– 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.

Author Archive

Stanford in Oxford at Balliol

Last week I had the privilege and huge fun of planning and teaching a class with Stephanie Solywoda, Director of the Stanford Program in Oxford. We were talking about medieval Oxford – town, gown and especially books…


Stanford people get up close and personal with medieval manuscripts – here we are discussing the complicated layout of this Aristotle manuscript, and the functions of illuminated initials other than just being amazing – navigation, mnemonics, sometimes didactic or humorous (or even inexplicable) comment on the main text.


Colours and lines are still bright and sharp after 7 or 8 centuries – it’s hard to imagine someone spending the weeks or months it would have taken to copy this text out by hand. Not to mention manually justifying every line while keeping letter spacing consistent, using abbreviations and having to allow for imperfections in the parchment interrupting the writing space.

Bindings on the other hand, may not last so well – note the spine break in the manuscript above.


Old books, new technology – online gateway to Parker on the Web, and a modern facsimile of the ancient Book of Kells that lets us safely handle a binding using medieval techniques.


Kells facsimile – not strictly related to Balliol’s special collections (alas, no early Irish manuscripts here) but a facsimile is a wonderful teaching resource. The pages feel like the modern shiny light card they are, but they faithfully reproduce weight and thickness of parchment, dirty smudges at the edges, the way some fugitive pigments show through to the other side of a page (e.g. lower right of this opening) and even the holes in the original. These Stanford students will be visiting the real Book of Kells, the centrpiece of a dedicated exhibition, at Trinity College Dublin later in their time in the UK, so this was particularly apposite.


Some recently conserved administrative documents from Balliol’s history, contemporary to the books displayed, were on show to demonstrate the differences in layout, hands and contents between academic texts and legal records.


Balliol’s Foundation Statutes of 1282, still with the original seal of Dervorguilla de Balliol, in their new mount and box from OCC. Like nearly all legal documents of the time, this is in formulaic, heavily abbreviated medieval Latin, but we were able to find the word ‘Balliol’ in several places in the text (and a full transcription and translation was available 😉 ) We talked about the evolution of early college statutes, the similarities and differences between colleges and monastic houses, the heavily religious language of the statutes and the practical stipulations included.


Balliol’s historic seal matrices and modern impressions – all featuring female figures, like the foundation statutes. St Catherine is the College’s patron saint, and we talked about the college chapel system and the fact that Balliol had a side chapel dedicated to St Catherine in St Mary Magdalen church – just outside Balliol’s walls – before it received permission (and had the funds) to build its own chapel.


Another beautifully mounted document, two copies of the Bishop of Lincoln’s permission to Balliol College to build its own chapel.


An opening from the first Register of College Meeting Minutes (1593-1594) showing formal but more workaday recordkeeping in the College, still in Latin but often with English phrases or sections, annotations, amendments and crossed out sections.


MS 301 has a typical layout for legal and Biblical manuscripts, with a central section, here decorated, of the main text to be studied in larger hand, and surrounding layer or layers of formal commentary plus shorter notes and personal reader annotations toward the outer edges. (No, the book is not hanging over the edge of the table – it’s the camera angle!)


Details of the decoration in that central section, showing rubrics (headings in red), regular red and blue penwork initials and still-familiar paragraph/section marks, plus more pigments, white highlights, and gold leaf on the most important initial.


A plainer study text, made for university use and leaving plenty of room for commentary and annotations to be added.


We enjoyed these whimsical doodles, turning initials into faces so full of character they might be portraits – or caricatures. They may also have had mnemonic and navigational value, particularly in a manuscript without folio numbers, as was usual. The manuscripts are foliated now, but most foliation is either early modern and/or 20th century.


The oldest document (ca. 1200) in the College Archives has been mounted to allow it to be displayed without damaging it; I also had two C14 legal documents out for the students to handle, and so we could talk about seals, seal attachment, and pre-signature authentication methods.DSCN0384DSCN0385DSCN0386DSCN0387

A mounted charter with pendent seals, still with their green and red silk cords intact. The conservators’ inner box cover includes photographs of the reverse of the whole document, the seal and the label, as well as a caption. Instant display without having to disturb a fragile manuscript.


For extra resources and further reading, I had a small selection of the College’s modern printed books on archives and manuscript studies topics out as well. The Manuscript Book compendium has recently been translated from Italian and is a brilliant resource for eastern as well as western manuscripts.


