Books as evidence, part one: works from William Cecil’s lost library rediscovered in the Old Library at Queens’ College


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William Cecil, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, was for the span of his career a man of formidable influence. Appointed Secretary of State on the first day of the new Queen’s reign, he operated at the heart of English politics. So great was their familiarity, and her reliance on his wisdom and knowledge, that the Queen gave him the affectionate nickname of ‘Spirit’.


Portrait of William Cecil from ‘An Abridgement of the Third Volume of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England’ by Gilbert Burnet, published 1728 (held in the Old Library)

Throughout his life, Cecil remained an enthusiastic collector of books; having received a humanist education at Cambridge, he built his library around classical works of mathematics, theology and history, and supplemented these with medieval and contemporary texts.

This impressive personal library was dispersed after his death, but a recent discovery in the Old Library has shed new light not only on his collection, but also on his connection with Queens’ College.

During the early eighteenth century, it became fashionable to re-bind collections of books in order to give them a uniform appearance. At Queens’ College, though, the implementation of land enclosure had proved sufficiently costly, and no such work was undertaken. The books in the Old Library were therefore left as they were, many of them in their original bindings.

16th and 17th-century bindings in calf and vellum (Old Library).

Valuable historical sources, these early bindings offer evidence not only of the provenance of the book, but its purpose, the degree of use it experienced and the reverence in which it was held. Even more than this, they can record relationships in the chain of ownership and map the spread of ideas.

One such relationship is that between William Cecil and Humphrey Tindall, President of Queens’ College from 1579 to 1614.

Postillae Sive Conciones Reverendi Patris D. Ioannis Feri

Postillae Sive Conciones Reverendi Patris D. Ionnis Feri [The Sermons of Reverend Father Johann Ferus], 1564

During research conducted for the library’s “Renaissance Queens'” cataloguing project, several Old Library books have been identified as being from the collection of William Cecil. Bound in polished calf, the book above has been stamped with a coat of arms; it is this armorial binding that identifies the book as having been owned by William Cecil.

Detail of Cecil armorial binding

Detail of the armorial binding; note the motto of the Order of the Garter, and the Cecil family arms.

Cecil’s coat of arms incorporates the heraldic bearings of several family lines; the arms of the Cecil family (top left and bottom right) consist of six shields, each bearing a rampant lion. The helmet above the coat of arms indicates the rank of Esquire, a term which in the sixteenth century denoted a member of the landed gentry, above the rank of gentleman. Beneath the arms it is possible to see a belt bearing the motto “Honi soit que mal y pense”, which, translated from middle French, means “shame in him who thinks evil of it”. This is the symbol and motto of the Order of the Garter. Cecil served as the Chancellor of the Order of the Garter between 1551 and 1553, and later received the honour of the Garter himself from Elizabeth I in 1572. Taking this into account, as well as the date of publication, it seems likely that this book was bound between 1572 and his death in 1598.

The bindings of these books have provided evidence to their provenance. However, for evidence of a connection between Cecil and Tindall we must look within the leaves.

Within Cecil’s copy of The Sermons of Reverend Father Johann Ferus, the front endpaper bears an inscription which translates as:

“Given by Humphrey Tindall. Humphrey Tindall was a former Prefect of this College and left this legacy on his death on 12th October, anno Domini 1614.”

This hastily written annotation, written within a book bearing Cecil’s bindings, is sure confirmation that William Cecil’s books came to Queens’ College via Humphrey Tindall. It also lends powerful support to a narrative that has survived in contemporary letters and secondary sources.


This seventeenth-century inscription on the front free endpaper of Cecil’s book reads ‘Ex dono Umphridi Tindall [Given by Humphrey Tindall].’

When William Chaderton left the Presidency of Queens’ College in 1579, a Fellow, David Yale, wrote to Cecil. He stated that it was well known that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and at one time candidate for marriage to the Queen, had ensured Chaderton’s appointment, as Chaderton had been his chaplain. Dudley was sure to do the same again, this time offering his patronage to Humphrey Tindall. Tindall had not only been Dudley’s chaplain, but had also very recently performed for him a discreet marriage ceremony, later providing a sworn statement that ensured that the pregnancy that became evident soon after the wedding was accepted as legitimate.

Yale felt that Tindall was too young and inexperienced for the role and, perhaps with a touch of self-interest, petitioned for a free election. However, Cecil instead joined with Dudley in securing the position for Tindall. Tindall was never promoted to the bishopric, as might have been expected with such influential patrons, but instead remained in post at Queens’ until his death in 1614.

Spared from erasure, these bindings have provided evidence of a relationship about which relatively little is known. However, the question remains: why did Cecil require Tindall’s appointment to Queens’, and what ideas, contained in these books, was he attempting to propagate?

By Hannah Smith, Graduate Library Trainee

 Books as Evidence: Part Two will be published on 22nd June.

Front (horn) window


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16th century calf binding of Ptolemy’s Geographiae universalis, vetus et nova [D.1.7]

From their invention in late antiquity until the twentieth century animal skin was essential to the production of bound books. It is widely known that Medieval manuscripts were copied on vellum (i.e. calfskin) pages or leaves and that both manuscript volumes and early printed books had bindings made of leather, principally from calf, sheep, goat and pig. Skin was, however, not the only animal product to have been used in books. How else might animals have been used to make books?

One lesser known component in the production of early printed books was cow horn, used to make ‘horn windows’. Less costly than glass, cow horn had been widely used in the middle ages to make actual windows.  To do this, cow horns were soaked in water to soften them, heated and then cut and rolled into strips. A famous extant example is the horn window at Barley Hall, York.

In bookbinding, a horn window (also called fenestra) denotes a rectangular piece of transparent horn that is fixed to the front board of a book as protection for a paper or vellum label (see above).

There are in Queens’ Old Library three volumes that retain horn windows, all of them formerly owned by the same person. In each case the horn is held in place by a brass frame that encloses a parchment slip on which is inscribed details of how the book came to be in Queens’ Library:

M-009-019-002 cropped

Horn window on the copy of St. Cyprian’s Works [M.9.19] with inscription: Thomas Yale Brita[n]nus Legum Doctor for Cancellarius Archiepiscopi Cantuariensis quondam Socius: huius Collegij hunc libru[m] dedit huic Bibliothecae. A[nn]o D[omini] 1562 Januarij 6⁰

The label shown above informs us that this book was given to Queens’ Library on 6 January 1562 by Thomas Yale. He was a distinguished civil lawyer who became Chancellor and Vicar-General to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Thomas Yale was also a fellow of Queens’ College between the years 1544-57 and served as College Bursar in 1556.

Before working for the Anglican Matthew Parker, Yale defended the Catholic Church within the University during the reign of Queen Mary I. Indeed he subscribed to the 1555 Roman Catholic articles affirming the doctrines of Rome and condemning the errors of the reformers. The following year, he assisted in the search for heretical books during a visitation of the delegates of Cardinal Pole, then Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and (last Roman Catholic) Archbishop of Canterbury.

Crop Thomas Yale

Entry of Thomas Yale’s gift (p. 1) in the Donors’ Book of Queens’ Library [Queens MS 47]

The first entry in the Library’s seventeenth-century Donors’ Book retrospectively records the personal gift by Thomas Yale of four books (see above). These included:

– Cyprian, Saint, Bishop of Carthage, Opera (Basel, 1525) [M.9.19]
– Tertullian, Opera Q. Septimii Florentis Tertullini inter Latinos ecclesiae scriptores primi (Basel, 1528) [M.9.20]
– Ptolemy, Geographia universalis, vetus et nova (Basel, 1542) [D.1.7].

The copy of Eusebius mentioned in the Donors’ book (above) cannot now be found in the Old Library. (It could simply be missing or the Library could have rebound the volume together with another volume as a result of which the original donor label could have been lost.)

Label pastedown on front pastedown [M.12.7]

All three of these known Yale books bear a horn window that displays a similar donor inscription on the front cover. However, a further two-volume set (Origen, Operum tomi duo priores (Paris, 1522) [M.12.7-8]) not recorded in the Donors’ Book also bears a Yale donor label but on the front pastedown (i.e. inside front cover) of each volume rather than on the front cover under a horn window. It seems likely that these volumes were rebound in the seventeenth century, at which time the original labels were transferred inside the volumes and the horn windows were discarded.

Binding created especially for Simon Heynes, with Yale’s horn window inserted below Heynes’ motto [M.9.20]

Of the Yale books, two (Cyprian and Tertullian) are known to have shared a distinguished earlier owner prior to Yale. Their sixteenth-century blind-stamped bindings are ornately gilt-stamped with the initials ‘S.H.’ of Simon Heynes (or Haynes) (d. 1552) and the motto ‘Salus mea d[omi]n[u]s’ (The Lord, my salvation). Educated at Queens’, Heynes’ high-flying career included periods as Queens’ President (1529-37) and as Canon of Windsor, Prebendary of Westminster, and Dean of Exeter. He is remembered now specifically for his role as an early Reformer who assisted in the compilation of the first English liturgy.

After the 1534 Act of Supremacy when Henry VIII was recognised as ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’, Heynes became an official anti-papal preacher in Cambridge, devoted to the Church of England cause. In March 1530, Heynes had helped to secure his university’s endorsement of Henry VIII’s case for a divorce.

Thomas Yale acquired these books through his wife, Joan (or Joanna) Walron (or Waleron), the widow of Simon Heynes, whom Yale married in 1561. It is interesting to note that Heynes (and then Yale) owned books by two Church fathers considered controversial by the Catholic Church (neither Tertullian nor Origin are recognized as saints due to their sometimes unorthodox theological positions).

Curiously, one of the volumes displays a somewhat blatant error committed by the binder when he was decorating the binding.  Having omitted a letter ‘u’ from the motto (‘Salus mea d[omi]n[u]s’/The Lord, my salvation) he sought to rectify the problem by inserting the letter above.

M-009-019-002 edited.jpg

Binder’s mistake [M.9.19]

Although no other books with horn windows survive in Queens’ Old Library today we know of at least one source that suggest the earlier existence of further examples. An entry in the College’s Bursars’ accounts (QC Book 4) mentions the purchase of material to build and nail the metal frame of horn windows for books bequeathed by Laurence Hollenden in 1585. 

