour Club bulletins, AC Bradley papers, AL Smith papers, Correspondence collection, Crocker memoir, Rodger papers, Von Trott papers, medieval MSS
July 9 11/20 20 15 TH Green papers, Jowett papers, AL Smith papers, Conroy papers, Mallet papers, medieval mss (5)
Aug 7 8/9 13 30 David Urquhart papers, TH Green, Aldous Huxley, medieval mss (3), Mallet papers
Sept 7 6/15 6 ca 600 KN Bell papers, Mallet papers, Rm Hare papers, Morier papers
Oct 8 8/23 11 400+ Nicolson diaries, medieval mss (2), Morier papers, college records re St Catherine’s Day dinner, TH Green papers, Mary Augusta Arnold papers, college records re WW1
totals 56 58/102 87 ca 1200

*Often more than 1 person/day. Days open = days I’m working; most but not always open to researchers e.g. time may be blocked out for group visits or special events.

** 1 seat = 1 researcher for all or part of a day. A researcher visiting for a morning can generate more work for staff than one there for two full days. And the length of the visit may have nothing to do with the amount of correspondence before it.

Researcher profiles: 56 individuals. Nearly all researchers in person are academics and grad students (mostly external to Oxford), with the occasional family historian, Old Member or independent researcher.

 B) Remote enquiries

No. of enquiries
May 72
June 72
July 73
August 58
September 51
October 82
total 408

For comparison, the number of enquiries averaged 35 per month in 2005. It has edged up ever since and was about 60 in 2012. It looks as though I will be getting between 800 and 900 enquiries this year. Number of individual enquirers is slightly lower than that of enquiries as most external enquirers are new/one-off and internal are not.

Enquirer profiles: internal (Development Office, College Office, Publications Officer, Outreach Officer, Clerk of Works, individual Fellows, Ball and At Home organisers); family/local/military historians asking about individual Balliol men (about half of total); academics, mostly professional, a few students, mostly not Oxford. Increasing numbers re WW1 as 2014 approaches.

C) St Cross activities not elsewhere in the agenda

  • Following on from meeting with Kate Kettle, 2 Access groups have visited – bookbindings introduction (Naomi) and 750th-exhib based Curator for an Hour activity (Anna and Fiona)
  • Providing special collections images for the temporary kitchen hoardings in Broad St
  • Digitisation: 12 000 images posted May – Oct 2013, all in response to requests. Total 52,000 online. 305 000 views of individual images (cf 106 000 in April).
  • Unlocking Archives talks – Feb, April, May, June, July, Oct, Nov (2). With accompanying displays.
  • Conservation: prep for 2013 exhibition incl display case linings & covers, loan of digital projector & screen, usual pest & environmental monitoring, advice on & loan of camera leading to purchase of new camera



  • Balliol At Home event
  • Unlocking Archives 3 talk & display      (Stephen Golding, Univ)
  • Nevil Shute Society meeting with display
  • Tour & display for Manuscript Culture Network group
  • biweekly meetings of medieval mystics reading group (Prof N Palmer, SEH)


  • visit by      Designer Bookbinders International participants – display of early &      modern printed books and medieval ms books
  • School visit – Naomi’s book bindings introduction
  • Unlocking Archives 4 talk & display (Robin Darwall-Smith, Univ & Magd)


  • Unlocking Archives 5 talk & display (Ross McKibbin, St John’s)
  • Author & journalist to see FS Kelly memorabilia, including 1902 oar


  • Visit by Finnish students & faculty of Romance Philology – medieval mss lecture by their professor, prepared by Anna and hosted by Fiona.


  • Tour of St Cross (Anna) and exhibition of early printed books (Fiona) for 20+ Oxford and visiting librarians at WESLINE conference held in Balliol
  • 750th weekend displays by Anna and Fiona in Old Dean’s Room and Law Library of medieval and early printed books for Classics subject talk (and Maths!), 19th c literary mss for English subject talk – 50+ visitors
  • 750th exhibition by Dr John Jones in St Cross – ca 400 visitors over 3 weeks, approx. half general public
  • St Cross closed to (most) researchers for 3 weeks during exhibition
  • Oxford Open Doors Days – St Cross open 12-4 Sat & Sun for a third year, plus Historic Churches Trust Ride & Stride same days – 550+ visitors, usual mix of past & present neighbours, people married/buried/christened in St X, a few critics of the conversion, current Fellows & MCR members, tourists. Lots of good questions!


