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


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Tim Eggington and Paul Harcourt

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

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

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

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

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

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Inscription of Thomas Shawe

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Eggington, College Librarian

D.20.21 – The Life and Afterlife of a Manuscript

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

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

Marginalia in OL [F.12.15]

Example of marginalia in OL [F.12.15]

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

Examples of early bindings in Queens' Old Library

Examples of early bindings in Queens’ Old Library

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

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

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

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

D.20.21 next to a paperback

D.20.21 next to a Penguin paperback

D.20.54 next to a Penguin paperback

D.20.54 next to a Penguin paperback

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

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

D.20.54 front inside pastedown

D.20.54 front inside pastedown

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

Notation on D.20.21 back cover pastedown righthand column.

Notation on D.20.21 back cover pastedown righthand column.

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

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

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

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

Closeup of notation on D.20.21 front cover pastedown.

Closeup of notation on D.20.21 front cover pastedown.

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

A view of the Carmelite monastery wall in Queens'.

A view of the Carmelite monastery wall in Queens’.

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

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

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

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

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

A pair of roundrels from the Old Library.

A pair of roundrels from the Old Library.

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

By Jack Fleming

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

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

Queens' College Old Library

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dutch Book of Hours, 1453 (MS 50)

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

MS50hours0002 - Copy

Detail of miniature, MS 50

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

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


Gothic bookhand and pen-flourishes in MS 50


Calendar, MS 50

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

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

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


The copyist’s colophon, 1453 (MS 50)


Detail of miniature, MS 50

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

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

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


One of the seven miniatures, MS 50


Note the wood boards, MS 50

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


The leather binding of MS 50

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

MS50hours0001 - Copy

Detail of portraits in the binding, MS 50


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

Venn Cambridge Alumni Database, http://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/Documents/acad/intro.html [Accessed January 2014].


One of seven miniatures, MS 50


Beautiful space fillers, MS 50


Note the blue profile face and flora, MS 50

John Smith Exhibition Online

Our current exhibition is ”The ‘Living Library’ of John Smith, Cambridge Platonist”. On our Facebook Page, you can now view images of the exhibition here: The Living Library of John Smith (1618 – 1652).

In addition to humanist learning (Proclus, Plotinus, Plutarch) and the newer 17th-century philosophies (Descartes, Galileo, Harvey, Kepler) Smith’s thirst for knowledge encompassed Egyptian medicine, geography, law, history, mathematics, travel and many other subjects. He was part of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of Cambridge thinkers who revitalized 17th-century Cambridge with new life, with the ideas and energy of the Renaissance, at a time when it was in danger of becoming a dry and mummified institution. Smith was himself a fabulous teacher, well-loved by all his students. One of his tutees, Simon Patrick (1626 – 1707), Bishop of Ely, wrote of Smith that he was a ‘living library’ and that his actual library was indeed a ‘noble company of books’. [1]

Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [D. 10. 26.] Bear attacked by ants while searching for honey.

Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [D. 10. 26.]
Bear attacked by ants while searching for honey.


[1] Simon Patrick, The Autobiography of Simon Patrick, Bishop of Ely, Oxford, 1839.

Musical discovery in Queens’ Old Library: tenor part book of early English church music found bound up within ‘Book of Common Prayer’


By Dr Tim Eggington, Queens’ College Librarian. Manuscript music from the Queens’ part book can be seen via this link.