[March] Item paide for the carriage of M[rs] Hollandes bookes geven to the Librarie and for carriage of 2 lres. xviiid
Item for twae chaynes for the same bookes. xiid
Item two hookes for them. iiid
Item horne and saddell nailes for the same bookes. iiid

By Lucille Munoz, HLF Project Associate (Rare Books Cataloguer)

Proverbial Battles: Desiderius Erasmus, Polydore Vergil and the Race for Supremacy in Renaissance Europe…


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In our previous blog post, we briefly considered one of Erasmus’s key works: the Adagia. Through the intimacy of his own inner thoughts, we gained a rare insight into how difficult the “Prince of the Humanists” may have found the relatively new mode of learning known as humanism. Yet it was also noted how recent innovations such as the printing press with movable type supported the process; used with catalytic effect in Europe to circulate new ideas and information recovered from manuscripts in a purer critical form, all within what became an increasing self-conscious intellectual community. Largely due to itinerant scholars such as Erasmus, the humanist project that had begun in Renaissance Italy was gradually travelling north and finally making its first impressions on English soil under the patronage of a royal court recently stabilized under the first Tudor monarchs.  As a new programme for education it seemed fitting and suitably noble, providing a shining beacon of light that could lead a relatively backward kingdom out from the stagnation, fear and despair generated from decades of dynastic dispute.

Queens in Loggan

Engraving of Queens’ College from Cantabrigia illustrata (1690) by David Loggan. Dating from the College’s foundation in 1448, ‘Old Court’ has remained relatively unchanged through the centuries [C.11.16].

It’s often delightful to stroll through the Cambridge colleges, and Queens’ is certainly no exception. If we pause now to consider the original medieval buildings, purpose-built during the Wars of the Roses to serve a self-contained scholastic community, we can safely conclude that Erasmus also once set eyes on the very same enclosures.  Following his invitation from former President of Queens’ College – John Fisher, this devoutly religious man would possibly have sought occasional contemplation in what is now the Old Library or communal prayer in what was then the chapel (now the student library).  Yet Erasmus’s mind had long occupied an idealized space above the material world: elaborately structured around the highest of Christian morals; supported by classical pillars of virtue reinforced with a vast reading of ancient literature.  We can thus only begin to imagine how the supposedly undervalued humanist then felt when the work of another man implied the sin of literary theft.  He had already suffered the hardships of his Herculean labours and a potential rival now disputed his claim to originality with respect to his very first publication.

Fore-edge 1540 Adagia

Author and title have been written on the fore-edge of this 1540 edition of the Adagia. Early printed books were shelved with the spines facing inward and it would not become regular practice to print such information on the spines until the 18th century [L.10.7]

The issue of originality or ‘primacy’ between Erasmus’s Adagia and Polydore Vergil’s Proverbiorum Libellus never really amounted to more than a minor controversy relative to the more serious disputes of the day.  Although the issue dragged on for decades, there is considerable evidence that the situation mellowed with time.  Nevertheless, it was significant enough at the outset for Polydore Vergil to rename his work Adagiorum Liber in later editions thus drawing attention to its similarity to Erasmus’s collection. It’s also an episode that provides some further interesting insights. Firstly, in my mind at least, this is an early and largely forgotten forerunner for the more famous contests of ideas that would follow between other Great Men – as the term goes (women would not be admitted to the universities on equal terms for a long time to come – at least not until the 19th century in England: there would be no proverbial battle of the sexes in the academic arena for quite a while). I refer of course to the ‘scientific priority disputes’ that would later consume a venerable list of other Cambridge luminaries including Isaac Newton (with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the invention of calculus) and Charles Darwin (with Alfred Russel Wallace over the theory of natural selection).  Disputes of this nature seem to characterize the darker or unhealthy aspects of competition as it degenerates into envy or rivalry in the strive for academic excellence.  After all, in the race for reputation there is often no prize for second place.  Yet, as in the many cases of so-called priority that would follow the scientific revolution, it appears that – by chance – similar circumstances had aligned in different locations such that both scholars decided independently to work on the same project at roughly the same time.  The two Renaissance humanists had both chosen to compile a list of proverbs, but even though Erasmus would claim first publication or primacy for the rest of his life, Vergil had indeed beaten him by two years (i.e. 1498).

1617 Adagia

Polydori Virgilii (Polydore Vergil) is acknowledged on this title-page to the 1617 edition of Erasmus’s Adagiorum Chiliades as having written a work of similar fashion [C.4.3].

As in the case of Erasmus, Vergil’s Proverbiorum Libellus was his first published book.  It originally contained 306 distinct entries but, following the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, his edition of 1521 would include an additional 431 adagia sacra i.e. sacred proverbs or sayings drawn exclusively from the Bible. Indeed, it is in the preface of this edition that Vergil finally decided to publish his objections to Erasmus’s priority claims and that in fact it was he who deserved the honours.  However, it would soon become increasingly clear that the Dutchman’s version was not only more comprehensive but also achieving far greater popularity. Furthermore, the Italian’s characteristic desire to actively avoid religious controversy meant his work was rather tame compared to Eramsus’s biting essays that skilfully exposed what he judged to be the abuses and superstitions of the medieval Church.  By the latter half of the 16th century, Vergil’s collection would for the most part fall out of use; although another of his publications – the Anglica Historia – would later establish his reputation near that of the venerable Bede¹ as one of the most significant and influential historians on England.

1540 P Vergil Inscription

Although the 1540 edition of Erasmus’s Adagia does not acknowledge Polydore Vergil in print, he [Polidoro Virgilii] and his ‘Proverbiorum’ are referenced in ink on the front pastedown of this Queens’ copy. At least part of this inscription can probably be attributed to Richard Bryan, fellow of Queens’ from 1632-44, and from 1660-1680. Proctor. Vice-President. Vicar of St Botolph’s, Cambridge [L.10.7]

Interestingly, it is in the Adagia itself that we find strong evidence as to how Erasmus might have interpreted the circumstances surrounding Vergil’s first visit to England. His Italian ‘rival’ was then in the service of Pope Alexander VI and had been sent north in 1502 as a sub-collector of the much resented “Peter’s Pence”: a payment that had already existed for centuries but had taken many forms ranging from a pious contribution to an effective tax (or occasional extortion…).  Needless to say, it was later abolished by King Henry VIII along with all other financial contributions to Rome in the “Dispensations Act” passed by the Reformation Parliament of 1534.

Although it will probably seem unfamiliar to most of us now, the adage “as figs [styes] are native to the eyes” proves instructive here. It first appeared in the 1517 edition, printed by Johann Froben in Basle as events over the border in Wittenberg were about to plunge Europe into chaos. Indeed, in this context the associated commentary seems remarkably prophetic:

 …the metaphor is taken from that defect which clings to the eyes and cannot be removed without     harming the eye itself. It may be applied not unsuitably to those people who cannot be removed     without great disaster, although they are an intolerable burden to others².



He demonstrates the antiquity of the adage by quoting from Aristophanes’s Frogs, a political comedy first performed in Athens during the age of Socrates and Plato: “Like a sty sticking to the eye, so was he”. As is often the case, Erasmus moves seamlessly into a contemporary discussion by reflecting on actions perpetrated by certain elements within the aristocracy and the highest ‘offices’ of the Church. In the following passage, he specifically laments their use of several orders of friars that subsisted mostly on alms:

If the princes intend to perpetrate some shameless deed, it is through these people that they carry it out. If the Roman pontiffs [popes] have designs which are not quite according to the early Apostolic holiness, these are the intermediaries they prefer to use.  For instance if there is some war, some public disturbance, some levying of taxes, some particularly flagrant delay of justice, they are there, acting as chief parts in the play…I must point out that I am not censuring the good, nor the Order itself.  For those who are incorrupt among them deplore just what I deplore³.

These observations could have easily been applied to men in Polydore Vergil’s occupation as a sub-collector. But perhaps, more appropriately, some may have specifically directed such criticism to his supervisor, Cardinal Castellesi (who was once curiously described by a Venetian ambassador as a ‘hard and sinister man…much favoured by the pontiff’; see footnotes**).

Folly Moriae Encomium 1522

In Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium [In Praise of Folly], Folly ironically narrates her own ‘encomium’ by praising herself. It’s prefaced with a dedication to Sir Thomas More (also note the clever pun in the title) and was suitably written during a brief visit to his friend’s estate. This Queens’copy of 1522 is heavily annotated with ‘marginalia’ [B.8.43].

It’s also worth noting here that by 1511 Erasmus had already travelled to Paris to supervise the printing of his daring satire entitled In Praise of Folly. Indeed, it was upon his return from this very trip that he finally set out for the University of Cambridge and to reside at Queens’ College, following the invitation of John Fisher. The book includes a famous critique against what he judged to be the corruption of the medieval Church and the serious abuses committed by its political allies. Its influence on the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation therefore should not be underestimated.

Moriae B.8.43









G.8.40 Folly Moriae.JPG

Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly: Moriae encomium a  booke made in latin by that great clerke Erasmus Roterodame. Englisshed by sir Thomas Chaloner knight. This Queens’ copy of 1549 is particularly interesting since it has various 16th century notes and scribbling, one dated to 24th April 1584. In addition, the fly-leaves are formed with ‘waste’ from a 14th century theological manuscript [G.8.40].

Often considered Erasmus’s literary masterpiece, In Praise of Folly is seasoned and spiced with language gleaned from classical sources and it’s plain to see that the first editions of the Adagia ie. the Adagiorum Collectanea of 1500 and Adagiorum Chiliades of 1508 had provided the perfect groundwork. Indeed, in the following extract, Erasmus vicariously praises himself by ironically referencing his own Adagia as Folly pompously restrains herself from the temptation to ‘proverbialize’ :

…ill-gotten goods will never prosper; and more to the same purpose.  But I forbear from any farther Proverbializing, lest I should be thought to have rifled my Eramsus’s Adagies [see caption below*].


Praise of Folley 1709.JPG

Originally written in Latin, this Queens’ copy is the 1709 edition of In Praise of Folly “done into English” and “illustrated…by Hans Holbein”. *The quote above on ill-gotten gains is found on p.137 of this book. Also of note: Fig.38 – Fortune favours fools – to wise men she is always stingy and sparing of her gifts; Fig.39 – Erasmus quotes Horaces’s Epistles on the following page: Me pinguem et nitidum… Epicuri de grege porcum or ‘My sleek-skin’d corps as smooth as if I lye… Mong th’ fatted swine of Epicurus Sty’ [ER.2.05].

