Guest post by Sian Witherden
Balliol College Library has one copy of the Rudimentum Novitiorum (‘Handbook for Novices’), an encyclopaedia of world history whose author remains anonymous. This book was printed on paper in Lübeck by Lucas Brandis on the 5th of August 1475. The volume is quite large at 380 x 290 mm, and it is still in the original stamped leather binding. Other copies from the same print run are held in libraries across the globe, including Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Princeton, Vienna, and Zürich. Each of these copies has its own unique history, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the Balliol copy is the way it has been dismembered by a later reader (or perhaps readers). Many of the woodcut prints in this volume have been cut out, though there seems to be no obvious reason why certain images were selected for excision and not others. Perhaps the reader wanted to keep these particular ones for a scrapbook or put them to use in another volume. Unfortunately, leaves are also missing from both the front and back of the book.
Another reader was evidently so dismayed by the extent of the losses that he felt impelled to make a comment in the margins: “Is it not a great shame to the scholars of Balliol College to suffer such a choice book as this is to be thus defaced?” There is of course a distinct irony to this, as the annotator takes issue with the defacement of the volume while simultaneously adding his own blemishes to the same book.
In the sixteenth century, the book was evidently owned by John Wicham, whose name appears twice on the outer cover along with the year 1584. Curiously, the book is incorrectly identified as the Opus Historicum of Guillerinus de Conchis both on the spine and within a flyleaf note written in “a late sixteenth or seventeenth century hand,” according to Dennis E. Rhodes. The Rudimentum Novitiorum has no connection with Guillerinus de Conchis.
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For further reading on this book, see Dennis E. Rhodes, A Catalogue of Incunabula in all the Libraries of Oxford University outside the Bodleian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 296–7.
 Abbreviations have been silently expanded and orthography has been modernized.
– Sian Witherden, September 2017. Follow Sian’s tweets @sian_witherden
A guest post by Matthew Main (New College, 2012), our first OUIP (Oxford University Internship Programme) intern of summer 2015.
In the archives of Balliol Library there are two Folio ledgers, with dimensions suited for the task of recording tall columns of accounts. Alongside Bursar’s accounts and a partial early Library catalogue, they contain fragments of a lending register from the main College Library, chronicling intermittent periods between roughly 1677 and 1712. The register consists of a total of 565 entries, including some that are illegible or too vague to be identified. As part of my role as an intern at Balliol Library in the summer of 2015, I transcribed the lending register, before converting it into a searchable database for researchers interested in libraries and their usage in this period.
Use of the register was haphazard. A considerable portion of the entries remain unidentified, for various reasons; some are scored out, presumably upon the book’s return to the Library, while others are no more than an abbreviated scribble or a faded pencil mark. There appears to have been no agreed conventions for entering a record; one or more of the date, book, author, shelf mark and even borrower name may be missing from any given record. This made compiling a useful set of data a challenging task, but not an insurmountable one; I identified most books through a process of elimination and by consulting old Library catalogues.
It is difficult to say exactly how much the register can tell us about the historical intellectual community at Balliol. Officially, the Library was for Fellows of the College, although the register occasionally records instances where undergraduates and external visitors were apparently granted special dispensation to borrow from the collections. In Balliol College: A History, John Jones remarks that if one takes the register to be a picture of the College’s scholarship, ‘the impression is left . . . of a dilettante approach, lacking in concentrated effort or application’, an impression borne out by the dearth of meaningful academic work produced by the contemporary set of Fellows. This should not, however, put us off investigating the way that Fellows interacted on the page, and the entries offer an insight into the type of texts most commonly read in the wider period, as well as the specific, changing Balliol environment. After the Civil War, Balliol had been placed under the administration of the Bishop of Lincoln in an attempt to remedy its ailing financial health. The Fellows and successive Masters were engaged in raising funds in order to pay down accumulating College debts, many originating from years of unpaid battels, and a charitable explanation for the lack of academic output in the period might be that attentions were primarily focused elsewhere.
Close inspection of the register reveals plenty of instances where a community of readers appear to recommend certain works to one another, suggestive of interaction between scholars. The College subscribed to Philosophical Transactions and the rival journal Acta eruditorum, and Fellows perused both frequently. Plenty of books were seemingly passed around, some of them more obscure; five different people are recorded as having borrowed mostly forgotten French writer Louis Ellies du Pin’s 13-volume History of Ecclesiastical Writers (1692–1699). Mathematics and theology were generally the dominant subjects, and as Jones reminds us, these were the only fields in which anything of note was published out of Balliol between 1675 and 1725. The nature of progress in both fields is somewhat cumulative, and existing work is often superseded rather than lasting on in our cultural imagination, which means that many of the mathematicians and theologians studied at the time are not household names today. Thus the lending register allows us to recover the names of people who shaped the discourse of their respective subjects but might otherwise have been forgotten. It might be tempting for us to think of the 17th century as the era of Paradise Lost, but if Balliol possessed a copy of the poem – and catalogue records suggest that it did – then the lending register suggests that it did not appeal to any of the Fellows at the time. The register offers a rare insight into what was actually read in the College, not simply owned or bought, and might force us to modify our understanding of what readers considered to be important.
