Johannes Kepler in the Old Library at Queens’: a remarkable collection

The Old Library at Queens’ College is fortunate in possessing a large number of first editions of some very important scientific works of the early 17th century. Many of these are among those which may have been donated by the former fellow of Queens’, John Smith (1618-1652), who was a member of the important group of philosophers active in Cambridge who were known as the “Cambridge Platonists”.  The Donors’ Book at Queens’ which records brief titles of books donated to the Old Library by alumni from 1562 to the end of the 18th century lists 683 books which were donated by Smith, of which a large number relate to science.


Signature of John Smith, Cambridge Platonist [C.14.32]

Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, is well represented with ten works recorded in the Donors’ Book under the brief titles: De motibus stellae, Mysterium Cosmographicarum, Harmonice Mundi, Dioptrice, Somnium Astronomicum, Eclogae Chronicae, De Nive Sexangula, Paralipomena ad Vitellionem, Nuncius Sydereus, and Epitome Astronomiae. From these brief titles we can assume that up to nine of the Kepler works in Queens’ Old Library originate from the Smith bequest.

Several are first editions:

  • C-014-032-004

    Illustrations of the structure of the eye [C.14.32]

    Ad Vitellionem paralipomena. Frankfurt am Main, 1604 [C.14.32].
    This was Kepler’s first important work on optics, of great significance in the history of ophthalmology, with descriptions of human vision and the functions of the eye. This is apparently the only work by Kepler at Queens’ which does contain the signature of John Smith.
  • Dissertatio cum nuncio sidereo. Prague, 1610 (“Nuncius sydereus” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.41(1)].
    Kepler’s letter to Galileo in which he warmly approves of Galileo’s new observations with the telescope, as described in Sidereus Nuncius.
  • Dioptrice. Augsburg, 1611 (“Dioptrice seu demonstratio” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.59].
    Kepler’s response to Galileo’s discovery of four satellites orbiting Jupiter, with the use of a powerful new telescope. Kepler began a theoretical and experimental investigation of telescopic optics and within a few months he had successfully worked out all the laws governing the passage of light through different lenses. He also described an improved telescope with two convex lenses which would produce greater magnification than Galileo’s uses of a combination of convex and concave lenses.
  • Eclogae chronicae. Frankfurt am Main, 1615 (“Eclogae chronicae” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.49].
    One of several books written by Kepler on the subject of Christian chronology.
  • Harmonices mundi libri V. Linz, 1619 (“Harmonice mundi” in Donors’ Book) [D.1.35].
    Kepler’s discourse on harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena, perhaps motivated by his tireless search for harmony in the universe. Regarded by many as Kepler’s hymn to the universe, and “A mathematical Song of Songs”, according to author and journalist Arthur Koestler.
  • Somnium seu Opus posthumum de astronomia lunari. Frankfurt am Main, 1634 (“Somnium astronomicum” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.35(1)].
    A novel which was written by Kepler and published posthumously by his son Ludwig in 1634, with an imaginary description of how the earth would look when viewed from the moon. The work is considered to be the first serious treatise of lunar astronomy, as well as being called the first work of science fiction by astrophysicist Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Also listed in the Donors’ Book as “De motibus stellae” is possibly another Kepler first edition in the Old Library: Astronomia nova aitologetos  seu physica coelestis, tradita commentariis de motibus stellae martis ex observationibus G. V. Tychonis Brahe. [Heidelberg], 1609 [D.2.9].

This is the first edition of Kepler’s most important work, which contains his first two laws of planetary motion, the first law showing that the orbits of planets are elliptical rather than circular, and the second law, of equal areas, shows that planets move faster when they are closer to the sun. The work had immense influence on other astronomers including Galileo and Newton.

Other works:

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The five Platonic solids to demonstrate the relationship of distances between the six known planets [D.1.9]

  • Prodromus dissertationum cosmographicarum , continens mysterium cosmographicum de admirabili proportione. Frankfurt am Main, 1621 (“Mysterium cosmographicum” in Donors’ Book) [D.1.9].
    Second edition of Kepler’s first work, first published in 1596. Written with the approval of the authorities of Tübingen University, although it was a militantly pro-Copernican treatise. Scholars such as Galileo and Tycho Brahe were lukewarm, but it thrust Kepler into the front rank of astronomers.
  • Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae. Frankfurt am Main, 1635 (“Epitome astronomiae” in Donors’ Book) [S.2.23]. Second edition.
    A review of Kepler’s cosmological ideas and his support for the theories of Copernicus.