To end our discussion here, it is perhaps also worth speculating on the psychological role that earlier disputes – such as that with Polydore Vergil – may have played in later events. Once Erasmus heard of the project at the Complutense University of Madrid to print the first polyglot of the entire Bible, he succeeded in delaying its full publication until 1522. The Dutchman had already gone to some considerable effort to obtain by 1516 an exclusive four year publishing privilege for his own edition of the New Testament and this had been achieved through the consent of both Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) and Pope Leo X. Life seems so full of irony…since Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici: the very same man who would later excommunicate Martin Luther) had also received a humanist education…and is known to have found Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly amusing.

By David Radcliffe

¹ Saint Bede (672 or 623-735) was a skilled translator and interpreter of the early Church Fathers. He is known to have had the relative luxury then of a monastery library that included many significant works in Greek and Latin. His most famous work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, is still a precious source for historians, all the more exceptional due to the scarcity of reliable information during the 8th century AD. Bede’s work would later prove useful to the humanist Polydore Vergil when he wrote a more critical analysis, taking the story of the English up to the 16th century. At various times, both men have been honoured with the title of ‘Father of English History’.

² Translated commentary from the 1517 edition: found in Mann Phillips, Margaret (1964), page 358.

³ Found in Mann Phillips, Margaret (1964), page 360.

**P. Paschini, ‘Adriano Castellesi cardinale di S. Grisogono’, Tre illustri prelati del Rinascimento (1957), 43–130 in ‘Vergil, Polydore  [Polidoro Virgili] (c.1470–1555), historian’: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  [Accessed July 2016].


Hay, Denys, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance historian and man of letters (1952).

Jardine, Lisa, Erasmus, man of letters : the construction of charisma in print (2015).

Leedham-Green, Elizabeth, A Concise history of the University of Cambridge (2001).

Mann Phillips, Margaret, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus; a study with translations (1964).

McConica, James Kelsey, English humanists and Reformation politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (1965).

Pearson, David, Books as history : the importance of books beyond their texts (2008).

Twigg, John, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge 1448-1986 (1987).


The Labours of Erasmus: why Hercules might have been impressed…


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Have you ever worked really hard at something but then felt undervalued? Did others profit from those endeavours yet your only return was to provoke envy, suspicion or outright hostility in the people around you?  Well, if the answer is yes then it appears that you are in the greatest of company: a towering figure of the Renaissance; a person we now regard as perhaps the most brilliant scholar of the 16th century…Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Erasmus Portrait ER.2.05

Engraving of Erasmus by Sturt after Holbein [ER.2.05]

In fact, we can sympathize with how Desiderius Erasmus may have felt about this unfortunate predicament through his own eloquent writing. By getting up close and personal with this important historical figure, one is also presented with an ideal opportunity to discover why the itinerant scholar came to be considered “Prince of the Humanists” and gain a rare insight into the relatively new mode of scholarship to which the title once referred.

This former resident of Queens’ College (1511-1514) will already be familiar to some. However, given the sheer scale, depth and occasional complexity of his work – originally written in Latin and Greek – the full legacy of his scholarly achievements could only ever be appreciated by an expert in the appropriate fields.  To join in with any discussion, the majority of us would have to make do by consulting some of the available translations and in this regard at least, can take some comfort in the knowledge that we ‘are in the same boat’.  Yet the supreme irony here is that we probably owe the familiarity of that very phrase and others like it to his relentless hard work.  I refer here to one of Erasmus’s greatest scholarly achievements: the Adagia.

Pump Court

– Engraving found in The Life of Erasmus by Samuel Knight (1726). It depicts the only known view of Pump Court at Queens’ [reputedly the location of Erasmus’s room when at College] to predate the alterations resulting from James Essex’s new building of 1756 [K.25.33].

So how could a man like Erasmus feel undervalued?  And was this great scholar really a source of envy or hostility in his peers? If we truly desire to appreciate the labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam; to consider for a while his prolific output and why it is worth celebrating, then we should probably start by sketching the context for his first publications and then add a little colour by discussing a few, manageable examples of his writing; at least in their English translation. It is perhaps his collection of proverbs or Adagia that best serves both of these purposes.

The Adagiorum Collectanea was printed in 1500. It was Erasmus’s very first publication and by the end of his life it would also prove to be his most successful. The research necessary in compiling this annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs marked a significant stage in the Dutchman’s journey to mastering the Greek language and through subsequent editions such as the Adagiorum Chiliades (i.e. ‘ordered in thousands’) first printed in 1508, sayings such as In eadem es navi  or ‘to be in the same boat’ soon found their way into his writing.  Yet these subsequent editions were not merely reprints or revisions nor did they only represent an ever expanding list of useful sayings. This was an essential and ongoing project, a huge labour that had started at the turn of the century as a modest collection of around eight hundred seemingly wise or philosophical observations and grew throughout his lifetime into a monumental work, including essays of ever increasing length and richness with each publication.

Adagia Chiliades 1540.jpg

Title page from the 1540 edition of Adagiorum Chiliades with the famous device of the Froben printing house in Basle. Published just after Erasmus’s death, the book contains a prolific 4151 adages with commentaries [L.10.7].

The foundation of Queens’ College in 1448 had come at an auspicious time in European history. The printing press and moveable type had only just been introduced to the continent and using Gutenberg’s infant technology, humanist publications (exemplars of a new direction for education and scholarship) were rapidly spreading throughout Renaissance Europe.  Building upon these early foundations, the Adagia would soon become a companion for anyone who wished to gloss their speech or writing, demonstrating that they were perhaps not only distinguished by birth, rank or office but also through their learned reading. These works would also diffuse throughout England as Renaissance ideas finally took root at our ancient universities and the kingdom took its first tentative steps into the modern era.

Along with the preparatory work for his new edition of the New Testament, Erasmus certainly undertook revisions of his Adagia whilst resident at Queens’ College. A by-product of all this work was an educational treatise and collection of aphorisms, first published in 1513, called Parabolae Sive Similia. His interest in pre-university education had initially been encouraged by one of his many English friends – John Colet; and alongside his academic duties as the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, Erasmus still found time to produce further treatises, style manuals and text-books intended for use in the new Tudor grammar schools (including St Paul’s of which Colet was the founder).

Parabolae 16C Binding.JPG

– This Queens’ copy of the Parabolae Sive Similia dating to 1521 is still beautifully bound in 16th century blind-stamped paneled calf [I.8.17]

Although written in Latin, the structure of the Adagia was in fact itself influenced by the way that Greek had been taught during the 15th century.  At that time, key educators in Europe were instructing their pupils using books that followed a distinct pattern i.e. a Latin quote from a celebrated source (such as Cicero) juxtaposed with the Greek equivalent, then an appropriate commentary of moral or ethical form. Many of the essays in Erasmus’s collection of proverbs are also moral or ethical in character but crucially, for our purposes here, they are topical and largely autobiographical in nature. The following passage, an abridged translation¹ from the 1515 Froben edition, is a wonderful example whereby Erasmus reveals the back-stage work (and laments the struggles) of the Renaissance humanist in his commentary on Herculei Labores or ‘Herculean Labours’:

If any human labours ever deserved to be called Herculean, it is certainly the work of those who are striving to restore the great works of ancient literature…While…they condemn themselves to immense toil…they arouse among the vulgar the greatest envy and ill-will…The works of St. Jerome…was no light task…if only for the number of volumes which had to be looked through…what a struggle I had with the monstrous scribal errors, which were swarming through the text!  What a business it was to restore the passages in Greek, which our great author had mixed in everywhere-for mostly they had dropped out or were wrongly reinserted …so much jumbled by various hands…The nature of this kind of work is that it brings profit to everyone, and the only person to suffer hardship is the one who undertakes it¹

– Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

In ancient times, the ‘Labours of Heracles’ [later named Hercules by the Romans] was once sung by the poets.  The deeds of heroes were part of an oral tradition of Greek mythology that had preceded the written word and they included the conquering of the Lernaean Hydra  – a many headed snake – by a divine man tasked with twelve acts of penance: a man of extraordinary strength, the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Hercules initially squares up to the foul creature with a harvesting sickle but finally defeats it with Athena’s golden sword.

Cicero's Letters 1562.jpg

Petrarch is often credited as the founder of Humanism, with initiating the Renaissance (upon the rediscovery of Cicero’s Letters), and for coining the term ‘Dark Ages’ for the preceding medieval period. Here is the title page from Queens’ 1562 edition of Cicero’s fascinating correspondence, the Epistolae ad Atticum, Brutum, & Q. Fratrem (Jean Boulier ed.) [E.17.26].

Horace Opera 1501.jpg

In his commentaries, Erasmus glosses the Adagia with quotes from the greats of classical literature including Cicero, Homer and Horace. This image  is of an extract from the first edition of Horatius the works of Horace (Aldo Manuzio ed.), published in 1501 by the great Venetian printer and humanist Aldus Manutius. It’s not only the second text ever to be set in italic type but quite possibly one of the most beautiful books ever printed [U.5.5].

Within his discussion of the sources for the adage “Herculean Labours”, Erasmus explains how “by this symbol [the Hydra] the ancients wished to express Envy” and how “…This most loathsome of pests has always had the habit of accompanying the fairest deeds, and following the highest virtue as a body is followed by its shadow…”  His commentary is interwoven and embellished with classical references to great poets such as Horace who had witnessed the upheavals that followed Rome’s turbulent transition from Republic to Empire under Augustus.  Indeed, the increasing availability of classical literature during the Renaissance – whether it be the immediate impact of rhetoric through the carefully weighted sentences of Cicero; or the delicate rhythms of Horace immortalized in verse to share profound reflections on the impact of war and revolutionary change – greatly influenced Erasmus’s own literary response to the practices of the medieval Church and the turbulence of Reformation Europe.


– Medieval scribes undertook the slow and challenging process of copying texts by hand. This earlier manuscript tradition had formed an unbroken chain, transmitting ideas from the ancient world to the Renaissance humanists.  This example is from a bound volume of St. Augustine’s Soliloquia. Annotations on its final leaf indicate that it once belonged to Mary Tudor [Queens’ MS 25].

It is also here in the Adagia that we not only find reference to the great stories and authors of the classical world, but crucially find a rather grand reference to the humanist himself. For woven into the heroic labours of the ancient Hercules, the fair deeds and high virtue Erasmus reflects on are of course the labours of the contemporary, hard-working and undervalued scholar toiling away in the field of textual criticism.

He was certainly not alone in this endeavour. It was the aspiration of many a Renaissance man to produce critical editions of key texts: to reconstruct if possible what the original author had once written as manuscripts (or at least their fragments) were rediscovered and increasingly made available throughout Europe. The final sentence of the quote above refers to the craft of early printing houses which meant that, once the hardships of textual criticism had been endured by these dedicated humanists, anyone else who pursued the ideals of purity and truth could instantly profit by reading the final product.