Picture1A Queens’ Old Library reader recently chanced upon this long-forgotten volume of sacred music by Gibbons, Byrd, Tallis and other lesser known contemporaries which, it seems, was once used for Queens’ College Chapel services, probably in the 1630s Although its background is not yet entirely clear we can be certain of its status as an artefact to be counted alongside the limited number of primary sources upon which knowledge of this key period in English music now relies.  Moreover, by suggesting the presence at seventeenth-century Queens’ of a choir capable of performing polyphony this discovery affords more general historical significance.  Bearing in mind the role of music in the religious quarrels of the seventeenth century, the volume’s contents cast additional light on the college’s orientation within the broader politics of the pre-civil war period. r17th-cent0072Bound in a seventeenth-century binding, the volume comprises a fine 1636 edition of the Book of Common Prayer (shelf mark G.4.17), a seventeenth century printed programme of the Queens’ College benefactors service, and nearly 50 leaves of well-thumbed hand-written tenor parts from a large selection of English church music. Much (but not all) of the music is in the same hand, probably that of a professional copyist (as yet unidentified).  Movements from sung services are bound with their respective portions in the printed text (e.g. Kyrie, Te deum, Sanctus, etc.) after which 42 anthems are bound at the end of the volume.  The presence of numerous blank sheets at the end of each section suggests an unfulfilled intention to enter further music. It seems likely that the volume was bound in this way for use not by the choir, but by the precentor, whose job it was to organise liturgy and worship.  Sadly missing (or not yet discovered?) are the eight or so part books which would have been used by the choir to sing the services.  One of the factors linking this volume to Queens’ College Chapel is an inscription on the inside front cover: ‘Tenor Decani Colligium Reginat’ (Tenor for the dean’s side [i.e. south side], Queens’ College). In addition to music by some principal Reformation composers (Thomas Tallis (1505-85), William Byrd (1539-1623), Christopher Tye (1497-1572)) there are lesser known works by a host of figures, some of them local to the area (John Amner (1579-1641), Wilkinson (fl ?1575–?1612), Osbert Parsley (1511-85)).  Although some of the music dates from the early seventeenth century, most of it is sixteenth-century, thereby providing insights into the college’s position in relation to religious and political developments of the day. The inclusion, for example, of Thomas Caustun’s  Service for Children is significant as evidence of Queens’ high church inclinations during the febrile religious environment of pre-civil war Cambridge. As one of only four Elizabethan settings to include the Sanctus and Gloria of the communion service, its performance in seventeenth-century Queens’ may suggest that the college had revived the then outmoded practice of singing the entire communion service (See Dom Anselm Hughes, Catalogue of the Musical Manuscripts at Peterhouse Cambridge (Cambridge, 1953), p. xv).  Of more purely musical interest is the presence of works for which this would appear to be the only known source, including, a litany by Adrian Batten (1591-1637) and a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by William Cobbold (bap. 5 Jan 1560-1639).  A listing of the entire musical contents of the part book can be viewed via this link. We are extremely grateful to  Richard Andrewes (former head of music at Cambridge University Library) who has painstakingly identified most of the music and undertaken the job of cataloguing it onto iDiscover.  Work continues on the task of identifying the authorship of 12 unascribed works. We hope that a dissertation project on the manuscript currently being undertaken by a third year Queens’ student under the guidance of Dr Silas Wollston will help to resolve some of these issues. QCB 1 Sadly, the lack of a complete catalogue of Queens’ College archives makes further research difficult at the present stage into the identity of the College’s seventeenth century musicians and the circumstances surrounding the creation and use of the Queens’ part book.  We do know, however, that unlike other Cambridge colleges no provision was made for the payment of chapel musicians in the college’s statutes (See Ian Payne’s exhaustive study on ‘The provision and practice of sacred music at Cambridge colleges…c. 1547-c. 1646 – to which this blog is heavily indebted).   One of the few known mentions of music in college accounts records that its chapel organ was ‘taken down’ in 1570, when an increasing climate of puritanism banished elaborate music from services. A further entry, recording payment of £114.8s.1d for installation of a new organ in the college chapel in 1637, reflects the general reversal of this trend that is known to have occurred during the earlier seventeenth century (see Ian Payne).  This musical flowering represents just one manifestation of the High Church movement which gathered pace during the reign of Charles I.  Under the influence of his appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, a range of alterations to liturgical ritual were introduced, such as the use of ornaments, railed- in alters, bowing towards the east and elaborate service music.

