– 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.


monthly report September 2017

Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during September:

  • Number of enquiries: 61
  • Running total for 2017: 578
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 3
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 5
  • Collections consulted: college records,  medieval manuscripts (3)
  • Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries), over 4 months since late May when a new production slip system was introduced – numbers doubtless incomplete:
    • 33 boxes containing from two bound volumes to 4 thick files of individual items, not including
    • 83 files – up to 200 items per file, not including
    • 50 individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
    • 74 medieval ms codices
  • No of non-research visitors: ca.400
  • images created: 1300
  • events: Oxford Open Doors (7th year), patronal evening prayer service, Balliol incumbents’ conference visit to exhibition and evening prayer service, Balliol Society visitors to exhibition, individual visitors to exhibition

This month I’ve included a snapshot of numbers about enquirers’ place of origin (or at least geographical  research base) and enquiry type – I don’t do this every time as they get very repetitive; proportions are fairly consistent throughout the year and from year to year. Private family history enquiries may make up less of the annual total now that basic research sources such as the College Register and War Memorial Books have been available online for more than 5 years; individuals can use them without reference to the archivist, and they are being mentioned in e.g. family history/WW1 research forums as well. More about September’s enquiries (calculated out of 61):

Origin of enquiry

  • Internal (Balliol) 9, 15%
  • Oxford (outside Balliol) 17, 28%
  • Rest of UK 24, 39%
  • Other countries 11, 19% (Germany, France , Netherlands, Australia, USA, Italy, Canada)

Type of enquirer

  • Private (mostly biographical or local history) 20, 34%
  • Academic 18, 29%
  • Student 7, 11%
  • Institutional/admin 16, 26%

Some of the enquiry topics received in September:

  • advice re archives cataloguing and preservation
  • advice re student/volunteer projects in archives
  • requests for (new) digital images of medieval manuscripts
  • C17 college accounts
  • Buittle Castle
  • college hymn
  • college portraits and paintings
  • college rules for students in the 1920s
  • records of college livings and related estates/property
  • development of the tutorial system, late C19-earlyC20
  • history of the role of Visitor of the College
  • Balliol JCR and MCR Presidents
  • history of adult education in Oxford, late C19-early C20
  • Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
    • people who were not members of Balliol
    • Nathanael Konopios (Balliol 1630s/40s)
    • GM Hopkins (Balliol TT 1863)
    • R Browning (Hon Fellow 1867)
    • J Ashton Cross (Balliol 1868)
    • R Younger, Baron Blanesburgh (Balliol TT 1880)
    • OV Darbishire (Balliol 1888)
    • J O’Regan (Balliol 1889)
    • AR Cunliffe (Balliol 1890)
    • HJ Rofe (Balliol 1890)
    • CE Goetz (Balliol 1891)
    • FF Urquhart (Balliol 1891)
    • CN Dyer (Balliol 1897)
    • JS Mann (Balliol 1912)
    • HG Greene (Balliol 1922)
    • C Gilpatric (Balliol 1938)
    • JR Schlesinger (Balliol 1947)
    • Egerton Richardson (Balliol 1954)

#mss2017 Case 9: tiny books, tiny writing

Sian Witherden has been working on tiny books as part of her Balliol DPhil research. She writes: ‘In this exhibition, four small Balliol manuscripts have been placed together in one display case.  These books are not related to each other in any way besides their common size—they contain different texts, they are written in a variety of languages, and they hail from across the globe. However, the creators of all these books faced the same challenge: how do you produce a readable text on such a small scale? Each of these books is smaller than an adult’s hand, and this demands an impressive level of craftsmanship. In MS 348, for example, the scribe has managed to write letters that are just a millimetre or two in height. Creating ornamental initials and illuminations on this scale is an equally arduous task, and close-up photographs of these decorations reveals an astonishing level of detail and precision. ‘

Anna Sander: On the one hand, small books  are easy to move, hide or pack away if necessary; not obviously useful for recycling as binding waste, as big sheets of parchment are, when no longer e.g. liturgically relevant; and often much-loved, beautiful, and highly personal items handed down through generations. On the other, they are easily misplaced, lost or stolen owing to their small size; highly attractive on the market, reluctant though an owner might be to sell; and rather chunky to handle  because of their high proportion of height and width to thickness. Mechanically, their own weight will not help to ‘persuade’ a stiff binding to open further, and in this exhibition, it’s only the tiny books that need to be strapped in place in order to keep them open. They are made to be held in the hand, or perhaps both hands, used by one person. While big books are necessarily at the more expensive end of the book production scale because of the larger amount of parchment required to make them, tiny books are not necessarily less expensive, as they may be beautifully produced and highly decorated with expensive materials, and are sometimes written on very thin parchment which must have been even more difficult to make than regular sheep or calf.