But should we actually feel sorry for Erasmus? Was he really revealing a sorry, downtrodden state? Maybe not, since it has been argued quite convincingly that the ‘Prince of the Humanists’ was probably an early form of spin-doctor: or at least a person who traveled extensively as he networked amongst the elite and sought patronage from the influential; a man who crafted his own image as a hard-worker; a relentless, indefatigable force.  He would also visit the great printers of Europe on his travels for it seems that he was fully aware of the role and incredible potential of the new print technology in manufacturing not only a book but also a new species at the dawn of the modern age: what we would now call the ‘intellectual’.  Indeed, Erasmus may have actively shaped his own reputation as a towering figure of the Renaissance by self-consciously manipulating the world of print and the circulation of ideas.

Antibarba 1527.JPG

A 4th century contemporary of St. Jerome, Augustine of Hippo wrote many significant works. Unlike his introspective soliloquies, De Doctina Cristiana was a powerful Christian apology for studying classical literature. The use of pagan sources had to be justified since it often provoked ill-will and Erasmus would develop this thesis in his Antibarbarorum (or Antibarbari). This Queens’ copy is from 1527 [ER.1.09].

However, we can’t deny the reality that Erasmus did work hard, extremely hard, and he was exceptional at what he did. Yet, any great innovator will probably have to confront envy or hostility from their peers at some stage. Ideas – and their originality – were often challenged and protected as intellectual reputations were forged. Erasmus was certainly no stranger to rivalry. In this context, I will explore and clarify such a dispute in my next blog post when we continue with the story of the Adagia, but it is worth noting here how Erasmus was even challenged in his lifetime by those he had once been deeply sympathetic to.  Printed in 1523, the Spongia was his response to an attack on his sincerity by the German reformer Ulrich von Hutten. In his defence, Erasmus claimed to have been misrepresented by the fellow humanist and supports this claim with a skillful defense of his decision not to support the actions of Martin Luther once the Reformation had threatened the unity of Catholic Europe.

Erasmus’ inscription in X. 8 .1. (1).

Title page of Erasmus’s Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni. Published in 1523, this precious Queens’ first edition has a dedication written by Erasmus to his friend Johannes von Botzheim, canon at Constance cathedral. Within four years the surrounding area and ‘Episcopal see’ would fall to a reformed Protestant majority [X.8.1].

The birth of the intellectual, the explosion of interest in the study of antiquity and the associated desire to seek out, restore and learn from classical sources was of course part of a wider movement that had already gained momentum in Italy during the 14th century.  That movement had perhaps found its greatest visual expression through the exuberant art of Michelangelo.  The task of the humanist though was to now widen programmes of education in the medieval universities from their cloistered confines. Hitherto the curriculum had been restricted and narrow.

Change was gradual though, for proponents of the older and still dominant system of learning termed Scholasticism had been schooled in the web of Aristotelian logic and doctrine that defined the philosophy of the Catholic Church. Yet, ancient texts were clearly demonstrating to some that there was much more to life than theology, medicine or bureaucratic studies in law and administration. The appreciation of epic and lyric poetry, of drama and satire; or the study of grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy and mathematics (beyond mere bookkeeping) were not only becoming worthy pursuits now – at least in the view or justifications of their proponents – but increasingly consistent with the life of a virtuous and pious man. As a programme for widening the scope of education, humanism could also be thought of as a proto-democratic enterprise that sought to create more effective citizens who could not only read and write, but discuss and seek solutions to the problems their societies faced.  At least in part perhaps, we may even owe many of our relative ‘freedoms’ today to the Herculean labours of scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam.

By David Radcliffe

¹ This is an abridged, translated extract from the 1515 Froben edition of the Adagiorum Chiliades, found in Jardine (2015) pages 42-43.

Further reading:

Jardine, Lisa, Erasmus, man of letters : the construction of charisma in print (2015).

Leedham-Green, Elizabeth, A Concise history of the University of Cambridge (2001).

Mann Phillips, Margaret, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus; a study with translations (1964).

McConica, James Kelsey, English humanists and Reformation politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (1965).

Pearson, David, Books as history : the importance of books beyond their texts (2008).

Twigg, John, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge 1448-1986 (1987).

The Return of Queens’ Oriental Collection, the Kennett Memorial Library: The Study of Sacred Languages at Queens’ from the Renaissance to the Early Twentieth Century

By Lindsey Askin

The Library is celebrating the return of its ‘Oriental Studies’ collection, once the Kennett Memorial Library, also called in the past the Oriental Library. The Kennett Library was created in 1935 and housed on the top floor of the student library. In 1972 it was transferred on permanent loan to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (the Faculty of Oriental Studies until 2004). Many of these books came from the Old Library itself and were previously owned by important scholars, fellows and presidents of Queens’ such as Cambridge Platonist John Smith (1618-1652), Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and president of Queens’ the Revd Dr Isaac Milner (1750-1820), and Queens’ Orientalists such as George Phillips (Queens’ president from 1857 to 1892), R.H. Kennett, William Wright (donated by his wife), Samuel Lee (1783-1852), and A.A. Bevan (donated by his brother Dr E.R. Bevan), and other donors such as Rev Dr G.E. Davis and Claude J.G. Montefiore (great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore).

The collection as a whole reflects the study of Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Sanskrit, Persian, philology, biblical criticism, and Comparative Semitics at Queens’ from the Renaissance up until the early twentieth century. The subjects covered include the disciplines of Biblical Studies, Egyptology, Semitics, Near Eastern studies or Assyriology, and Middle Eastern studies. Until recently, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Asian studies were known collectively as Oriental Studies.

Close-up of Syriac text

The opening lines of George Phillips’ 1876 edition of the Syriac text, The Doctrine of Addai the Apostle, from our Oriental collection [Ken X.14].

The Old Library Office -- new shelves added to accommodate the return of the Oriental Library.

The Old Library Office — new shelves added going up to the ceiling to accommodate the return of the Kennett Memorial Library.


This summer, reinforced shelves were installed in the Old Library Office to house many of these books, going up to the ceiling. Online catalogue records which were made by the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies were subsequently made available so that they can stay an integral part of research accessible to scholars and researchers, and show the college’s heritage. The collection indicates to us that this college once had a great reputation for Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew study from the Renaissance up until the 1930s, and we are delighted to be able to house this chapter in Queens’ heritage and history once more.

More shelves!

More shelves!


During the Renaissance, many Classical Greek manuscripts from the East and Arabic translations of Greek texts long thought lost began to resurface around Europe. Scholars in Europe became increasingly interested in discovering forgotten texts in libraries, and in reading texts in their original languages instead of in Latin translation. All this was the complex combined effect of the decline of the Byzantine Empire, increased trade with the East, the Humanist rejection of Scholasticism, the Protestant Reformation, economic prosperity, and—naturally—the printing press.

Euclid in Arabic

Text from an Arabic edition of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, printed in Rome in 1594. [Or U.II.13].

In the early sixteenth century, Erasmus and his associates had a strong positive effect on this college’s interest in languages. During his time at Queens’ from 1511 to 1514 as Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, Erasmus lectured in Theology and Greek. From his rooms in ‘I’ staircase, Erasmus also may have made preparations for his Greek-Latin edition of the New Testament. The Library soon acquired many sixteenth and seventeenth century printed books in Hebrew and Arabic, including this beautiful edition of Euclid in Arabic, printed at Rome in 1594 (above).

Other works on/in Hebrew and Aramaic include early printed editions of the Mikraot Gedolot (the Rabbinic Bible), the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, works by Christian Hebraists, and countless medieval and early modern Jewish works on scripture and philosophy.

Bomberg Fifth Rabbinic Bible 1617

This fifth edition of the Rabbinic Bible was based on the edition of Daniel Bomberg, a notable printer of Hebrew books in sixteenth century Venice. The title page depicted here is from the first volume (Ḥamishah Ḥumshe Torah), the Five Books of Moses or the Torah. The whole edition was printed in four folio volumes in Venice by Pietro and Lorenzo Bradagin in 1617. [Ken III.1-4].

The Library also acquired many books written by Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629), one of the most influential Christian Hebraists. Buxtorf, who was Professor of Hebrew at Basel, was called the ‘Master of the Rabbis’ because of his close positive relationships with Jewish society and his close study of the Targums and Talmud. He is best remembered for his monumental Hebrew dictionary (first printed in 1607), which remained in use for over two hundred years.

This copy of the eighth edition of Buxtorf’s Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon, in octavo, was owned by R.H. Kennett’s son Austin (B.L.A.) Kennett, as we can tell by an inscription. This copy was printed in Basil in 1676. [Ken A XIII 4] The Old Library has several editions of Buxtorf’s dictionary printed in 1621, 1676, and 1824.

The Language of Creation

More contact with Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac languages and manuscripts from the early modern period enabled people to discover that these languages had common roots. For a long time (at least since the apocryphal text the Book of Jubilees written in the 160s BCE), Jews and Christians alike believed that Hebrew was the first primeval language (the language of the Tower of Babel in Genesis and of heaven), the ‘Language of Creation,’ and that other languages of the Near East such as Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic were all derived from Hebrew. Hiob Ludolf was one of the first Christian scholars to recognize that Ethiopic (also called Amharic or Ge’ez) was also part of the same Semitic language family.

A royal family tree in Hiob Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica

An Ethiopic royal family tree written in Amharic in Hiob Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica, printed in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1681. [Wri K.I.20.1]

Sefer ha-Kuzari by Judah ha-Levi, a significant 12th c Jewish poet and philosopher, printed in Venice in 1594. Sefer ha-Kuzari was an apologetic dialogue in defence of Judaism. [Or K II 16 1]

Sefer ha-Kuzari by Judah ha-Levi, a significant 12th century Jewish poet and philosopher, printed in Venice in 1594. Sefer ha-Kuzari is an apologetic dialogue in defence of Judaism. [Or K.II.16.1] The revised shelfmarks on many of the Oriental collection books is due to the creation of the Kennett Memorial Library in the 1930s which took many books from the Old Library itself (K books). Another plan in the creation of the Library according to archives from 1935 state a plan was to re-classify the books as KML, but evidently ‘Or’ was favoured instead.