In addition, the Old Library has two other first editions of works by Kepler:

  • Chilias logarithmorum. Marburg, 1624-5 [D.20.36(2)].
    Very important work which includes examples of the uses of logarithms and how they were constructed. The work enabled Kepler to compete the Rudolphine Tables (see below) and discover his third law of planetary motion.
  • Tabulae Rudophinae. Ulm, 1627 [D.2.11].
    Perhaps Kepler’s ground-breaking publication which he had worked on with his teacher Tycho Brahe. “These tables remained the foundation of all planetary calculations for over a century. Also of importance is the table of logistic logarithms, Kepler’s invention, and that of refraction.”–Ruth Sparrow, Milestones of Science, 116.

Engraved title page of Tabulae Rudolphinae [D.2.11]

Johannes Kepler was born in Weil der Stadt in Germany in 1571 and it was he, above all other astronomers, who revitalised interest in the revolutionary theories of Copernicus, but it was by pure chance that he pursued this path.  He had the intention of becoming a priest, but it was while he was at the University of Tübingen that he was introduced to Michael Maestlin, the professor of astronomy. Although Maestlin taught the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, he clearly believed in the heliocentric system of Copernicus and had bought a copy of De Revolutionibus in 1570 while a student, and is thought to have taught the theories of Copernicus to his more advanced students. Kepler was still intending to be a clergyman as he neared the end of his time at Tübingen. However his life changed when he was reluctantly appointed as the professor of mathematics, following the sudden death of the previous one.

Kepler’s great teacher Tycho Brahe died suddenly ostensibly from a bladder ailment in 1601, and there have been claims that he was murdered through mercury poisoning.  Kepler became one of the main suspects, with the motive of gaining access to his master’s extensive astronomical data, which Tycho Brahe had jealously guarded. There is no doubt that, after Brahe’s death, Kepler took possession of the data and was able to move the study of astronomy further forward than anyone before him, becoming, in the words of Carl Sagan “the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer”.

Investigations in the 1990’s had suggested that Brahe died from mercury poisoning, thus leading to the speculation that he had been poisoned. However, after the remains had been exhumed in 2010 and samples of bones, hair and clothing had been analysed, no lethal levels of any poison were discovered, and although traces of mercury were found (perhaps as a result of Brahe’s alchemical experiments), there was not enough to suggest poisoning.

Tycho Brahe was a remarkable figure, one of the wealthiest men in Denmark, the leading astronomer of his day whose painstaking research led to exciting new discoveries after his death. He had seen the benefits of the Copernican system but he erroneously considered the sun to be orbiting the earth. Yet his very precise measurements showed that new stars (the Supernovae) were not tailless comets as previously thought, also that comets were not atmospheric phenomena but must pass through supposedly immutable celestial spheres.

His reputation became so high that the king of Denmark offered him the island of Hven for the construction of a modern observatory, as well as a printing press and a paper mill, where he was able to publish his works.


Uraniborg Castle, Brahe’s astronomical observatory [C.14.19(1)]

Brahe was a most colourful figure and is the subject of several bizarre stories. When he was only 20 he lost part of his nose in a duel with a Danish nobleman and fellow student, Manderup Parsbjerg over a fierce disagreement about a mathematical formula. He is often portrayed with a prosthetic nose, either of copper or gold.

He is also said to have a kept a pet elk or moose which lived on the first floor of his house but which is said to have died after falling down the stairs after drinking too much beer. He also kept a dwarf called Jepp as a manservant who he liked to keep under the table where he ate his meals while his master was dining.

By Paul Harcourt, Library Volunteer


Not a Day Without a Line: Past lives of Renaissance books in Queens’ Library

Not a Day Without a Line is the last of four exhibitions organised as part of the Renaissance Queens’ two-year project, which began in May 2016. Since then, more than three thousand people have visited our exhibitions in the Old Library. Featuring bawdy poems, scholarly annotations, liturgy redacted and re-added, mysterious ciphers, hand-coloured books and unique bindings, this final exhibition celebrates some of the most extraordinary discoveries made during the Renaissance Queens’ cataloguing and outreach project.