The size of the text in these small books varies widely – while MS 348’s minute writing is closest in size to that of MS 148, a much larger book, that of the other three small books shown here is not especially small, and reasonably friendly to the naked reading eye. Though it’s especially striking to see a whole book in minute writing, tiny script is not unusual in manuscripts – it is often used for annotations, marginal comments, rubricator’s notes, and interlinear glosses (see e.g. MS 253). Was it done with the same pen as the larger main text? a tiny quill? a feather? a tiny brush? Did they have spectacles or magnifying glasses? There isn’t much evidence – descriptions and depictions of scriptoria and scribes’ equipment and practice are surprisingly few, and not always reliable. We are intrigued, and will add more evidence here as we find it.

More about tiny manuscript books

#mss2017 Case 9d: MS 378

MS 378, open at ff.28-29, showing rubrics and stitching in the middle of a quire

MS 378 is an undated volume of prayers to the Virgin Mary in Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is Balliol’s smallest manuscript book at only 2 ½ x 3 ½”, or 62 x 83mm. It is so tiny that its custom-made box is about four times the size of the book, with a recessed mount to hold it securely. One benefit of this rather larger and heavier box is that it’s easy to find on the shelf, to handle, and to keep track of during production and consultation – a box as small as the book might easily be hidden behind a larger one, or worse, dropped.

This manuscript is displayed closed in order to show its Ethiopic sewing, often known as Coptic style and distinct from later western binding techniques. The Copts, early Egyptian Christians, were the first to use the codex format, and their sewing method is still unsurpassed in simplicity and flexibility: a new Coptic binding can be opened a full 360 degrees.

The MS is in fairly good condition; the sewing is fragile and there is evidence of fairly recent repair to the attachment of the front board – what looks like a large stitch on the lower front cover – but other than some surface dirt it does not require further intervention. The paper label glued to the front cover, which MS 378 has in common with many of the others, is in the hand of EV Quinn, who began at Balliol as Assistant Librarian in 1940 and became Fellow Librarian in 1963, a post he held until 1982.

MS 378 is the only one in the collection known to have been given to the College by Benjamin Jowett from his own library, but there is no documentation in the archives about how he came to acquire it, or its previous provenance.

Although it is neither western nor medieval (as far as we know, at least), this manuscript has been included in the exhibition for two reasons: it shares many of the same conservation issues and endearing qualities as any tiny book, and it serves as a small signpost to another section of the collection that has hitherto suffered from lack of attention. As yet, many of Balliol’s 33 non-western manuscripts are still ‘closed books’: not yet accurately dated and without full descriptions of their contents, they have not been studied in detail and their research value has yet to be assessed. We hope that through recently established Balliol and Oxford contacts, and with good digital images emerging as useful tools, scholars in the relevant fields will soon be able to tell the College more about this part of the collection. Their entries in Mynors’ catalogue have been grouped together under their traditional label of ‘oriental manuscripts’ here.

MS 378, showing stitching, boards and binding

More about Ethiopic manuscripts and Ethiopic/Coptic sewing:

#mss2017 Case 3a: MS 349

MS 349 medieval binding, showing spine and front cover – formerly red

We have begun with two examples of administrative documents created in the course of College business. MS 349 perhaps conforms more closely to the expected type of a medieval manuscript: in codex format, a 15th century copy on parchment, in several different English bookhands, of nine texts related to the office of priesthood, listed by Mynors.

This manuscript is, unusually, displayed closed in order to show the only surviving medieval binding in Balliol’s collection – and a modern gummed paper label in the unmistakable hand of EV Quinn, whose career in Balliol Library spanned 40 years in the 1940s-80s. Images are displayed to show a typical opening, some of the alum tawed supports showing through in places, and an illuminated initial using gold and colour.