In rediscovering this collection, we can see that in the early modern period Queens’ Library acquired many Hebrew and Aramaic texts, which is interesting since there were no Jews in England from 1290 to 1655. The same is true of early printed copies and translations of the Qur’an and Arabic literature, as Muslims did not begin to arrive in England on a large scale until the eighteenth century. Scholars such as one of the founding members of the Cambridge Platonists John Smith (1618-1652), was one of these early fellows who contributed to the collection with their bequests. It is interesting that fellows and students at Queens’ College in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century would have studied Rabbinics without any access to Jewish teachers, and Arabic without access to native-speaking teachers—except by traveling to the continent or the East, which many Oriental scholars did.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

It was not until the eighteenth century that Albert Schultens first used Arabic to help explain some elements of Hebrew grammar (instead of the other way around). He was the first scholar to have touched on (in a modern way) what is today called Comparative Semitics. Schultens created a lot of backlash with his methods, but his successors eventually found that Hebrew did not have ‘primacy’ over other Semitic languages after all, and that Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, and Syriac (as well as Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian) were all languages derived in common from Proto-Semitic roots.

Albert Schultens's Hebraeae Linguae

Albert Schultens’ Origines Hebraeae printed in 1761. [Wri H.II.35]

One eighteenth-century Oriental scholar at Queens’ was Joseph Dacre Carlyle (1759-1804), who was Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic from 1795 to 1804. Carlyle produced an Arabic Bible and translations of Arabic poetry and the work of Yusuf ibn Taghri Birdi. He also served as chaplain and learned referee to Lord Elgin on his travels to Constantinople, during which time he collected many Greek and Syriac manuscripts.

Another early Oriental scholar was Queens’ fellow Samuel Lee D.D. (1783-1852), linguist and who was a professor of Arabic and then Regius Professor of Hebrew. Lee was interested in many languages including Te Reo, the Maori language, and helped to create the first dictionary of Te Reo. He also wrote a Hebrew lexicon and grammar. Lee left to Queens’ a very large collection of Bibles many of which are in local languages of India as well as Eastern European languages.

During the Enlightenment, Adriaan Reland was one of the first scholars to write a more objective treatment of Islam for a Christian audience. He also traveled extensively in the East, and read Rabbinic literature to better understand the geography of the land of Israel.

Text from Carlyle's Specimens of Arabic Poetry.

Text from Carlyle’s translation of pre-Islamic poet Hatim al-Tai’s ‘On Avarice’. Joseph Dacre Carlyle, Specimens of Arabic Poetry (Cambridge 1796). [Or V.II.18]

Reland's Palestine.

A fold-out chronology from Reland’s guide the monuments of Palestine. Adrian Reland, Palestinia ex monumentis veteribus illustrata, 2 vols (Utrecht, 1714). [Or V.II.20-21]

In the nineteenth century, as Near Eastern studies and Egyptology developed as disciplines, biblical scholars became more interested in learning about how the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) were written, especially in light of Babylonian literature such as Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic (the Babylonian Flood Story). Much of this scholarship came from Germany, but British scholars also played a role as Oriental scholarship became increasingly significant at Cambridge as well as other British universities. Some of these Orientalists were prominent Queens’ men.

Lenormant's Akkadian Grammar.

On Akkadian cuneiform. From Francois Lenormant’s Lettres Assyriologiques, Paris 1871. [Or Q.I.6]

William Wright (1830-1889)

Much of the Kennett Memorial Library collection is made up of the collections and donations of several nineteenth and early twentieth century Queens’ scholars who were very learned Orientalists and had major effects on their students and disciplines during their time. We know some of their collections by shelf-mark (Wri, Bev, Ken, Lee).

Queens’ fellow Professor William Wright LLD (1830-1889) was the Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge from 1870 to 1889. Wright was highly respected abroad, and he loved all things German. He used his large network of friends on the continent (probably from his studies at Halle and Leiden in the 1850s after attending St Andrews) to obtain many pamphlets, articles, and books from outside England. G.J. Roper describes him as ‘one of the most active and eminent Semitic scholars of his day.’ Wright is thought to have been instrumental in the creation of a Semitic Languages tripos, allowing undergraduates to learn Syriac as well as Hebrew.

Inscription to William Wright

This is an inscription to William Wright from the librarian of Fort William’s College, from when Wright was a professor at Trinity College Dublin. The book is Robert Tytler’s Treatise concerning the Permutations of Letters in the Arabic Language, printed in Calcutta 1810. [Wri E.I.34]

Personally, Wright did not seem to have enjoyed teaching, although he produced his Grammar of the Arabic Language. He is better remembered for producing many descriptive catalogues of Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic manuscripts from collections in Britain. He also worked extensively on the Revised Version of the English Bible.

R.H. Kennett (1864-1932)

The books of Robert Hatch (‘R.H.’) Kennett (1864-1932), who was University Lecturer in Aramaic from 1893 to 1903 and Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge from 1903 to his death in 1932, form a large proportion of his Library.  Kennett succeeded Wright as director of the Semitic Languages tripos. Over his life, Kennett amassed a large collection of early printed Hebrew books. Additional Oriental books were also contributed to the Library in honour of his father by Kennett’s son, B.L. Austin Kennett. Kennett was loved by his students and had daring views on the reconstruction of biblical history. Among his interests was Syriac literature. He was remembered as a man of genuine goodness and having the courage of his convictions (S.A. Cook, Introduction to Kennett’s The Church of Israel).

It is owing to Kennett’s legacy as a teacher and scholar that his eponymous Library came into being. Kennett counted among his pupils Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, and Herbert Loewe. Loewe, Reader in Rabbinics 1931-1940, catalogued the collection upon its creation, and his card catalogue remains part of the Kennett Library.

The Psalms in Syriac.

Psalm 23 in Syriac. Psalmi Davidis, edited by Thomas van Erpe (Leiden 1625). [Or T.I.17]

George Phillips (1804-1892)

Syriac was studied at Queens’ for many years not least because of Wright, Carlyle, and Kennett, but also because the president of Queens’ from 1857 to 1892 was Syriac scholar and Queens’ president Dr George Phillips. Phillips is best known for his influential Elements of Syriac Grammar (1837), later revised as A Syriac Grammar (1866). Phillips believed strongly that knowledge of a language such as Hebrew was enhanced by the study of cognate Semitic languages such as Syriac, and furthermore that Syriac should be studied in its own right, a change from previous attitudes which had relegated Syriac to being a supplementary aide to understanding Hebrew.

Phillips' Syriac Grammar

An edition of Phillips’ Syriac Grammar printed in Cambridge in 1866 [Or N.II.12]

A.A. Bevan (1859-1933)

Another Queens’ fellow whose books formed part of the Kennett Library is Professor Anthony Ashley Bevan (1859-1933), who was learned in many languages and was Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic from 1894 to 1933. He was also taught by William Wright and Solomon Schiller-Szinessy.

Bevan never visited any Arabic countries during his life, but Burkitt calls him ‘one of the dozen most learned Arabists, not of England and Europe only, but of the whole world. He was almost equally distinguished for his knowledge of Hebrew and Old Testament literature. He knew Syriac thoroughly and other Semitic languages as well, and he had an excellent acquaintance with Persian language and literature.’ A former student thought that his pronunciation of Arabic was ‘weird.’ His main interest seems to have been in teaching Hebrew, and enjoyed teaching in general. Nevertheless, he was very well-liked by his students, and scrupulous in his work. Bevan was modest and polite by reputation, generous in helping his colleagues, and his brother Dr. E.R. Bevan donated a considerable quantity of Bevan’s books to be part of the Kennett Library.


Arabic text from Joseph Dacre Carlyle’s edition of ibn Taghribirdi’s History of Egypt. Printed at Cambridge in 1792. [Or V.I.15]

Herbert Loewe (1882-1940)

One Queens’ man with a profound impact on Hebrew study at Queens’ was Herbert James Martin Loewe (1882-1940), who studied Semitic Languages and Theology at Queens’ from 1901 to 1905, taught by R.H. Kennett. After a year in Egypt teaching English, Loewe returned to Queens’ to be a lecturer in Hebrew and Curator of Oriental Literature in the University Library. Cecil Roth wrote of Loewe that ‘for a generation he was regarded in English academic circles as the prime representative of Jewish scholarship.’ In 1914 Loewe went to teach at Exeter College, Oxford until 1931 when he was appointed Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, following in the footsteps of Solomon Schechter and his own favourite teacher Israel Abrahams. Loewe died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1940. Queens’ Kennett Library owes much to Herbert Loewe as he was instrumental in helping the collection take shape in honour of his late teacher, cataloguing much of it (see Clifford W. Dugmore, ‘Two Samaritan MSS in the Library of Queens’ College Cambridge,’ Journal of Theological Studies 36 (1935)). Loewe also catalogued many other Hebrew collections in Cambridge such as Girton. He left behind a very large collection of Jewish pamphlets now part of the Muller Library at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, at the University of Oxford. Loewe donated many books to the Oriental collection, and many of his own publications are represented in it.

The Library contains a suitcase that might have once belonged to Herbert Loewe sometime during his many years at Cambridge, perhaps while he was Reader in Rabbinics.

“H.L.” on this suitcase might refer to Herbert Loewe.


Inside the suitcase are Hebrew exercise books, a manuscript edition of a Hebrew text, and a postcard addressed to Edward S. Browne concerning a Samaritan manuscript from Nablus, all about 100 years old. In the past, the Library might have put these items in the suitcase to keep these Oriental-related archives together.


The present Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, Professor Nicholas de Lange, writes that nineteenth century Cambridge had a great appetite for Rabbinic studies. The first Readership in Rabbinics was established in 1866, notably appointing the eminent Jewish scholar Solomon Schiller-Szinessy. Only professed Anglicans who swore a declaration of faith were allowed to attend Cambridge until the University Act of 1856 removed this requirement for students, and finally the University Tests Act of 1871 allowed fellows of any or no religious background.

Wri H I 33

The Annals of Eutychius (Patriarch of Alexandria 877-940 CE). Printed in London in 1642. Eutychius was one of the first Christian Egyptian authors who wrote in Arabic. [Wri H.I.33.2]

This same copy of the Annals of Eutychius has been heavily annotated by a previous owner. [OL: Wri H I 33 2]

This same copy of the Annals of Eutychius has been heavily annotated by a previous owner. [Wri H.I.33.2]

Queens’ Role in the Study of Semitic Languages

Queens’ Kennett Memorial Library, its Asian and Middle Eastern collection, is one of the most thorough and traceable journeys through every major milestone in the study of Semitic languages in England from the fifteenth century to the Second World War. Nearly every major scholar and significant work – from Bomberg Rabbinic Bibles to Buxtorf and Wellhausen to the Zohar – can be found represented here. Like the Old Library, the Kennett Library reflects what was studied here at Queens’. Queens’ therefore owes a great debt to the legacy and collections of its scholars such as Wright, Loewe, Bevan, Lee, and Kennett. The collection tells us how central and vital the study of Semitic languages was at Queens’ for much of its past.