Links to relevant projects:

monthly report – January 2018

Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during January:

  • Number of enquiries: 56
  • Total for 2017: 56
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 6
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 8
  • Collections consulted: Medieval mss (3), College records (2), Rawnsley papers
  • Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries) – actual numbers may be slightly higher:
    • 11 files – up to 200 items per file, not including
    • 12  individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
    • 27 medieval ms codices

Some of the topics of remote enquiries received in January:

  • college portraits and other works of art
  • college heraldry
  • correct citation/referencing for archival materials
  • requests for permission to quote from or publish images of archival material
  • requests for (new) digital images of college records and medieval manuscripts
  • 17th century vocabulary for silver plate
  • WW1 minutes of College Meeting
  • WW1 and post-WW2 diaries
  • Boat Club history
  • Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
    • people who were not members of Balliol
    • C18 – early C20 College servants
    • RW Raper (Balliol TT 1861)
    • Sir J Conroy (Balliol 1890)
    • H Belloc (Balliol HT 1893)
    • HS Malik (Balliol 1912)
    • RH Glover (Balliol 1915)
    • I Stitt (Balliol 1917)
    • TH Tylor, Fellow (Balliol 1918)
    • F Huxley (Balliol 1946)
    • FJ Lindars (Balliol 1949)

monthly report – December 2017

Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during December:

  • Number of enquiries: 33
  • Total for 2017: 726
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 5
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 5 (out of 8 days open)
  • Collections consulted: Jowett archive, college records, medieval mss, Conroy archive, Malcolm papers
  • Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries) – actual numbers may be slightly higher:
    • 13 boxes containing from two bound volumes to 4 thick files of individual items, not including
    • 1 file – up to 200 items per file, not including
    • 9  individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
    • 1 medieval ms codex
  • No of non-research visitors: 25
  • exhibition open, with curator’s introduction, Q&A and discussion, for:
    • current Balliol Fellows, guests and staff
    • archivists & librarians from other Colleges
    • members of the Oxford Conservators’ Group
    • private visitors, including Old Members of Balliol

Some of the enquiry topics received in December:

  • college portraits and other works of art
  • requests for permission to quote from or publish images of archival material
  • requests for (new) digital images of college records and medieval manuscripts
  • Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
    • people who were not members of Balliol
    • C18 – early C20 College servants
    • G Abbott (Balliol 1581)
    • H Savage (Balliol 1624/5)
    • CSC Bowen (Balliol 1853), later Baron Bowen
    • HCK Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (Balliol 1863)
    • GO Roos (Balliol 1887)
    • AW Pickard-Cambridge (Balliol 1891)

Michaelmas Term on facebook

I post brief monthly statistics here, but for readers who just can’t get enough archives news, there’s a weekly update on Facebook as well. Here’s the roundup for Michaelmas Term, starting in late September:

MT -1: the University is counting down and gearing up for Michaelmas Term. This week in the archives, a reader for the medieval manuscripts and visitors to the exhibition. Blog posts for the exhibition catalogue continue #mss2017. It’s the last week of September, so time for the monthly enquiries roundup and statistics post as well.

MT0 – This week in the archives, everybody else is busy getting ready for the new term, and I’m finally having a holiday 😀

MT1: Happy New Year for all those opening a fresh new academic calendar! This week in the archives: researchers for medieval manuscripts and some non-Browning material in the Browning papers, the librarians host Brookes University publishing students, and I kick off the year of Bruce’s Brunch, a series of lunchtime talks on all manner of subjects for Balliol students, hosted by the Chaplain. And the small matter of catching up after a week away.

MT2. This week in the archives, researchers for the Monckton and Jowett archives and medieval manuscripts. I’m continuing to post extended versions of the manuscripts exhibition catalogue entries on the blog: https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/category/mss2017/

MT3 – this week in the archives, researchers for medieval manuscripts, Caird papers and TH Green papers. The momentary ‘lull’ means I can catch up a bit on productions and reprographics, and complete physical arrangement of two (relatively) small subfonds. It’s also the time of year for college-wide refresher training in the use of ladders and fire extinguishers.

The medieval manuscripts exhibition continues: ‘Change and Decay: A History of Damage and Conservation in Balliol’s Medieval Manuscripts’, curated by Balliol’s Archivist and Curator of Manuscripts, Anna Sander, includes more than 20 of Balliol’s 300+ original medieval manuscript codices and a number of contemporary documents from the College records, and highlights a decade of work on the archives and manuscripts by the team of professional conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium, of which Balliol has been a member since 2006.

Individual and group visitors are very welcome most times, by appointment. Visiting hours are normally Mon-Fri 10-1 and 2-5; appointments aren’t meant to be exclusive, it’s just that the exhibition and reading room are in the same space, and we need to plan ahead to ensure that visitors and researchers are here at different times. Please come! More about the manuscripts exhibition at https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/ #mss2017

For tutors planning a visit with students, there is also space, and time available, to hold a class (of up to about a dozen) in the middle of the nave, i.e. surrounded by the manuscripts on display.

