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

MCR viewing

Yesterday evening the Librarian and Archivist welcomed 16 members of Balliol’s MCR (graduate students) to St Cross for an introduction to the special collections and a ‘private view’ of selected items. On display were:

A) The Balliol Boys’ Club & World War One exhibition

B) As it was Bonfire Night, several early printed books on the theme of fire and fireworks:

Copy of DSCN9616

1. Johannes Hevelius. Cometographia. Gdansk, 1668. [790 e 1]

This is Hevelius’ book about comets (some of which are depicted with fiery tails). The three astronomers on the engraved title page are (from the left) Aristotle representing the belief that comets orbit between the Earth and its Moon, Hevelius himself who believed that comets originate from either Saturn or Jupiter, then follow parabolic orbits around the Sun, and Kepler who believed that comets move in a straight line.

In the background, a roof-top observatory is in action with astronomers using telescopes and sextants to navigate through the night sky.


A brewer and notable of the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Hevelius is now best known for his work in the field of astronomy. He was the first person to map the surface of the moon. He also made a catalogue of 1,564 stars and a celestial atlas.

Copy of DSCN9611

2. Adriano Romano. Pyrotechnia hoc est, de ignibus festivis, iocosis, artificialibus et seriis, variisque eorum structuris. Frankfurt, 1611. [470 a 16]


A seventeenth-century manual on fireworks.

Copy of DSCN9624

3. Athanasius Kircher. Mundus subterraneus in XII libros digestus. Amsterdam, 1678. [30 h 10-11]

Copy of DSCN9625

This is Athanasius Kircher’s book on all things underground from volcanoes through geology to dragons. One of history’s true polymaths, Kircher published forty-odd works on topics as varied as the tower of Babel, ancient Egypt, China, mathematics, music, cosmology, optics, Noah’s ark, magnetism, and medicine.


During a sea-voyage to Naples in 1638, Kircher saw smoke plumes, tidal waves, and the destruction of the city of San Eufémia. With Vesuvius still smoldering, Kircher hired a local guide to take him to the top for a first-hand investigation. He had himself lowered into the crater in a harness to take temperature measurements. It is no wonder that this huge image of Vesuvius has pride of place near the front of his two volume work.

Copy of DSCN9589

4. Joannes Niess. Alphabetum diaboli. Dillingen an der Donau, 1627. [30 a 18]

‘Know your enemy’ is the mantra of this evil alphabet. Its Jesuit author prepares the reader to recognise areas in which the devil is likely to manifest such as Worldliness, Blasphemy, Curiosity, Gluttony, Hypocrisy and Pleasure, presumably in order to escape the fiery punishments depicted on the title page.

Copy of DSCN9613 5. Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. An answere to certaine scandalous papers, scattered abroad vnder colour of a Catholicke admonition. London, 1606. [30 c 168]

The author of this pamphlet, Robert Cecil, was James I’s right hand man. He led the commissioners interrogating the seventeenth-century terrorist, Guy Fawkes, who had been caught in the cellar below the Houses of Parliament with nearly a ton of gunpowder.


Cecil’s tract discusses the death-threats that Cecil received from other malcontents for his part in unmasking the conspiracy. The most significant feature of the tract, however, is Cecil’s clear distinction between ‘these late savage papists’ as he describes the plotters, and those other Catholics who had remained loyal to the King.


Also appropriately for Bonfire Night, we put out College Archives B4.2, an early modern indenture and release (property documents) of 1774 mentioning the Catherine Wheel Inn, where some of the Gunpowder Plotting is supposed to have taken place. The Catherine Wheel stood facing St Giles (or Magdalen Street East) ‘near the east end of St Mary Magdalen Church’, opposite the altar to St Catherine in the north aisle of the church which had been Balliol’s oratory chapel before it built its own chapel on the college site.

C) By request, several documents from the early history of the college:


The first formal statutes of the college, known as ‘Dervorguilla’s Statutes’ and issued under her personal seal, 1282. The 1282 Statutes are transcribed in HE Salter’s Oxford Balliol Deeds (1913) and translated in JH Jones’ Balliol College: A History (2005). Transcription in Salter p.277 ff; Transcription and translation in Paravicini, p.60 ff.

Medieval and early modern seal matrices of the college, with modern impressions.

Copy of seals002c – an early vesica-shaped (pointed oval) seal matrix, the College’s ‘First Seal’ (see Salter p.363), prob. ca. 1280

Copy of seals008

– the matrix of the College’s ‘Second Seal’, also vesica-shaped (see Salter p.363), C15. No contemporary example of its use is known.

Copy of seals003

– a large oval seal matrix showing a Britannia-like St Catherine, probably late 16th century. (see VCH entry.)

Archives B22.1 and B22.21

Copy of B22-001a

B.22.1 is the oldest document in the College Archives, ca 1180. This  is one of the deeds proving title to property in the Parish of  St Lawrence Jewry in London, which was given to the College by Hugh de Vienne in 1294. It would already have been an old document by the time it came to Balliol when the church property was made over to the college, and demonstrates the historic importance of retaining the documentary history of a property (or a right) to prove title.


B22.21 is a confirmation of 1295 by the Dean of St Paul’s of a grant by the Bishop of London to Balliol of the living of St Lawrence Jewry, London and is directly related to Balliol’s oldest document.  It forms part of a collection of over 60 documents, mostly pre-1500, held by Balliol relating to the impropriation of the living.  St Lawrence’s is significant to Balliol as it is one of the College’s few very early livings, and one of very long standing. Balliol’s possession of the advowson of St Lawrence Jewry was brought to an end after 650 years through diocesan reorganisation in 1951, when it was assigned to the Corporation of the City of London.  However, there is still a stall in the Church which is reserved for the Master of Balliol, and the Corporation of London continues to pay a corn rent to the College in respect of part of its Guildhall site.

??????????The material on display sparked lots of good questions, and our conversations ranged across topics from the pronunciation of Dervorguilla to possible current uses for 17th century astronomical observations! We look forward to hosting a similar event for JCR members in Hilary Term.

[Thanks to Naomi Tiley for captions to the early printed books.]

One response

  1. Pingback: Open Doors Questions | Balliol Archives & Manuscripts

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