Animals from Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica.

Animals from Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica.


University of Cambridge, ‘Kennett, Robert Hatch (KNT882RH),’ A Cambridge Alumni Database (Venn),

J.F. Coakley, ‘The Teaching of Syriac at Cambridge,’ in A Man of Many Parts: Essays in Honor of John Westerdale Bowker on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 15-29.

S.A. Cook, ‘Introduction’ in R.H. Kennett’s The Church of Israel: Studies and Essays
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

S.A. Cook, rev. John Gurney, ‘Bevan, Anthony Ashley (1859–1933), orientalist and biblical scholar,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,,31869.

S.A. Cook, rev. Gerald Law, ‘Kennett, Robert Hatch (1864–1932), biblical and Semitic scholar,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Clifford W. Dugmore, ‘Two Samaritan MSS in the Library of Queens’ College Cambridge,’ Journal of Theological Studies 36 (1935), 131-146.

Nicholas de Lange, ‘Books and Bookmen: The Cambridge teachers of Rabbinics 1866-1971,’ Jewish Historical Studies 44 (2012), 139-163.

Leslie J. McLoughlin, In a Sea of Knowledge: British Arabists in the Twentieth Century (Reading: Ithaca, 2002), 64.

Letters and archives related to the creation and loan of the Kennett Memorial Library. Queens’ College Library, Cambridge.

Muller Library, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ‘Loewe Pamphlets Collection,’

Muller Library, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ‘Raphael Loewe Archives,’

G.J. Roper, ‘Wright, William (1830–1889), Semitist,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Cecil Roth, ‘Loewe, Herbert James Martin,’ Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 11 (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), 447.

John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987).

Another illustration of animals from Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica.

Another illustration of animals from Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica.

Rare glimpse into England’s medieval past: discarded fragments from The Prick of Conscience re-discovered in the Old Library


, , ,

Tim Eggington and Paul Harcourt

45 1 2

[But with outen sham]e to synne were þei bold / [It is good þ]at þei haue as I tolde / [Schame in helle] ay for here synne / [Of þe qwiche þei] wolden nout blynne

Queens’ Old Library is fortunate in the fact that, unlike many other rare book libraries, most of its early printed books retain their original bindings. This is of huge significance as marks of ownership, styles of decoration, signs of use to be found on early bindings afford scholars a wealth of insights into how books were used, who read them, and what early readers actually thought about the texts they read. It is the abundance of such information in Queens’ books that makes the library unique as a resource for scholarship and learning. A further attraction of early bindings (of particular prevalence at Queens’) is the sixteenth-century practice of incorporating discarded medieval manuscripts into bindings as a practical measure designed to strengthen and preserve the newer printed books. At a time when the printing revolution was in full flow it made perfect sense to deem scribal productions of the medieval past as obsolete, especially in the newly established Protestant areas where many of the old theological manuscripts conflicted with Reformation ideology. The very fact that such fragments were deemed obsolete can make them all the more interesting today.

It is in the light of this that a recent discovery by Queens’ library volunteer and rare books expert, Paul Harcourt, is of particular interest. In the binding of a multi volume work by the devoutly Protestant Johann Brenz (1499–1570) he has found fragments from The Prick of Conscience, a medieval English work which, although now largely forgotten, was hugely influential from its time of composition (probably in the fourteenth century) until the Reformation.  Despite the fact that, as fragments, the source does not offer a complete reading of the text, its discovery has greatly excited scholars of the period for whom its unique scribal and linguistic characteristics add further light on the poem’s history and reception.

31 1

Vol. 2 of Thomas Shawe’s copy of ‘Brenz Operum reverendi et clarisssimi theology’

Let us begin by considering Johann Brenz’s multi volume collected works edition (Operum reverendi et clarisssimi theology, Tübingen, 1576-94), whose bindings now house the fragments. The presence in Queens’ Library of theological works by a German Protestant Reformer and Luther associate such as Brenz reflects the eagerness with which Queens’ college had embraced the new faith. Although we don’t know exactly how the volume came to Queens’ the name and motto of a former owner inscribed in a sixteenth-century hand on the title page is itself reflective of the work’s resonance in Protestant England: ‘Thomas Shawe’, ‘Iustificans christi mors mihi sola salus’ [‘The justifying death of Christ the only salvation for me’].

31 2

Inscription of Thomas Shawe

As to whether Shawe actually read the fragments in the covers of his copy of Brenz we cannot know. Nevertheless, it is ironic in the extreme that a work of Reformation ideology should ultimately have been the cause for the preservation of fragments from The Prick of Conscience, a poem which harks so powerfully back to England’s Catholic past. Perhaps one of the most popular texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, The Prick of Conscience exists in more manuscripts (now 127) than any other Middle English poem, and so its circulation at that time appears to have been at least twice as extensive as that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This is even more remarkable when one considers that although the poem is of Northern English origin (probably Yorkshire) it was able to reach an extensive audience across the whole of the country, in particular, East Anglia, the south west Midlands, Sussex and Devon. Its popularity is also evident in the many allusions to the poem to be found in medieval wills and book lists. Clear parallels with the Parson’s Tale indicate that Chaucer was familiar with the poem.

39 2

One of 9 vellum fragments from the Prick of Conscience bound into the binding of Brenz’s Operum reverendi et clarisssimi theology (1576-94)

It is easy, however, to see why and how The Prick of Conscience has proved less attractive to modern readers than other works of the period. As a didactic and devotional work it set out to show what the common man must do to achieve divine goodness, and describes the dire consequences of leading a life of immorality. Its author (whose identity is unknown) sought to terrify the reader into leading an upright life by demonstrating that no worldly pleasure can be worth the pains of hell: filth and stench, hunger, thirst, weeping, despair, burning heat, great murkiness, grisly devils, and goading by the worm of conscience (Book VI of the poem from which our fragments come lists these).

The nine fragments themselves are made from vellum (sheep skin) and seem to have been used as some sort of guard to strengthen the bindings in vols. 2, 3, and 6 (a further set of fragments that were once in vol. 7 had been removed as part of an early twentieth-century restoration—fortunately they were then stored in the library’s safe).

Although early versions of the poem usually exist in the Yorkshire dialect, our fragments might appear to suggest their creation more in the East of the country. Recent research by Daniel Sawyer (to which this article is heavily indebted) has shown the following: present-day English ‘much’ appears as ‘mekil’, ‘not’ is ‘nout’, and ‘which’, ‘where’ and ‘whom’ are represented by ‘qwiche’, ‘qwere’ and ‘qwom’.  Modern English ‘-ight’ is represented by ‘-ith’. Present-tense verbs with plural subjects terminate with ‘-yn’, ‘-en’ or ‘-n’ and present participles in ‘-and’. Dr Sawyer argues that these features could suggest a dialect originating in the area west of Norfolk, the south of Lincolnshire and the north of the Isle of Ely: an area north, at least, of Cambridge. However, he also notes that a Middle English text’s dialect is more likely to be the dialect of its scribe than that of the exemplar, and that scribes used to travel. Thus, in the absence of other corroborating evidence it is unwise to take the scribe’s dialect as an indication of the book’s place of creation.

Further details concerning this find will be available in an extended article by Daniel Sawyer to be published in the forthcoming issue of Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, later this year. We are grateful to Dr Sawyer for sharing his findings with us prior to publication.

Enlightenment Revived: New lease of life for Diderot’s Encyclopédie


Enc4 1Following a year-long process of conservation by the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium, Queens’ 28 volume first folio edition of the Encyclopédie (1751-72), has now returned to the Old Library. As the published embodiment of one of the key intellectual advances of modern times we are delighted to have all volumes now in a fully usable form for the first time in many decades.  Mouldy paper has been cleaned, water damage has been rectified and, most importantly, the beautiful and characteristically French 18th-century bindings have been painstakingly restored with, where possible, the original spine labels reattached.

Why are 18th-century publications such as this important to Queens’ Old Library? Although justly remembered most for its Renaissance and Medieval treasures, Queens’ Old Library hosts an extensive collection of 18th-century books, pamphlets, and journals most of them acquired by the library during the 18th century. The presence amongst these of cutting edge science along with politically progressive and sometimes controversial publications helps to counter the oft cited but by no means justified image of 18th-century Cambridge as a somnolent backwater unmoved by the modernising forces of the French Enlightenment. No publication suggests more that engagement with the new thinking than the Encyclopédie (in English translation its full title is Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts).

Before establishing its position as a landmark in both scholarship and book history, the decidedly secular and implicitly anti-authoritarian ethos underlying the work’s conception had spooked the French ancien regime, which famously (& unsuccessfully) tried to censor it. Edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-83) this grand undertaking aspired at being nothing less than the first modern and scientific treatment of all spheres of knowledge. On completion 70,000 articles had been written by a discrete group comprising the editors and other Francophile ‘men of letters’ (known as philosophes) many of whose names are now considered synonymous with the Enlightenment. Underlying their quest was a belief that the acquisition of rational knowledge would empower mankind in the widest sense to escape the bounds of all authority, intellectual and political. Indeed, it is now widely argued that the broader agenda for social and political reform that motivated the philosophes contributed ultimately to the French Revolution in 1789.

The Encyclopedie’s status as one of France’s great intellectual achievements is in no way diminished by the fact that the project initially grew from an unrealised and more modest plan to translate into French the two volume Cyclopaedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by the Englishman, Ephraim Chambers, published in London in 1728.  A more profound debt to English philosophy is evident in the Encyclopedie’s ‘System of Human Understanding’, a genealogical tree of all forms of knowledge that was adapted from a similar scheme devised over one hundred years earlier by Francis Bacon (one of the work’s dedicatee’s). The Enyclopedie’s radical re-conception of Bacon’s scheme famously divided human knowledge into three branches: Memory (history); Reason (philosophy); and Imagination (sacred and profane poetry). Its inclusion of theology and black magic as subsets of Reason inevitably ruffled establishment feathers. This ‘System of Human Understanding’ was further explained in d’Alembert’s lengthy ‘Preliminary Discourse’ which became one of the defining pronouncements of the Enlightenment. In it he expressed his aspiration that man through his intelligent efforts might transform the conditions of human life (see English translation).