MS 349 was bequeathed to Balliol by Dr George Coningesby (1692/3-1768, Balliol 1739) in 1768, and by then would have been an antiquarian gift rather than a contribution to the active contemporary College Library. Coningesby is  the largest single donor of manuscripts (17 or 18) to the College after William Gray, a 15th century Bishop of Ely. He also left a large number of printed books to Balliol.  Coningesby’s donations were just late enough to escape the wholesale rebinding of the medieval library in 1724-7, for which one Ned Doe was paid nearly £50. Most of the manuscripts are still bound in this 18th century half-calf (similar to suede); the bindings tend to be heavily glued and many have cracked and split, while the fuzzy covers are thin, and tear easily. MS 349’s boards still retain the metal furniture for an otherwise lost fore-edge clasp, but do not bear marks of any chain staple. Mynors notes that ‘The last mention of chaining in the library accounts falls in the year 1767-8, and an entry under 1791-2 ‘From Stone the Smith for old iron and brass’ probably marks the ending of the practice altogether.’

MS 349 – turnin showing something of the cover’s original bright red colour

Losses to the cover of MS 349 reveal a bevelled edge of the wooden board; there is also (old and inactive) woodworm damage, and the smooth pigskin cover has faded from its medieval red nearly back to the original pale brown, though an inner corner shows some remaining dye. While in many cases medieval sewing structures may survive within later rebindings, they are difficult to observe; full medieval bindings are rarer survivals and provide useful research opportunities.

edge of wooden board showing old insect damage

broken sewing supports, exposed within the volume


At some time there has been a modern repair of ff.121-122, a bifolium that had become detached from the textblock. Although there is some heavy cockling to folios at either end, and tears to spine folds in places, the book opens well and can be handled, carefully.

MS 349 – a typical opening

More about western medieval bindings:

and see also resources under Medieval Manuscripts – Introduction on the Further Reading page

#mss2017 Case 1: Statutes of Dervorguilla, 1282.

College Archives D.4.1

Detail of the beginning of the Statutes: ‘Deruorgulla de Galwedia domina de Balliolo…’

We begin not with a codex but with a single sheet of parchment with a pendent seal, the usual format for individual medieval legal and administrative records. This is the first formal document laying out the constitution, governance and way of life of the scholars of Balliol College; it is issued in the name of Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady de Balliol, and is dated at Botel (Buittle Castle, seat of the lords of Galloway, near the town of Dalbeattie in Dumfries & Galloway), on the octave of the Assumption of the glorious Virgin Mary (i.e. 22 August), in the year of grace 1282. The text is written, as usual for medieval charters and books alike, in heavily abbreviated Latin: in the first line above, ‘dna’ with a line above it is an abbreviation of ‘domina’, ‘lady’; ‘dilcis’ of ‘dilectis,’ ‘beloved’; ‘xro’ of ‘christo,’ ‘Christ’; etc. Some abbreviations are indicated by generic signs including a line above the remaining letters, or the apostrophe still used today, but many are systematically represented by specific characters or symbols: in the fourth line above, you will notice several words ending in ibȝ – the ȝ, which looks like the Middle English letter yogh or a long-tailed z, stands for -us, so the ending is -ibus, used in Latin for dative or ablative plurals. There are useful lists and dictionaries of medieval abbreviations, but any archivist or researcher who routinely deals with medieval documents memorizes the most frequently used ones. Understanding the generic abbreviations depends on good reading ability and a knowledge of the formulaic language and context-specific vocabulary used in the relevant form of medieval documents.

Statutes of 1282, face (front side) and dorse (back side). Photos by OCC, 2017.

The Statutes have required remarkably little repair over their 735 years and are still in extremely good condition: as the College’s key founding document they have always been carefully preserved, and as they were legally superseded by Sir Philip Somervyle’s statutes in 1340 they were not current for long enough to suffer much wear from actual use. Parchment, usually made from the prepared skin of sheep or young calves, can last longer than a millennium if kept away from heat, damp, direct sunlight and pests; iron gall ink if made correctly and similarly preserved lasts as well. The fate of wax seals is often less happy, as in addition to the vulnerabilities already mentioned, they are naturally highly brittle and fragile even under the best storage conditions.