Title page of The Gospels of the fower Euangelistes translated i

A sixteenth-century cipher, consisting of Anglo-Saxon letters, medieval number forms and invented symbols. The Gospels of the fower Evangelistes translated in the olde Saxons tyme out of Latin into the vulgare toung of the Saxons (London, 1571) [D.19.2].

Our previous three exhibitions have begun with a focus on a particular person or collection. Not a Day Without a Line began life rather differently, starting instead with the desire to showcase some of the exciting and unique discoveries made over the course of the cataloguing project. With no shortage of these, the first step – the curation of objects – was an enjoyable and fairly straightforward task. But every good exhibition requires a unifying theme. How did we land upon the common thread that holds the exhibition together?

As a scholarly library, and one that was at the heart of the Renaissance humanist movement, with its emphasis on “active reading” (interrogating the text by comparison, annotation and translation), Queens’ Old Library contains many remarkable examples of marginalia. Ranging from the scholarly (annotations, mnemonic devises, manicules) to the distinctly recreational (crude poems written on the flyleaves of Bibles, personal notes and doodles), these lines and markings offer an insight into the daily practices of book use.

In addition, the Library collection is known for its many original calfskin bindings. As well as offering us indications of the books’ provenance and the relationships between past owners, as in the case of William Cecil’s books given to the President of  Queens’, or the library shared by two theologically opposed Cambridge preachers, the bindings illustrate the craft and skill of sixteenth-century bookbinders. Looking at the books that we hoped would feature in the exhibition, we found that they were united by these themes of daily use and personalisation.


Horn window, recording the donation of this book from Thomas Yale to Queens’ College. Below are the initials of Simon Heynes, whose widow Yale married. Cyprian, Saint, Opera sanctissimi martyris Caecilii Cypriani episcopi Cathaginensis [The works of the holy martyr Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage] (Basel, 1525) [M.9.19].

A quotation, hand-written in a sixteenth-century dictionary, captured this topic perfectly. “Nulla dies sine linea” (not a day without a line) is a maxim that was coined by Pliny to describe the work ethic of Apelles, a Greek painter. Down the centuries, it has been used by many notable authors; Desiderius Erasmus, the celebrated humanist scholar and the subject of one of our exhibitions, used it in its negative form, which translated as “today has been a day without a line”, and Émile Zola adopted it as his personal motto and wrote it on the wall above his fireplace. Written in its extended form, “Nulla dies abeat quin linea ducta supersit” (let no day go by without a line drawn to show for it), this quotation, presumably adopted as a motto by the book’s owner, perfectly illustrates the daily craft of book production and use in the early modern period.

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Inscription reading “Nulla dies abeat quin linea ducta supersit” (let no day go by without a line drawn to show for it) in Dasypodius, Peter, Dictionarium Latinogermanicum et vice versa Germanicolatinum [Dictionary Latin-German and vice versa German-Latin] (Strasbourg, 1541) [G.7.29].

What does the exhibition reveal about Queens’ Old Library during the Renaissance?

Firstly, it reaffirms the importance of active reading to the humanist scholars of the Renaissance period. Elizabethan poet Geoffrey Whitney stated that “the use, not the reading of books makes us wise”; in this spirit readers like Thomas Smith, Elizabethan statesman and Fellow of Queens’ and the subject of our penultimate exhibition, used their books thoroughly, and sometimes filled them with annotations, doodles and amendments. The scholarly annotations that feature in this exhibition demonstrate the same attitude towards the use and purpose of books.

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Annotations in several hands in Leonhard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes [Notable commentaries on the history of plants] (Lyon, 1549) [H.19.5].

Secondly, these additions and redactions, the insertion of replacement leaves, repairs to pages and even the retention of the original bindings all demonstrate that the purpose of the Library was primarily functional. Although books were expensive and precious, they were used repeatedly. These signs of use speak of the way in which books were viewed and used here during the Renaissance.