  • Anna & Fiona present ‘Curator for an Hour’ activity to Kate Kettle’s Yr 10s from Littlemore Academy
  • Unlocking Archives 6 talk & display (Ceri Davies, Swansea)
  • Anna and Fiona meet with English tutors to plan a special collections seminar
  • biweekly meetings of medieval mystics reading group (Prof N Palmer, SEH)

D) Acquisitions

  • Accrual (6 boxes) to BH Sumner papers, found in the Library.
  • Accrual (1 box) to Musical Society papers
  • Personal papers (1 box) of GMH Williams (1920s)
  • Letters by Richard Cobb
  • A letter by Jowett about fundraising
  • Several years of matriculation cards and Pathfinder records from the Master’s Secretary
  • Mystery gift of a large framed photograph of Sir Arthur Kekewich, no provenance
  • Ongoing small accruals of correspondence & ephemera from printed books in the library. Mostly for OMs’ dossiers where identifiable.

Unlocking Archives 8

     Lunchtime talk: Unlocking Archives

- current research in Balliol College’s special collections -


The Index of Images in Oxford College Libraries:

an overview of the Project

Dr Lynda Dennison

Friday 22 November (Oxford MT week 6), 1-2 pm

Balliol Historic Collections Centre

St Cross Church, Manor Road

* all welcome *

A survey of the scope and method of the project, which aims to compile an index of images in Oxford College Libraries from the time of Chaucer to Henry VIII, illustrated with special reference to the medieval manuscripts collection at Balliol College.

For the past six years Lynda Dennison has been a researcher for the Index of images in English manuscripts from the time of Chaucer to Henry VIII, c.1380-c. 1509, general editor Kathleen Scorr, and has lectured in the History of Art at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education and the Oxford Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Feel free to bring your lunch. The talk will last no more than half an hour, to allow time for questions and discussion afterwards, and a closer look at some of the Balliol manuscripts discussed.


manuscripts produced:

  • 037
  • 080
  • 081
  • 092
  • 093
  • 101
  • 219
  • 219
  • 228
  • 235
  • 264
  • 286
  • 290

Unlocking Archives 7

Unlocking Archives :

a series of lunchtime talks about current research
in Balliol College’s special collections

The Archaeology of the Book of Kells

Dr Ian Mertling-Blake

Friday 1 November (Oxford MT week 3) 1 pm

A thirty-minute minute illustrated introduction to decorative motifs adapted by illustrators of the Book of Kells, suggesting possible megalithic, prehistoric, early historic origins, that they draw on disparate artistic traditions and imitate metalworking and enamelling techniques exemplified by masterpieces like The Tara Brooch, The Alfred Jewell, Ardagh Chalice etc. There will be an opportunity to examine a copy of splendidly accurate full-colour reproduction published by Faksimile Verlag, Lucern for Trinity College Dublin in1990.

The Scottish poet Ian Blake (Balliol ‘65) graduate of TCD, whose doctoral thesis was supervised by the late Dame Kathleen Kenyon, directed excavations at sites he discovered on the west shore of the Dead Sea until, after the ’67Arab-Israeli War, the UN designated the area ‘Disputed Territory’ which it remains.

All welcome! Feel free to bring your lunch.

The talks will last about half an hour, to allow time for questions and discussion afterwards and a closer look at some of the Balliol MSS discussed.

All Unlocking Archives talks take place at Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, Manor Road OX1 3UH (next door to Holywell Manor). Map & directions

Unlocking Archives 6

Lunchtime talk: Unlocking Archives

a new series about current research in Balliol College’s special collections

MSS 260 & 353:

two John Prise manuscripts at Balliol


Prof Ceri Davies, Emeritus Professor,

Swansea University


Wednesday 23 October, 1-2 pm

Balliol Historic Collections Centre

St Cross Church, Manor Road

* all welcome *

Sir John Prise (1501/2-1555), scholar, monastic visitor and Tudor administrator, is connected to two manuscripts from Balliol’s bequest by the 18th century book collector George Coningesby. MS 353 contains Prise’s Commonplace Book and MS 260 contains the text of his Historiae Britannicae Defensio (posthumously published in 1573), an edition of which Professor Davies is preparing.

Ceri Davies is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Swansea University. He was Visiting Fellow at Magdalen College, 2008-9.

Feel free to bring your lunch. The talk will last no more than half an hour, to allow time for questions and discussion afterwards, and a closer look at some of the Balliol MSS discussed.

Oxford Open Doors Days 2013

St Cross welcomed at least 525 people during Oxford Preservation Trust‘s Open Doors days on 14-15 September this year; this is arranged as part of the annual national Heritage Open Days event. At the same time, we also took part for the first time in Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust‘s Ride & Stride event, which is also part of a national fundraising endeavour. We didn’t have riders and striders out raising money for St Cross, but were open to sign participants’ forms. Some had time for a look round the building, but most were in a hurry to visit as many churches in the city and county as possible on the day!

This year there were familiar questions about the building’s history, the conversion project and the holy well, but there were noticeably more questions about the special collections held here.

Q: How many books are kept in St Cross?

A: We don’t know exactly! Some of the early printed books are still being catalogued, and some of them haven’t yet arrived here from the Broad Street library. Our guess is 10,000 or so – stay tuned for a more precise answer when cataloguing is complete!