This document will have been folded around its seal for much of its existence; this has helped to preserve both the text and the seal. It and many of the medieval title deeds were flattened, and a modern label affixed, in the late 19th century. The original fold lines are still readily visible.

The Statutes were mounted in an acid-free buffered housing inside a Perspex box frame by Judy Segall of the Bodleian Library’s Conservation Department in 1986, at the instance of Dr JH Jones, then Dean and Fellow Archivist of Balliol. This treatment protected the flattened document and its seal, and made it safe to produce for either research or College events.

1282 Statutes, 1986 mount showing silica gel desiccant crystals. Photo by OCC, 2017.

In 2017, Dervorguilla’s Statutes were lightly cleaned and rehoused in a new acid-free mount by Katerina Powell of OCC, with an outer box made by Bridget Mitchell of Arca Preservation.


Seal of Dervorguilla: L obverse (front), R reverse (back). Photos by OCC, 2017.

The seal attached to the 1282 Statutes is not the College seal but the personal seal of Dervorguilla herself. In her right hand she holds an escutcheon (shield) bearing the orle (shield outline shape) of the Balliol family; on the left, the lion of Galloway. The other two shields represent Dervorguilla’s powerful English family connections: on the left, three garbs (wheatsheaves) for the Earl of Chester; and on the right, two piles (wedges) meeting toward the base for the Earl of Huntingdon. The motto on the obverse (front) reads, clockwise from the top:  + S’[IGILLUM] + DERVORGILLE DE BALLIOL FILIE ALANI DE GALEWAD’.’ [Seal of Dervorguilla de Balliol, daughter of Alan of Galloway.’] That on the reverse (back) gives her titles in reverse: ‘S’ DERVORGILLE DE GALEWAD’ DNE DE BALLIOLO’ [Seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady de Balliol].

The College’s shield, used in its official logo today and visible in various forms throughout the College site in Broad Street, is taken directly from that shown on the reverse of Dervorguilla’s seal, above: the arms of Balliol and Galloway impaled, with, unusually, those of the wife rather than the husband on the dominant dexter side – the right as held, though the left as viewed.

Further reading:

  • F de Paravicini, Early History of Balliol College. 1891. (includes full transcript of Statutes, in Latin) online at archive.org 
  • HE Salter, The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College. 1913. online at archive.org
  • Marjorie Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway.’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society LXXIX (3rd series) 2005, pp.101-146.
  • JH Jones, A History of Balliol College. 2nd ed rev, 2005. (includes full English translation of Statutes)
  • Two illustrated talks on the conservation of medieval charters and their seals by Martin Strebel of Atelier Strebel, presented at the Seal Conservation Round Table Congress Oxford, March 2007
  • Amanda Beam. The Balliol Dynasty: 1210-1364. John Donald, 2008
  • National Library of Wales, Seals in medieval Wales  
  • Imprint Project: a forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals, University of Lincoln

Manuscript Fragments in Early Printed Books

a selection of manuscript fragments inside Balliol’s early printed books

Balliol’s archivist and librarians are working together with researchers to collect information about manuscript fragments reused in the bindings of the college’s early printed books. This information has not been compiled at Balliol before, and while some manuscript fragments are well known in secondary literature, the college’s catalogue entries do not always include copy-specific details describing them – or even indicating their presence.

Fragments are usually located just inside the front and/or back covers of books, may consist of paper or parchment, and can occur as spine linings, stubs, pastedowns, tabs, and flyleaves – or even offsets, inky ghosts of vanished texts left on the facing page. All kinds of texts are reused; so far we have already noted full or nearly full pages of text, decorated, decorated initials, sections of medieval and early modern music notation, and parts of administrative documents and personal letters.

More about current research on manuscript fragments and binding waste

Summer Vac on facebook

‘Vacation’ in Oxford parlance, often shortened to Vac, means ‘out of term time’; the three academic teaching terms  (semesters) run for 8 very intense weeks each and are known by the church feasts near their beginnings: autumn’s Michaelmas Term (feast of St Michael, 29 September), winter’s Hilary Term (feast of St Hilary of Poitiers, 13 January), and spring’s Trinity Term (movable feast in May/June depending dates of Easter > Pentecost). Vacation doesn’t mean everyone in Oxford goes on holiday – the emphasis turns to research instead of teaching. For anyone who works in special collections, vacations are often busier than term time, with Oxford academics and students more free to come and do their research.