As an instrument for the education and improvement of society the Encyclopédie was devoted as much to the more practical, mechanical and technical domains of human endeavour as to abstract philosophising. Thus alongside articles by leading philosophers attacking orthodox opinion on nearly every front, there were accounts of  mining, glass blowing, iron smelting and wind mills together with detailed illustrations on engraved plates.

It is unfortunate that we do not know exactly when our copy of the Encyclopédie came to Queens’. Its current presence amongst the vast 18th-century collections of sermons, philosophy, and science bequeathed to the library by the two Queens’ clerics David Hughes (1727-77) and Isaac Milner (1788-1820) is fitting. Although not sharing the agenda for social reform propounded in France, these clerics played a key part in articulating for Cambridge a distinct intellectual alternative inspired by a ‘holy alliance’ of Newtonian science and Anglicanism.  As avid collectors and participants in Cambridge’s ‘Enlightenment’ we can be sure they would have saluted the intellectual ambition of the Encyclopédie and the continued interest it holds for readers today.

Tim Eggington, College Librarian

D.20.21 – The Life and Afterlife of a Manuscript

By Jack Fleming, Queens’ MPhil in Medieval History (2013-2014)

In the previous blog, we explored how we can get information about the origin of a manuscript just from looking at the script and layout. After finding out when and where a manuscript was written, we can then ask if there is anything that a manuscript can tell us about what happened to it after it was made. In the Middle Ages, much like today, books had lives after publication. Manuscripts passed from person to person – they were often valuable enough to be mentioned in wills. Some owners added their own notes in the margins of books [see image of F.12.15], while others filled excess leaves with their own additions. Many people wrote their own names in books (inscriptions) to show ownership. In historical bibliography terms, the record of origin of a book is called provenance.

Marginalia in OL [F.12.15]

Example of marginalia in OL [F.12.15]

Before any such additions or changes, it is important to note that books were not identical. Today, I can buy identical copies of Shakespeare’s works from Exeter to Edinburgh, but in the Middle Ages books were individually copied, each with their own minor variations and errors. Even after the introduction of printing, books were not sold as they are now, ready-bound in identical editions. Instead, early book sellers and stationers sold works in quires (sheets of paper stitched together into blocks of normally 4, 8, or 12 pages, sometimes more). These blocks of pages could be used as disposable pamphlets, or bound by the owner. This is why private libraries in stately homes often have all their contents bound in the same style. It is also why Queens’ College houses some books bound rather cheaply. Except for a brief period during the reign of Richard III, Queens’ has never been a rich college, and, unlike other colleges, could not afford to rebind all its older volumes in the 18th and 19th centuries as was the trend. This poverty has meant the survival of numerous rare bindings from the 16th and 17th centuries, making the Old Library collections an invaluable resource for people interested in the early book trade.

Examples of early bindings in Queens' Old Library

Examples of early bindings in Queens’ Old Library

Western manuscripts were made of parchment: writing material made from animal skin; the related ‘vellum’ refers exclusively to calfskin and is said to be better quality, while parchment may be from any animal. Today scholars prefer the wider terms parchment or animal membranae to refer to skin writing material. Early printed books often recycled pages of parchment from older manuscripts, which were seen as obsolete, in their bindings. These pages were stitched to the outside of the quires of text, before having wooden boards stuck onto them, which were covered in leather, providing a stiff, strong binding. Many of Queens’ books are bound in this way, leaving almost full pages of, for example, legal texts and biblical glosses visible inside the front cover.

A medieval pastedown found in a Queens' OL binding [F.12.15]

A medieval pastedown found in a Queens’ OL binding [F.1.7]

When a book-buyer was really strapped for cash, they might not even be able to afford a binding such as that. In that case, the quires could be bound in a sheet of parchment without a covering, as a temporary measure until cash flow was a little better. Queens’ Old Library includes two small volumes which never received boards, and are, for a medievalist such as myself, enchanting examples of both earlier manuscripts in themselves, and what might happen to them in later life.

D.20.21 next to a paperback

D.20.21 next to a Penguin paperback

D.20.54 next to a Penguin paperback

D.20.54 next to a Penguin paperback

Both volumes are small, about the size of a modern A5 book, and slim. The first of the pair, D.20.54, is a work by Petrus on Euclidian Geometry, printed in Frankfurt in 1600, containing numerous woodcut illustrations.

Its binding sheet, however, dates to the late eleventh or early twelfth century, written in a late Caroline Minuscule script (or a Transitional script, depending on which palaeographer you talk to). This means that it is one of the earliest fragments in Queens’ OL collection, which has around 30 medieval manuscripts, dating as far back to the twelfth century. The page is a fragment of Caesar’s account of his war in modern-day France, de Bello Gallico, which was a staple of medieval libraries.

D.20.54 front inside pastedown

D.20.54 front inside pastedown

However, it was the binding of the second volume, D.20.21, Michelet’s Discours de Géographie, published in Paris in 1615 which grabbed my attention when I started to volunteer at the Old Library. First of all, I was interested because, unlike D.20.54, nobody had made any attempt to classify the binding page before – it was entirely my project. Secondly, I was interested that the page included notation I set to work trying to work out what it was.

Notation on D.20.21 back cover pastedown righthand column.

Notation on D.20.21 back cover pastedown righthand column.

The hand is Littera Textualis from the twelfth or thirteenth century. The script has no cedillas (ę, medieval abbreviation for æ), so its earliest date of composition was c.1150, but it was not a fully developed Littera Textualis; there was not much compression between letter pairs such as æ or be, d and s were both written with a mix of bent and straight shafts and the first line of text was written above the top line of the page, so it could not date to much after 1250.

After making a transcription and rough translation, it becomes clear that there is a common theme to the text, which was divided by sections with notation. The fragment focused on St Peter, specifically his escape from captivity. After trawling of the internet to match parts of the transcription, I was able to work out that the fragment included parts of two sermons by the fifth century theologians, Chromatius, Bishop of Aquileia, and Pope Leo the Great, both written for the feast of St Peter in Chains (Petrus ad vincula), which was celebrated on the first of August.

The layout of these Patristic texts, interspersed with musical responses, suggest that the page was from a liturgical book. The most likely contender is a breviary, which provided the texts and music used in religious houses for praying the Hours – the services around which the monastic day was shaped. The English rite had developed separately from that commonly used on the continent, and were largely the product of developments at Salisbury in the eleventh century, so was known as the Sarum rite. Comparing the D.20.21 leaf to the published edition of the Sarum Breviary [Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum, ed. E.G. Duff, F. Procter and C. Wordsworth, 3 vols., (Cambridge, 1879-1886), III], I found that the chants did match for the feast of St Peter in Chains. What was confusing was that the texts did not. Leo’s sermon was in use, but it started later in relation to the chants in the published edition of the Sarum Breviary than in the D.20.21 fragment, while the extract from Chromatius was not included in the edition at all! This left me rather confused. It was time to consult a higher authority.

Giovanni Varelli, a historical musicologist from St John’s College in Cambridge, has worked extensively on early musical notation. Over a coffee in the UL, he talked to me about the type of musical notation found in D.20.21. It was not, as I had first thought, neumes, but square notation from the middle forty years of the thirteenth century, and originating in England. His assessment of the music, and mine of the text, gave us of a window of about twenty years in which the D.20.21 fragment had been written, and his knowledge confirmed that the fragment was of English origin. Finally, because of the number of manuscripts he has worked with, Giovanni was able to tell me that there was not one authoritative version of the breviary, even within a specific rite. Rather, the texts and chants often varied. In other words, the fact that the texts did not match up with the published edition did not mean that D.20.21 was not using the Sarum rite.

Closeup of notation on D.20.21 front cover pastedown.

Closeup of notation on D.20.21 front cover pastedown.

The D.20.21 fragment was part of a breviary written somewhere in England between 1230 and 1250. This breviary provided the hours of the monastic day, for an organised religious community of monks, nuns or friars. It could even have come from the community of Carmelite Friars, established in Cambridge around 1250, who later owned the land between Queens’ and King’s Colleges (and after whom the northern wall of Queens’ Fellows garden is named).

A view of the Carmelite monastery wall in Queens'.

A view of the Carmelite monastery wall in Queens’.

Later, probably as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, this breviary became obsolete. Maybe it was broken up, and odd leaves came into the possession of Queens’ College, or perhaps the whole volume belonged to Queens’. The inventory of the Carmelites’ possessions at the dissolution did not include any breviaries, but the priory seems to have been in decline at that point (with only two resident friars); it had already sold building materials and some of its stained-glass windows to Queens’ College, and could also have sold off parts of its library locally. The stained-glass survived the Reformation as a result of being moved to the Old Library, and are one of the very few remaining examples of pre-Reformation stained-glass anywhere in the United Kingdom. The glass panels include painted roundrels of individual, expressive Carmelite friars (most likely done from life).

A pre-Reformation medieval stained glass Carmelite friar watches over the Old Library.

A pre-Reformation medieval stained glass Carmelite friar watches over the Old Library.

Whether Queens’ acquired the whole breviary or only fragments thereof, it is most likely that its repurposing as a binding fragment for a work on geography was done by someone with links to the college; geography being more appropriate a topic in the post-Reformation university than the monastic hours. The low quality binding indicates the economic constraints of the owner. The work might have been gifted to the college by a scholar, or was purchased and bound by the impoverished college itself. With such a binding, it is definitely unlikely that the volume belonged to anyone rich or influential.

What is certain is that, by the seventeenth century, the breviary had been split up, and a page of it was used by the impoverished college to provide a temporary binding for a new book on geography, which was far more in line with the scholarly endeavours of the post-reformation university. Somehow, this flimsy binding survived the subsequent four centuries without being replaced. Half a millennium after it was last used as a liturgical text, the breviary fragment is still performing a useful function, as well as providing a project for someone who, like me, was in need of palaeography practice.

A pair of roundrels from the Old Library.

A pair of roundrels from the Old Library.

Palaeography or, What you can learn from a manuscript without understanding a word of Latin!

By Jack Fleming

I’m writing this, my first blog post on Medieval Manuscripts, in a word processor before it gets uploaded. This means that, alongside being able to save it, edit it and do such useful things as checking it is about the right length, I can change how the post looks at the touch of a button. Changing font is second nature to us, but in the Medieval world, changes in script (as hand written fonts are known) help us to learn a lot about when, where and why something was written.