Q: How many items are in the archives?

A: A similar answer to the above, but in the hundreds of thousands of individual items.

On display this year were several important early printed books, our recently acquired beautiful facsimile of the Book of Kells manuscript, some college-related family history resource books and two medieval manuscript books demonstrating the enormous range of sizes in the collection. One is 4 1/2 x 3″, the other 18 x 12!


It was great to see so many people studying the building and the displays in detail and asking lots of questions – so many, in fact, that we missed marking in some of our visitors, so our official total is ’525+’. If the weather is as chilly and blustery in September next year, we may have to do teas as well, if only to keep our cheerful greeters/invigilators from freezing!

event: Adam von Trott seminar

The Adam von Trott Memorial Appeal at Mansfield College

Britain and Germany in Europe:  What Prospects?

Seminar at Rhodes House, South Parks Rd, Oxford

Thursday 7 November 11.00am to 5.00pm (including lunch)

What are the political and economic questions facing the EU today? How can we promote peace and prosperity in Europe and in the world? Germany’s role in the EU is becoming more important, while Britain appears increasingly detached from the European project. What roles for Britain and Germany? What prospects for European integration?


  • Lord Hannay (former British Ambassador to EU)
  • Dr Rudolf Adam (German Embassy)
  • Thomas Kielinger (Correspondent for Die Welt)
  • Professor Paul Betts (St Antony’s College)
  • Professor Kalypso Nicolaïdis (St Antony’s College)
  • Dr Hartmut Mayer (St Peter’s College)
  • Professor David Marquand (former Principal of Mansfield College)
  • Christine Dalby (European Commission)
  • Keith Jenkins (Conference of European Churches)

Events following the Seminar
5pm: Pilgrimage to see Adam von Trott’s papers in the historical archives at St. Cross, and the memorials to him at Mansfield and Balliol Colleges
6.45pm: Commemoration Service for Adam von Trott at Balliol College Chapel, all welcome

 To register for the seminar or the pilgrimage, contact Bob Trafford on alumni.officer@mansfield.ox.ac.uk by November 1st

 More information available online
at www.bit.ly/avtseminar2013

Unlocking Archives – Michaelmas Term schedule

Forthcoming talks in the Unlocking Archives series:

1) Wednesday 23 October 1pm
Prof Ceri Davies
on Balliol MS 260, a manuscript copy of Sir John Prise’s Historiae Brytannicae Defensio (first published 1573)

2) Friday 1 November 1pm
Dr Ian Mertling-Blake
on the archaeology of the Book of Kells, of which Balliol has recently been given a full facsimile

3) Friday 22 November 1pm
Dr Lynda Dennison
on her research for an index of images in later-medieval English MSS in Oxford college collections

Further details TBA

All welcome! Feel free to bring your  lunch. The talks will last  about half an hour, to allow time for  questions and discussion  afterwards and a closer look at some of the  Balliol MSS discussed.

These three talks will complete our Unlocking Archives series of 8 for 2013 – more to come in the new year!

St Cross Church, Manor Road, Oxford: Directions

Q&A: time, gentlemen, please

Q: Another good question from @RussWrites to #AskACurator: Do you get annoyed if people don’t want to leave the museum [or archive, or library] on time at the end of the day or is it a compliment?

A: I’m always glad to hear that researchers have had a good day, but it really is important to plan the day’s work, keep an eye on the time, and pack up promptly when advertised reader hours are coming to an end. I hate having to hurry people or sound like a jobsworth, but I’m not paid to stay late and I can’t just take time tomorrow or some other day, because other researchers will be turning up on time. I can’t very well take a hint from this post’s title and invest in a handbell – ridiculous for a room occupied by only a few people.

The fact is, many archives, and small and/or specialist libraries, only have one or perhaps two (or one and a half)  members of staff – who are trying to do a full day’s work of their own as well as invigilating and assisting researchers. There’s no leeway; there’s no faceless institutional system that automatically takes care of these things.  If a researcher stays ‘just another fifteen minutes’ to finish what he or she is doing, somebody is probably going to miss a train. Be aware that staff hours are often longer at both ends of the day than the advertised reader hours. Especially in small repositories, it comes down to individual courtesy.

P.S. Any researcher hoping for an enthusiastic audience is advised to avoid starting a detailed description of the day’s discoveries just before closing time! Archivists tend to love their work, and many put in unpaid hours to assist researchers and get the job done as they want it to be – but they don’t live there.

I shall finish what seems a rather negative post by saying that most researchers in person are efficient, courteous, interesting and a pleasure to work with!

P.P.S. Best response from the Twitter discussion from @Rupriikki: ‘Nice one! We are of course very flattered! (…And politely trying to go home at the same time.) They can revisit!’


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