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 the Summer Vac:

26 June

Long Vacation – for returning undergraduates, that is. This week in the archives: medieval manuscripts & early printed books researchers, a visit from the Bodleian’s archives and library trainees from across the colleges and university, and fire suppression system testing. Enquiry 400 did indeed appear last week, as did new digital images of MSS 80, 148 and 247. https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/albums

3 July

July. This week in the archives: researchers for the Monckton and Morier archives, a visit from participants in the University of Oxford Research and Innovation Support Conference, and a gathering of archivists from Oxford and Cambridge colleges and London’s Inns of Court giving papers on Unbuilt Oxford. I’m working on a rather large reprographics request, September exhibition prep, and processing recent accessions. I’ll be out of the office on Tuesday attending the Oxbridge/Inns day at St John’s.

10 July

Long Vac. Last week’s spate of researchers is not continued this week, so on with exhibition planning, arrangement & description, digitization requests etc.

17 July

This week pretty much as last week, with a reader for the Strachan-Davidson papers and several for EPBs. There are so many short deadlines throughout the year for temporary displays, college events, visitors, enquiries etc etc that the rare ‘slack’ weeks with fewer external demands are when all the behind the scenes essentials get done. Lots of ongoing tasks, rather than finite projects, that will get at least some attention each.

24 July

More footfall at St Cross this last week in July: researchers for the Clough and Monckton archives, and Juliana ‘Julie’ Dresvina bringing her summer school class to learn about medieval manuscripts.

31 July

This week: August! 6 weeks until the exhibition opens… Researchers for the Boat Club records, Monckton papers and medieval manuscripts. July stats will be appearing on the blog today.

7 Aug

August in the archives: a researcher for the Monckton papers, preparation for a busy September. That is ‘all’.

Here’s a marginal sneeze from MS 238B f17r. The rest:https://www.flickr.com/…/balliolarch…/sets/72157630983831414

14 Aug

Mid-August: this week in the archives, researchers for the Jowett and TH Green papers.

Dissertation suggestion: women as co-creators (credited and uncredited), curators, editors, collectors, preservers, depositors of Great Men’s Archives. A few Balliol examples: Martha Knight, Charlotte (Symonds) Green, Blanche (Shore Smith) Clough, Mary (Baird) Smith, Harriet (Fortescue) Urquhart, Margaret Deneke…

21 Aug

August: deepest part of the Vac, busiest time for University Admissions, the SCR is closed for lunch. Work in the archives rolls on regardless: this week, a researcher is bravely tackling Benjamin Jowett’s spidery handwriting all week.

Starting preparations for the Open Doors weekend (9-10 September) – St Cross will be open 12-4pm both days for the 7th year. Come by for a look at the building restoration and quite a lot of medieval manuscripts on display! Staff, including the exhibition curator (hemhem) will be on hand on answer questions about the building and the collections.

OHCT Ride & Stride participants are very welcome on the Saturday as well! Do please note though that the church will not be open all day, only 12-4pm, so if you want to be sure of having your sponsorship forms signed at St Cross, do plan your itinerary accordingly.

Patronal Festival: a service of Evening Prayer will be held in the chancel of St Cross, Holywell, to mark the Feast of the Holy Cross (moved from the 14th) on Sunday, 17 September 2017
at 5pm. (NB not the same weekend as Open Doors.) Everyone is welcome. Celebrant: the Revd Dr William Lamb, Vicar of the University Church.

11 Sept

More than 300 visitors to Open Doors over the weekend 😀 The medieval manuscripts exhibition is well and truly launched – if you missed it at Open Doors, don’t worry, it’s open until December. There may be some more public opening hours advertised later in the term, but individual and group visitors are very welcome almost any time 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

18 Sept

This week in the archives, Balliol Society (alumni) visitors to the exhibition on Saturday afternoon, a service for the patronal feast yesterday evening, a reader for medieval manuscripts, and incumbents of Balliol livings visiting the exhibition tomorrow.

Individual and group visitors to the exhibition of medieval manuscripts are very welcome almost any time 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. More about the manuscripts exhibition athttps://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/ #mss2017