During my time at Balliol I was privileged to borrow from the expertise of the archivist, Anna Sander, and the librarians, Naomi Tiley, Fiona Godber, and Rachel McDonald, all of whose guidance has been invaluable. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to gain research and professional experience and the funding that has made that possible. I hope my work can play some small part in opening up this manuscript for further study by experts in this field.
– Thanks to Matthew’s research project, new digital images of three important archival sources for the history of Balliol College Library are now online:
Oxford, Balliol College Archives, Library Records:
Balliol MS 385 is written in Pali on lacquered and gilt palm leaves enclosed and strung between painted wooden boards.
Detail of one of the boards
The inner side of one board and the outside leaf
Detail of an outer leaf
leaves from the middle of the manuscript, with text and decoration
detail of decorated leaf
Balliol has few Oriental manuscripts – the term under which all the non-western mss in languages and scripts from Pali to Persian, Hebrew to Hindi, have been lumped together. Most of them were given individually to the College as antiquarian curiosities, and they have not, on the whole, been evaluated, described or studied much at all in comparison with the collection of western manuscripts. But there are discoveries still to be made!
A description of MSS 385 and 386 by Prof FW Thomas, cited by Mynors as ‘kept with the MSS’, is lost, so as far as we know Balliol does not have information about the date or origins of this MS. There is no obvious documentation of how it came to Balliol, but there is a lot of acquisition information, at least for the 20th century, in the Annual Record, so we will at least survey that to see what we can discover.
In the meantime, our descriptions remain inadequate, but thanks to the efforts of archives, libraries and museums to put images from their own collections online, it is possible to put these ‘Balliol orphans’ in some kind of context with other manuscripts of their kind(s). I have found some (to the untrained eye at least) similar manuscripts – and therefore several useful descriptors and explanations of particular features – at:
- Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections (Dublin, Ireland) – try searching for ‘manuscript’ and then add Hebrew, Arabic, etc. This post from M&ArL@TCD’s blog about a Pali MS from Burma has images of something similar to Balliol 385.
- Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts (Baltimore, MD, USA) image collections on Flickr – includes a large collection of Islamic manuscripts
- The Wellcome Library (London, UK) image collection – search for e.g. ‘Pali’
- Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, USA) – a small online exhibition on ‘Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition’
- Northern Illinois University (DeKalb, IL, USA) – manuscript collections in their Southeast Asia Digital Library
Very little of the British Library’s large Southeast Asia collections is online, either images or descriptions, but you can find some images here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Default.aspx
For background knowledge rather than images:
- The Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation
- The Pali Text Society
- The Wellcome Library’s Catalogue of the Burmese-Pali and Burmese Manuscripts
We don’t often have visiting archives, but last week brought an exception. The letter below has kindly been loaned to Balliol for the rest of 2013, during which the college celebrates its 750th anniversary.
A nearly-complete transcript:
My dear Vice Chancellor,
I will gladly preach
in the afternoon of Sunday
June 18th as you kindly propose
I hope that I may be able
to say something useful to
Yours very sincerely
If anyone can untangle Jowett’s dreadful spidery hand and finish the last word of the 4th line, I’d be glad to hear about it! It should of course be a word meaning something like either suggest or offer, but it’s neither of those, nor I think proffer. Update: two blog readers responded immediately with the suggestion of ‘propose’. Thank you! I agree.
Aside from the words, this letter, though not of any great historical substance alone, might bring up many questions and possible connections:
- What year was this letter written?
- Who was the Vice-Chancellor?
- Why is the Vice-Chancellor issuing invitations to preach? As it’s the V-C inviting, which pulpit is Jowett going to preach from?
- Is there any other correspondence about this sermon? What was it about? Does its text survive? Did other people comment on it later?
How might we go about trying to answer some of these questions? what clues can we find to connect this letter to others? Archival research and archival description are all about making meaningful connections.
The verso is annotated in pencil, probably by a later collector, ‘Dr Jowett – President of Balliol Coll.’ This is (probably) incorrect on two counts: Jowett did not have a DPhil from Oxford and only acquired a doctorate in 1884, an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Edinburgh; so unless this is quite a late letter, the title ‘Dr’ is not correct; and although Balliol’s head of house went by various titles in the first centuries of the college’s history, certainly well before Jowett’s time the title had settled as Master, not President.
If I were beginning research to integrate this letter into Balliol’s collections, here are a few of the first places I’d look for clues:
the catalogue of Jowett’s papers held at Balliol
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (see if your local library has an online subscription – many do)
Wikipedia’s list of V-Cs of Oxford (yes indeed, used judiciously, Wikipedia can be a great research tool!)
- Wikipedia entry for BJ
- National Register of Archives Personal name search
An anonymous deposit was waiting for me in the pigeon post this morning: a late 19th or early 20th century photo postcard showing St Cross Church, a bit of Holywell Manor, and two children standing in front of cottages where the English faculty building now stands, at the northeast corner of Manor Road and St Cross Road.
The postcard, quite a faded print
St Cross and the Clewer Sisters’ chapel with its little steeple rather misleadingly just behind a pole of some sort – electricity? Only the south wall of the chapel remains; the rest is part of the Praefectus’ Garden at Holywell Manor. Tweaked and at high resolution
Many thanks to the donor, whoever it was! This postcard will be filed with our small dossier of information on the history of St Cross – all the official parish records and other historical bits and pieces about the church are in the County Record Office.