The freedom computers afford is a very recent innovation. None of my grandparents ever owned a computer and when my parents were students, they paid people to type up dissertations on typewriters. Typewriters, (though relatively portable!), differ little from even early printing presses – they stamp ink onto paper using a single set of letter stamps. Before the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century, everything was hand written. Hundreds of thousands of books were written out by monks and professional scribes – hence manuscript, literally ‘written by hand’. The Old Library here has some 30 handwritten books from before the invention of the printing press (a book, or, to use a technical term, codex, being far more likely to survive the ravages of time than a loose sheet), while other collections in Cambridge house many more .

Queens' College Old Library

Queens’ College Old Library, full of manuscripts and books.

Such production was no mean feat – simply copying a pre-existing text might take weeks, (not counting the time taken to prepare parchment from animal skins, or to illustrate or bind the pages). Composing a major work could take a lifetime; the Historia Novella of William of Malmesbury breaks off unexpectedly in 1142, although William had promised to continue the History – apparently he died before he could make good on his promise.

Unsurprisingly, books were highly valued, and great care was taken in making them look the part. Above all, that meant having consistent, neat handwriting. If I had to hand-write my thesis, it would probably look very disappointing. Luckily, in the Middle Ages, handwriting was formally taught; most people were illiterate, and even those who could read were not necessarily able to write. Those who could write would have been taught how to form letters in a specific style and would also learn the many abbreviations used to save time and space. These letter shapes and features together make a script. Over time, the scripts in use changed. Just as Arial looks very different to Times New Roman, so scripts from different periods vary.

For example, an eleventh or twelfth century copy of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (d.20.54) looks very different from a fifteenth century text of William of Ockham (f.10.15)


D.20.54 – an early 12th century copy of Caesar’s account of the Gallic War



F.10.15 – MS pastedown of William of Ockham from our Old Library

As you can see, the two scripts used look completely different. Hardly surprising, given they were written some four centuries apart. Handwriting changed gradually over hundreds of years, which means it is possible to identify the time a manuscript was produced at a glance. With practice, you can even tell where a manuscript comes from; these two examples are probably English, but their scripts were in use, with slight differences, across western Europe.

Not only did the general look of the scripts change, so too did some of the letter shapes. The straight s – ſ – was a letter form which developed in the early middle ages, but gave way to the curved s after the twelfth century. Similarly, the font I am using now has a’s which have a bent back shaft, whereas when most people today write a’s, they don’t add this. This ‘two compartment’ a is another later medieval letter form. Others include g with a closed tail, as seen here, or d with a shaft bending back on itself. These shafts are called ‘ascenders’ – the bit above the height of most letters, seen in l, d, or b, while y, g, p and q have ‘descenders’.

D-20-54 - an example of early twelfth century letter forms. Note the straight 's' and &.

D.20.54 – an example of early twelfth century letter forms. Note the straight ‘s’ and &.

Abbreviations could change too; for example, several changes in abbreviations and letters occurred around the middle of the twelfth century which help date scripts within that century. First of all, ę (an abbreviation for ‘ae’), stopped being used. Instead e was used, confusing generations of Latin scholars. Around the same time, & (which began life as a way of joining the letters e and t), was replaced with ‘⁊’.

G.13.14 - an example of thirteenth century Gothic script - compare the 'a' letters and curved 's'

G.13.14 – an example of thirteenth century Gothic script – compare the ‘a’ letters and curved ‘s’.

All of these letter forms and abbreviations help us work out when a script was written, but changes were not abrupt. A scribe might experiment with changing one small part of a script, perhaps whether his d’s had ‘ascenders’ which curved backwards, or whether he wrote et as & or ⁊, whilst keeping everything else the same. This means that dating a script is never an exact science. Instead, palaeographers give a best estimate for a script, based on other dated scripts. So, in the twelfth century, if a script had no ę’s or &’s, it probably came from the later half of the century, but it could be that a particular scribe was especially experimental!

Different scripts also had different purposes. Changes in a script might be motivated by a desire to make a text more legible; this was was motivated the development of Caroline Minuscule, in use (with variation) between the 9th and 11th centuries. Other developments were inspired by the desire to save time and space, or simply to make texts look better, as in the case of the developments which led Caroline minuscule to develop across the twelfth century through ‘Transitional’ hands into ‘Textualis’. Some Late Medieval scripts are so stylistically focused that they can be very hard to read.

MS Horne 25 An example of Late Medieval Littera Textualis Quadrata, where legibility is sacrificed for style

MS Horne 25 An example of Late Medieval Littera Textualis Quadrata, where legibility is sacrificed for style

The script also had to be suitable for the text – some scripts were seen as too informal for biblical texts for example. How a text looks can also tell us about its intended purpose. Was it a prestige item, a coffee table book designed to show off the owner’s wealth, such as the 8th century Lindisfarne Gospels or 12th century Trinity Apocalypse, or was it a cheap, low quality book with lots of marginal notes (or glosses), designed to be used by a student at one of the medieval universities, such as Cambridge?

Anyone can look at a medieval book, and get a good idea of when the book was produced, and what kind of purpose it might have, all before ever having to think about the Latin! Not bad going!

C.13.16 - an example of a glossed text, likely for study! The main script is a Gothic hand, while the glosses are a more rapid cursive

C.13.16 – an example of a glossed text, likely for study! The main script is a Gothic hand, while the glosses are a more rapid cursive.

A Dutch Book of Hours, 1453 (MS 50)

Written by Lindsey Askin, library volunteer and PhD student in Divinity.

MS50hours0002 - Copy

Detail of miniature, MS 50

The Old Library is home to a beautiful Book of Hours from the Netherlands, dating to 1453, just two years before the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible. This manuscript, written on parchment, is very beautifully decorated with flourishing initials. The script in which the manuscript is written is known as Gothic bookhand. Our volume also contains seven pages of illuminated miniatures of the life of Christ. MS 50 is written in Middle Dutch. The Netherlands, along with France, were producing vast quantities of Book of Hours in the fifteenth century. The production of Books of Hours by the fifteenth century was no longer the sole provisio of monks and nuns, but was almost entirely taken over by trained scribes and artists in scriptoria, writing workshops.

A Book of Hours is a medieval devotional book. The cost and luxury of a Book of Hours is determined largely by the number of illuminated miniatures in it. Each Book of Hours was made bespoke, but most of them typically contained the following: a religious calendar, a gospel extract, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Psalms of Degrees, the Penitential Psalms, a Litany of Saints, an Office for the Dead, and the Hours of the Cross. In terms of artistic expression, the Book of Hours was the highest medium for book illumination in the late Middle Ages. The most famous Book of Hours is the Belles Heures of Jean de France, the Duc de Berry, created around 1409 by the Limbourg brothers (The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The Belles Heures contains ninety-four full-page miniatures, by comparison with the more modest seven miniatures in MS 50.


Gothic bookhand and pen-flourishes in MS 50


Calendar, MS 50

The contents of MS 50 are as follows: fol 1r-1v Calendar of important feasts for 1454-1490, fols 2r-13v Calendar, fols 16r-55r Hours of the Virgin, fols 57r-80v Hours of the Eternal Wisdom, fols 82r-101r Hours of the Holy Spirit, fols 103r-109v Hours of the Cross, fols 112r-132v Penitential Psalms and Litany, fols 136r-181r Office of the Dead, fols 183r-189r St Ambrose’s Prayer on the Sacrament and other Eucharistic devotions, fols 189v-198r Prayers to Christ, fols 198v-202r Marian prayers, fols 202r-207v Suffrages, fol 207v copyist’s colophon.

We know MS 50 dates from 1453 because of a colophon (the scribe’s sign-off, a scribal practice dating back to Ancient Babylon) on the final page. Like with Middle English, it’s much easier to understand if you try saying it out loud:

Dit boec is ghesceven int iaer ons heren. M cccc ende liij Gheeijnt op sinte augustijns avent. Bidt voer die scriven een enghelsche gruet om maria wille.


The copyist’s colophon, 1453 (MS 50)


Detail of miniature, MS 50

The red, violet, and blue initial ornamentation found all over the manuscript is an excellent example of ‘mask-group’ pen-flourishing, a style of ornamentation which originated in Amsterdam. Many of the ornaments contains flowers and faces, many of which green and grotesque.

The impressive miniatures are likely the work of the unknown Dutch illuminator known only as the Master of the Haarlem Bible (named after the Latin Bible in Haarlem’s Stadsbibliotheek, MS 187 C 13). The Master of the Haarlem Bible was active c. 1445-173, during which time he illuminated at least forty manuscripts. Most of these jobs were Books of Hours.

The seven miniatures in MS 50 are inserted single leaves. To facilitate the production of Books of Hours, medieval artists operated on a division of labour / assembly line basis: illuminators worked on illuminations while scribes worked on copying. In the case of our manuscript, the Book of Hours sans miniatures was produced in Amsterdam while the miniatures were done in Haarlem. This was a common process. The volume was written first, then sent to be ornamented with pen-flourishes, and finally it was given to the illuminator.


One of the seven miniatures, MS 50


Note the wood boards, MS 50

MS 50 came to Queens’ on April 23, 1930 via British artist and lawyer Joseph Yelverton Dawbarn, LLM, of Liverpool (b.1857-d.1943). He matriculated at Queens’ in Michaelmas 1874, was awarded LLM in 1881, and practised law at Lancaster Chancery Court. Dawbarn received the manuscript as a bequest of Thomas Craddock upon his death (Queens’, matric. 1851, b.1832-d.1930). Craddock’s bookplate survives on the manuscript with the inscription ‘bought 1846’. Before Craddock, MS 50 was also owned by John Maule of Inverkeilor (b.1706-d.1781), son of Henry Maule, styled Earl of Panmure.


The leather binding of MS 50

The binding on MS 50 is very fine and in good condition. It is brown leather over wooden boards (the wood is visible on the inside of the covers) and stamped in concentric bands, with portraits of contemporary figures, some of whom are in profile and others face-on. The binding contains the traces of two straps which would have locked the book shut for security, which have been carefully removed in conservation.

MS50hours0001 - Copy

Detail of portraits in the binding, MS 50


Morgan, Nigel and Stella Panayotova, eds., A Catalogue of Western Book Illumination in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Colleges, Illuminated Manuscripts in Cambridge, Part One: The Frankish Kingdoms, Northern Netherlands, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Austria (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2009).

Venn Cambridge Alumni Database, [Accessed January 2014].


One of seven miniatures, MS 50


Beautiful space fillers, MS 50


Note the blue profile face and flora, MS 50