Directions: http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/Services/visit.asp#f
Contact: anna.sander@balliol.ox.ac.uk

MT 4: This week in the archives, researchers for the Morier, AL Smith, Strachan Davidson,Ernest Walker and AC Badley papers. Balliol MCR visits the medieval manuscripts exhibition and we launch a Special Collections Challenge series with them; the librarians host the English Faculty 18th Century Seminar at St Cross; I visit the ‘C19 medieval revival’ session of the Rare German Books seminar; we join other college librarians and archivists at the university’s Graduate Thesis Fair.

MT5: This week in the archives, lots of tutors and students coming to look at (and talk about) the medieval manuscripts exhibition! First one today, topics covered: tiny writing, huge printing, marginalia, pigment ingredients, seal attachment, authentication methods for charters, manuscript reuse as binding waste, manuscript navigation, vandalism, conservation materials, gothic binding structures. Not necessarily in that order! No researchers booked this week as at least half of every day has a visiting class. October’s report is on the blog: https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/…/monthly-report-oc…/

MT 6 – this week in the archives, researchers for the AL Smith and Jowett papers, and medieval manuscripts; a Balliol alumna brings classes from two other colleges to look at early printed books; a Balliol Fellow and a Professor of Medieval German Lit & Ling hold workshops based around the medieval manuscripts exhibition. There is a new Remembrance Sunday display in the antechapel and I’m preparing a termly report covering more than half the year!

MT7 This week in the archives, researchers for medieval manuscripts, Urquhart papers and Oppenheimer papers; discussions about digitization and cataloguing software; conservators visit the exhibition of medieval manuscripts; termly reports; and a maintenance check for the rolling shelving.

MT8: This week in the archives, the medival manuscripts exhibition remains open by prior arrangement to visitors through next week. There are researchers booked in to look at early modern manuscripts, the Strachan-Davidson papers and medieval manuscripts; individual and group visitors coming to the exhibition; the termly College Library Committee meeting; and the Oxford Conservation Consortium’s AGM. And, somehow, December.

MT9 – this week in the archives: exhibition visitors; researchers for the Malcolm papers, college records, Conroy archive, Jowett archive, and medieval manuscripts; November statistics and termly (May-November) report appearing on the blog.

This is the last week to see the medieval manuscripts exhibition at St Cross and also the last week of 2017 for research appointments. The former will be put away, and the latter will resume in the week of 15 January. It will be possible to request appointments for the new year during the closed period – plan ahead and get your place booked early.


antechapel display – Remembrance Sunday 2017

A century ago: extracts from a few pages of Francis Fortescue (‘Sligger’) Urquhart’s personal photo albums, covering the Summer Term of 1917.

There were still Balliol men coming into residence each year during the War: surprising as it may seem now some were overseas students; others were precluded from active service, e.g. Aldous Huxley; most were putting in time before their commissions came through, and the student numbers by the end of each summer term were much lower than in Michaelmas. In addition, the officer cadets billeted at Balliol, Keble and elsewhere for training were welcomed and made to feel part of ‘their’ colleges by the few Fellows still resident.

Urquhart was one of only three dons in residence at Balliol throughout the War, and his unbroken series of informal photographs shows the incongruous juxtapositions of academic, civilian and military life during the period. This post shows a selection reflecting the outward and visible changes made by the war in Oxford, mainly within Balliol.

Many of the officer cadets who spent weeks or months training in Oxford had good memories of their time there. This lighter side of wartime experience easily became family stories that could be passed down. My enquiry records show that some officer training periods have evolved in family legend into full Oxford degrees, several generations of retelling later! The ‘party of sight-seers’ in one photo is visiting New College’s cloisters – is Urquhart acting as their tour guide? Even the pictures of ‘trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB A Company’, in their shirtsleeves under a bright Oxfordshire sun and the beady eye of Captain Lang, look worlds removed from the reality, fast approaching for these men, of the mud of Flanders and France.

Individually, the photos are mostly sunny snapshots of happy moments; as a collection, however, the very quality of ‘Oxford idyll’ that seems escapist and almost irresponsible in such a serious time forms not only a fascinating glimpse into an important chapter in Oxford’s history, but a vivid and very personal memorial to lost youth and potential, compiled by a tutor noting the deaths of too many friends and former students.


3 views of John Beverley Nichols. JBN was admitted to Balliol, with Urquhart as his tutor, in Hilary Term (spring term, i.e. January) 1917, and almost immediately entered the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Labour Corps. These photos, only a page apart in the album, show his rapid transition from civilian to military life. Nichols detested everything about the war and his military experience, and was deeply bitter about his father’s curtailment of his Oxford education once the war was over. Nichols does not mention his brief 1917 Oxford period in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, which indicates that he went straight from Marlborough College to officer training in Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50H, 7.52F, 7.52G.