Expurgation, 16th century

A Catholic liturgical text, expurgated on the orders of Henry VIII after the institution of the Church of England. Missale secundum ordinem Carthusiensium [Missal of the Carthusian Order] (Lyon, 1517) [G.2.1].

Not a Day Without a Line: Past lives of Renaissance books in Queens’ Library was curated by Tim Eggington, Lucille Munoz and Hannah Smith. An online version of the exhibition will become available soon on our website.

We are grateful for the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose sponsorship made it possible to appoint a Project Associate to catalogue and promote our sixteenth-century collections.

The Spanish Match

Tucked inside the front cover of a 16th-century folio volume in the Old Library we discovered a folded sheet of paper on which has been written in a 17th-century hand a Latin poem of 85 lines (click here for a closer look).

Both sides

Folded sheet of paper found in Etienne Bellengard, Sententiarum volumen absolutissimum (Geneva, 1587) [I.5.21]

The first two lines of the poem read:

Crop first 2 lines

Quam primum patrias effugit Carolus oras
Impletus lacrimis angulus omnis erat

“As soon as Charles had fled his native shores, every corner was filled with tears”.


King Charles I

The Charles referred to is the future King Charles I while he was still Prince of Wales, and the poem is inspired by his clandestine visit to Spain in 1623 and one of the most bizarre episodes in British history, known as the Spanish Match. Negotiations to bring about a marriage between Charles and the Infanta of Spain had been dragging on for a decade with scarcely any progress; Charles felt that he had waited long enough and so plotted with the Duke of Buckingham to force the issue, one way or the other.

An important figure in all this was the Spanish ambassador to London from 1613, the Lord of Gondomar, who slowly developed close friendships with both Charles and his father James I, and encouraged them to pursue the match. Gondomar, who was adept at self promotion, could see that a successful result would be the pinnacle of his career, while for James to secure an alliance with Spain without the need for bloodshed would be seen as an outstanding success. Little did James and Charles know that in spite of extravagant claims made by Gondomar, his influence at the Spanish court was limited, as Charles soon found upon his arrival in Madrid. In fact Gondomar was never part of the inner circle and had been sent away to London as a means to get him out of the way.


The Infanta of Spain, Maria Anna

Charles and Buckingham began their daring adventure on 18 February 1623, under the false names of Thomas and John Smith and wearing false wigs and beards. They chose not to travel by sea, opting instead to undergo a tedious voyage over land; both were violently sick during the channel crossing and then had to endure fourteen days of travel through France and Spain. Their journey was ill-prepared; it was Lent and there was little meat to be had, forcing the Prince’s party to try to trap the odd goat which they encountered on the way, but they finally arrived at the somewhat surprised British Embassy in Madrid on 7 March 1623.

The relations between England and Spain had become complicated on account of developments elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish were keen to reconquer the Dutch Republic which they had been forced to give up in 1609 as a result of the Twelve Years Truce, but one hostile Protestant state stood in their way: the Electorate of the Palatinate. King James had married off his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V of Palatinate, so that when Frederick became Elector of the Palatinate in 1610 and King of Bohemia in 1619, the House of Stuart found itself at the centre of one of the most heated disputes of the age. On the one hand James wanted to stay on good terms with the Spanish, but he also needed to support his daughter.

The expedition proved to be a diplomatic disaster; Charles thought that he would easily win the Infanta over and bring her back to England in triumph, while the Spanish believed that by coming to Spain himself, Charles was showing his willingness to convert to Catholicism. Any thoughts that long-standing divisions would be healed by joining together a Catholic and a Protestant royal house were dashed. Despite the mission’s ignominious failure to meet any of its objectives there was an immense sense of joyous relief on Charles’ return to London which was celebrated with a display of fireworks, street parties, and ringing of bells.

The poem appears to have been the work of a student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Forth Winthrop (1609-1630). The fifth line of the poem: “Telemacho salvo nunquam visendum Ulysses” also appears in a letter written by Forth Winthrop to his brother John, in c. 1627-8. The line does not appear in any other work of Latin literature (as far as we know).


John Winthrop

Forth Winthrop’s father was John Winthrop (1588-1649) who in 1630 led a large group of immigrants to the New World, becoming the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later its first governor; John Winthrop, Jr., the recipient of Forth Winthrop’s letter, became the first governor of Connecticut. Sadly, Forth Winthrop died soon after his father left for the New World.