‘A party of sight-seers, March 1917’ – a group of officer cadets and their training officers in the cloisters at New College. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50I


‘Malik, French Red Cross, Summer term 1917.’ Hardit Singh Malik was one of four Sikh pilots in the RFC/RAF), and the only one of the four to survive. Francis Urquhart had been his Balliol tutor, and it was through him that Malik joined the French Red Cross in 1916 – as a stepping stone to the French Air Force, as at that time the new Royal Flying Corps did not accept non-white officers. In 1917 that colour bar was broken, again through Urquhart’s intervention, and Hardit Singh Malik became a pilot in the RFC, later the RAF. This photo may date from a visit a little earlier in the year, just before Malik’s transfer. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52A


Academic and military lives collide: Victor Mallet (Balliol 1911) studied Modern History at Balliol under NS Talbot and AL Smith, signed up with the Cambridge Regiment in September 1914 and served in France 1915-16. He is shown here on leave (or perhaps on business?) from Ireland in 1917 receiving his degree in BA gown and hood, with Army uniform, complete with cane, instead of subfusc and mortarboard. The Mallet family’s archive is held in Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52C


At one point during the term Sligger visits the Cambridge home of Baron Anatole von Hügel (1854-1928) . Von Hügel, a fellow alumnus of Stonyhurst College, had set Urquhart something of an example when, in 1895, he had been a leading figure in the repeal of the Papal prohibition on Roman Catholic membership of Oxford and Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU7.54B & C


Nevile Barclay plays the organ in Balliol Hall. Barclay enlisted with the 8th London Regiment in May `915, aged 17, and worked in the Foreign Office until November 1918. He enrolled at Balliol in 1916 but his course was much interrupted by war work; he eventually completed his degree in 1921, but did not formally take the BA and MA until 1926. He and JB Nichols became friends during Nichols’ postwar stint in Oxford. Balliol Archives  FFU7.54D

The regular Sunday Concert series established  by Benjamin Jowett in 1885 continued well into the War, until June 1915, but was then replaced with less formal concerts for which there were no programmes. This coincides with the occupation of Balliol’s premises by No. 6 Officer Cadet Battalion; hundreds if not thousands of Army officer cadets came through Balliol on training courses lasting up to three months.


‘W Robinson in hospital.’ There is no W Robinson of the right vintage at Balliol. Who is W Robinson? a member of another college? someone from the Roman Catholic schools? a former officer cadet stationed at Balliol for training? His dressing gown and slippers on the lawn are reminiscent of similar, yet very different, photos taken at Urquhart’s Chalet in the French alps only a few years earlier. And who took this photo? Urquhart usually notes photographers of individual prints other than himself  -though he does not mention whether they used his camera or their own – but from the shadow, whoever took this photo was in uniform. And which hospital is it? from the indications of a downhill slope in the background, I’ll guess it’s in Headington. Balliol Archives FFU 7.54I


‘Trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB, “A” Coy. Cap. Lang, Seiler, Velho, Sharp, Shaw, Evans, Darling.’ Urquhart has probably walked out to Cumnor, a regular walking destination of his, to visit the ‘Balliol’ cadets of 6 OCB practising – in what looks like very dry earth indeed – for the mud of France and Flanders. This is one of very few photographs indeed of officer cadets with identifications. Notice Velho’s khaki apron, carefully belted at the right length to protect his kilt. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55B


‘A Company Lecture’: instead of the usual scene of Balliol students taking a break from the Library or celebrating the end of their Finals, here an Army instructor addresses several dozen officer cadets sitting on the grass in front of the ivy-covered Hall in the Garden Quad. This photo appears to have been taken from the top of the Library tower. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55C


Maurice Leonard Jacks (Balliol 1912) had been a student of Cyril Bailey, in Classics, immediately before the war, and one of the early Presidents of the Balliol Boys’ Club. After serving as a 2nd Lieutenant (the most common rank for young University men signing up as junior officers) in the King’s Royal Rifles 1914-16, he was wounded in France in November 1916. As a result, he did not return to battle but became Captain of C Company, No.4 officer Cadet Battalion, based at Keble College in Oxford.  This meant he was just up the road from his old friend Urquhart, as well as close to the Jacks’ new family home at Shotover Edge. Jacks and Urquhart collaborated to provide cadets on their days off with walks and explorations by canoe of the surrounding countryside – experiences of Oxford summers in which, except for partial uniform, they could temporarily leave wartime behind. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55K

Balliol Archives FFU 7.57E

This album can be viewed in full online here.

antechapel display – winter Vacation 2017

A selection of images from the Michaelmas exhibition of medieval manuscripts at St Cross is now on public view in the antechapel in Broad Street:


exhibition ending

Today I took down the medieval manuscripts exhibition. Thanks to all who visited! It went well – a report will appear in the new year, and of course blog posts etc will continue to appear, and will remain, here on the blog.

Dismantling an exhibition is not something that’s usually documented, perhaps because it’s such an anticlimax. But it’s a good task for the end of the year, leaving everything safely back in storage and the decks cleared for new adventures.