Further reading about the Spanish Match: Redworth, Glyn, The Prince and the Infanta (New Haven: Yale University Press, c.2003).

By Paul Harcourt, Library Volunteer

Behind the scenes of our latest exhibition, Books and Power in Tudor England: The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith


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By Hannah Smith, Library Graduate Trainee

The Old Library’s new exhibition opens to the public on 19th September. But how is an exhibition of rare books curated and prepared?

Four hundred and forty years ago, Sir Thomas Smith bequeathed his extensive library to his alma mater, Queens’ College. His instructions were brusque: collect them within twelve days of his death, or Peterhouse would have them instead. Gruff, learned, acerbically funny – the same personality is evident in this story as in the annotations and doodles in his books.

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) was a Tudor ambassador, Secretary of State and political writer, but above all he was a humanist scholar. His books, around sixty-five of which are still in the Old Library, range in subject from classical archaeology to contemporary zoology. With a collection this diverse, where is a librarian to begin in curating an exhibition? What follows is an account of the creation of Books and Power in Tudor England, from first concept to final caption.

Before May

Thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Queens’ is undertaking a two-year project to catalogue the early printed books of the Old Library and make the collections more accessible to the public. Events, schools outreach and exhibitions form part of this endeavour.

HLF Project Associate Lucille and College Librarian Tim are already well acquainted with Smith’s collection. Detailed bibliographic records of each book have been completed, with notes on their annotations, bindings and provenance. These prove to be invaluable to the new graduate trainee, Hannah, who arrives just as work on the exhibition begins and has some catching up to do.


The project team begin reading in earnest. Smith had two biographers, one writing at the end of the seventeenth century and the other in the 1960s. We work our way through both and note the biographers’ wildly different attitudes to Smith and his achievements. Strype, the first biographer, is elegiac in his praise. Dewar, the more recent writer, celebrates his achievements, but presents his life as a series of tragedies. The more we learn about Smith, the clearer it becomes that both stances are legitimate; Smith was remarkably intelligent, influential and well-connected, but in many ways he was also vulnerable, susceptible to the influence of others. He’s a fascinating subject.


Smith certainly was intimidatingly well-read; Strype’s emphatic praise seems much more reasonable now that we are reading around the subjects that Smith knew back to front: history, law, sciences and mathematics, astronomy, astrology (all of these represented in his library in classical and contemporary texts), the pronunciation of ancient Greek, the colonisation of Ireland… The list continues. The sheer scale of the task before us becomes apparent.



One by one, each of Smith’s surviving books is examined thoroughly. We sort them into subjects and make a note of the shelfmark of the book, its condition and subject and, most importantly, what marginalia it contains. Most of Smith’s books bear his signature on the title page, sometimes ‘Smith’, sometimes ‘Smyth’, often a latinised ‘Smithus’.

Smith book spreadsheet

A spreadsheet of Smith’s books, with notes on the subject, condition and marginalia of each one.

It becomes obvious that certain books, or even certain chapters of books, were read and annotated repeatedly. In the context of the story of his life, we begin to see how he turned to these books for personal direction. In a book on mining and mineralogy he has made notes only next to passages that relate to the transmutation of one metal element into another using acid. It makes sense in light of the fact that Smith was defrauded in an alchemical scheme (the conman claimed to be able to turn iron into copper using nitric acid). In another book, this time a classical work of medicine, Smith made notes around a passage on the paralysis of the tongue, underlining the most emotive words. Developing what was almost certainly cancer of the throat and unable to speak in 1576, he wrote to William Cecil, ‘what pleasure can a man have of my years when he cannot speak as he would’.


Hannah goes on a training course on the use of special collections materials in exhibitions. Serif fonts, it turns out, are the most helpful for the visually impaired, but sans serif work best for dyslexic readers.

We consider structuring the exhibition around the chronology of Smith’s life, from his lowly birth in Saffron Walden to his legacy in the present day, but it is becoming clear that his books, and his method of reading them, are a window into the broader intellectual and political culture of his time. Books were a source of power for Smith and other ‘intellectuals in office’, more so than they had ever been before. We arrive at our title.


With only a month until Open Cambridge and the unveiling of the new exhibition, there is no time to lose. It’s time to decide which books will feature. Books are added, removed and swapped around many times before we settle on the final configuration. Like our library, the exhibition has an emphasis on Renaissance Humanism. The final titles for the cases are:

Thomas Smith and reading as a ‘trigger for action’

Thomas Smith and the advancement of Humanism in Cambridge

Exploring the Renaissance mind

Reading the natural world

Reading the natural world: ‘natural magic’

Thomas Smith: Library as university

Now comes the most time-consuming task: turning our research into clear, concise copy for the booklet, posters and captions. Tim, Lucille and Hannah each take two cases and get to work. Painful as it is after immersing ourselves in obscure topics such as the ancient Heruli tribe, the distillation of aqua vitae or the architecture of Smith’s mansion, often we have to kill our darlings if we want to produce succinct copy that visitors are willing to read. We draft, edit and re-draft.


Trying out new configurations; books are moved, withdrawn and re-added before we settle on our final book list.

A local graphic design company will be producing our exhibition materials. Lucille sends them high-quality photographs of some of Smith’s annotations and doodles to be included in the booklet.


Several of Smith’s annotations are photographed, to be included in the booklet and display boards.


One week remains until Open Cambridge; tickets are selling out. After six months on display the Erasmus exhibition is taken down, and the work of installing Books and Power begins.

Each book requires its own purpose-built book cradle. Made from stiff cardboard, they support the bindings of the books and lend a uniform look to the cases. It’s imperative that the cradle fits the book exactly, and that the book doesn’t extend past its natural opening (usually no more than 120 degrees).


Hannah makes a book cradle for a small book with a particularly narrow opening.

Over the weekend of Open Cambridge almost two hundred visitors pass through the doors of the Old Library. As usual, many comment on the smell of the old books, the reverence they feel, the impulse to whisper. Smith’s books are so full of humour and verve that they cut through that, though. Few things are more enjoyable than examining a historical object and in it discovering a relatable, human personality. We will certainly miss his.


Open Cambridge: Hannah introduces a tour group to the Old Library and the exhibition.

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Books and Power in Tudor England: The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith will be open in the Old Library from 9th October to 3rd November, on weekday afternoons between 1:30 and 4:30. Admission is free.


As part of the Festival of Ideas College Librarian Tim Eggington and Perne Librarian Scott Mandelbrote will give a talk entitled ‘Reading books in sixteenth-century Cambridge’ to accompany the exhibition. Book via the Festival of Ideas website.

The Old Kitchens, Queens’ College, Saturday 28th October, 2:30-4:30pm

Books as evidence, part two: William Cecil’s books and the spread of ideas from Cambridge to Parliament


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By Hannah Smith, Graduate Library Trainee

In the previous post, we discovered that Queens’ Old Library holds books from the dispersed library of William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and Secretary of State. An annotation within one of these books, the bindings of which are stamped with the Cecil family arms, confirms that at one time they belonged to Humphrey Tindall, President of Queens’ from 1579 to 1614, who subsequently donated them to the College. These books, and in particular their remarkable and rare bindings, provide evidence of the relationship between these two men.

However, that Cecil, a man with power and responsibility second only to the Queen, should secure this position for Tindall despite outcry among the Fellows begs the questions: why did Cecil arrange Tindall’s appointment, and what ideas was he attempting to propagate by the donation of these books?

William Cecil had intervened in matters of Queens’ College appointments before. That the Queen’s chief advisor would do so did so speaks of the influence that the University’s teaching had on the political and intellectual life of the nation. In an era of class immobility, men who had the opportunity of receiving an education at Oxford or Cambridge often did so with the guarantee of a political career on the other side; very soon, ideas taught and stances taken in the universities would filter through the upper strata of government.


Portrait of William Cecil. Thomas Birch, The Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain (1743)

However, in 1576, the year of Tindall’s appointment, Cecil was responding to both national and personal crises: at the beginning of the year he had backed an unsuccessful marriage suit between the Queen and François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou.

It was imperative that the Queen produced an heir to the throne; the Elizabethan religious settlement, created to provide a middle way under which Catholic and Protestant traditions could coalesce, was precarious, and was unlikely to survive the political instability of a contested throne. The match between Elizabeth and Anjou had for a short time developed into a relationship sufficiently romantic for the pair to exchange betrothal rings (although these were removed the next day, at the urging of the Privy Council). Eventually, though, the problem of Anjou’s Catholic faith was deemed insurmountable.

By the time that this match had been abandoned Cecil, himself a passionate reformer, had left himself vulnerable to suggestions that he was a papist sympathiser, or, at the very least, a lukewarm and changeable believer; either charge was damning. It was now more pressing than ever that he promoted the religious settlement and its moderate reform.

It was not unusual for Cecil, as well as his co-Secretary of State and close friend, Queens’ alumnus Thomas Smith, to require Cambridge preachers to support the monarch’s agenda in their sermons; indeed, after deviating from their instructions the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, was confined to the Tower of London for five years.

The vacancy at Queens’ College afforded Cecil an opportunity. By appointing the right candidate, he could ensure that the College continued to teach the next generation of politicians and bishops to uphold the Elizabethan religious settlement.

Tindall was well known as a defender of religious orthodoxy, and found no theological objection to the Queen’s religious agenda. Licensed as a preacher of the University of Cambridge in 1576, as well as a parish priest and the chaplain of Robert Dudley, his influence in matters of theology was far-reaching. He was young, too, and presumably could hold the role of President for several decades, advocating for the religious settlement even after the death of the Queen.


Girolamo Zanchi, De Tribus Elohim (On the Trinity, Eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Book XIII), 1572. Note the dedication to Edmund Grindal.

Among Cecil’s books given to Tindall was this, written by Girolamo Zanchi, an Italian priest and supporter of the Protestant Reformation. Zanchi’s books, some of which are still in print, were sufficiently controversial that he spent the latter half of his life in exile, moving from city to city in Western Europe. This book on the doctrine of the Trinity was addressed to Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London and later of Canterbury. Grindal, like Tindall, benefited from the patronage of William Cecil, who urged him to use his position to promote the “middle way” between the vying Puritans and Catholics. His efforts in this area were by and large successful, and he was well respected; perhaps the gift of this particular book was a reminder to Tindall of the success he might enjoy if he followed Grindal’s example.


Johannes Gunther, Postillae Sive Conciones Reverendi Patris D. Ioannis Feri (Sermons of Johann Ferus),

Unsurprisingly, most of Cecil’s books at Queens’ are works of theology, written by Protestant theologians. A notable exception, though, is a collection of sermons by Johann Ferus,  the endpaper of which bears Tindall’s signature. Ferus, also known as Johann Wild, was a German Catholic preacher of the Franciscan Order, born at the turn of the fifteenth century. Wild was famed for the eloquence and zeal of his sermons, which won him the respect of Protestants as well as Catholics in a nation divided by the Reformation. His Evangelical preaching style and his promotion of a German middle way resulted in the inclusion of many of his published works in the Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of prohibited books). Tindall must have appreciated the significance of the gift: a guide to persuasive preaching, and an example of another figure who, like Grindal, had earned respect within both denominations by promoting a middle way.


Until the eighteenth century it was usual for books to be shelved with the fore-edge outwards. The Old Library was no exception. Here someone, possibly Cecil or Tindall, has added the title in ink.

Unlike the majority of his predecessors Humphrey Tindall was never promoted to the bishopric, and remained at Queens’ until his death in 1614. Oral tradition has it that he was offered the throne of Bohemia but refused it, saying that “he had rather be Queen Elizabeth’s subject than a foreign prince”. These words, inscribed on his memorial in Ely Cathedral, are all the more remarkable because his presidency was beset by complaints and rebellions. However, by retaining the presidency of Queens’ College for the remainder of Elizabeth I’s reign and well into that of James I, he ensured that the College, and the University, remained committed to the Elizabeth religious settlement and to the Anglican Church that arose from it.

These remarkable books and their bindings shed light not only on Tindall’s path to the presidency of the College, but also on the University’s political and religious importance during the English Reformation. Stances that were taken in the University would soon spread to the leaders and lawmakers of the nation at large; William Cecil ensured that these ideas, like his books, travelled from Cambridge to Parliament and back again.


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.


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

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.