QPB GB-Cq_G.4.17_056_B2v

The installation of Dr Edward Martin as Queens’ president in 1631 ensured that the new approach to liturgy was enthusiastically implemented at Queens’. A staunch supporter of the High Church movement and former chaplain to Archbishop Laud, Martin lavished large sums on the beautification of the College chapel (in addition to the installation of the new organ).  With the subsequent defeat of Royalists, Martin was imprisoned (1642), the college chapel was vandalised by Puritans seeking to remove all evidence of Laudian reforms, and elaborate music was banned from church services. It seems likely that it was at this point that the Queens’ part book was removed to the college library and quietly forgotten about (the library’s nineteenth-century printed catalogue includes the prayer book but makes no mention of its accompanying music (p. 107)).  The significance of the year ‘1664’ inscribed on the inside-cover remains uncertain: although such old music could have featured in post-Restoration college services the part book’s exclusively pre-civil war content and its accompaniment with the 1636 prayer book suggest its initial creation for use during Edward Martin’s initial tenure. In recent times discussion of Laudian reforms in relation to English music has tended to focus on Peterhouse College, not least, on account of the survival there of an almost complete set of part books.  Although the latter retain their pre-eminence as one of our main primary sources of early English church music, the discovery of the Queens’ tenor part book (which is quite different in terms of content and appearance) offers an additional dimension. Over the coming months and years we hope to answer some of the numerous questions raised by this important volume whose discovery has already aroused considerable interest amongst musicologists and historians of the seventeenth century. We are extremely grateful to DIAMM (Digital Archive for Medieval Music) who have digitised this document in full and to EECM (Early English Church Music) for providing the funding. The entire Queens’ part book will shortly be available to view online in full via DIAMM. For now DIAMM images of the manuscript music (without blank pages and the prayer book) are available to view via this link.

QCB GB-Cq_G.4.17_079

Erasmus and Queens’ College

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

“Your library is your paradise.” –Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536


It is told to just about every visitor to Queens’ that Desiderius Erasmus ([28 October] 1466 – 1536) lived at Queens’, and for no small connection: while he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity for the University, he lived at Queens’ in rooms on the “I” stair of Old Court from 1511 to 1514. He had many connections in England: most famously English humanists Thomas More and John Colet, but also Martin Bucer, and Bishop John Fisher, president of Queens’ 1505-1508 and Chancellor of the University after that. Erasmus came to Queens’ because of his close friendship with this man and the Renaissance reforms Fisher was bringing to the university (flooding it with humanist men) which he admired. [1] Erasmus was invited by Fisher in 1506 to come to Queens’ College and lecture in Greek in the University. [2]

Picture of small woodcut portrait of Erasmus in C. 2. 9.

Woodcut portrait of Erasmus in C. 2. 9.

Erasmus long suffered from gallstones, and the Renaissance medicine for gallstones was wine. He was miserable with English choices, though. He wrote in a letter dated 1511 to his friend Ammonius, “Cambridge does not agree with me. The beer does not suit me and the wine is unsatisfactory. If you can send me a barrel of Greek wine, the best which can be had, Erasmus will bless you.” During an outbreak of the plague, most of Cambridge was vacated and Erasmus complained of loneliness, “most people have gone for fear of the plague, but even when they are all here, it is lonely.” (Erasmus, Epistles) When he eventually went to Landbeach during the plague in 1513, he then turned around to complain about how he could not get back to Cambridge, “We’re shut in by the plague and beset by highway robbers.” [1]

Lasky's signature in C. 2. 9.

Lasky’s signature in C. 2. 9.

What does Queens’ have to remember the Prince of Humanism by? Until the 20th century, there was purportedly an attraction called “Erasmus’ corkscrew”, which students used to showed off to visitors (until the point where it was probably confiscated for being quite obviously a fake). [1] It was over 33cm long, a size representative, it was said, of Erasmus’ enormous thirst for wine and ale (they didn’t realise about the gallstones). Past president of Queens’ the larger-than-life Revd. Isaac Milner wrote, “We have no relique of him [Erasmus] at Queen’s except a huge corkscrew, and I am afraid that there was nothing in his principles to keep him from making very assiduous use of it”. [3] Today the Old Library many fine editions of Erasmus’ works from the 16th century, many of which are owned by English friends of Erasmus.

While in residence at Queens’, in 1512 Erasmus began work on his ‘Novum Instrumentum’ (Basel, 1516) and his Latin New Testament, a project which eventually included his edition of the Greek New Testament. The result was the Novum Testamentum omne (Basel, 1516; shelfmark C. 2. 9.), which contains parallel Greek and Latin texts. His primary motive was to make available the original languages of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament for the first time in print, and to preserve the errors of the Latin Vulgate by adding commentary.

Lasky's motto in C. 2. 9.

Lasky’s motto in C. 2. 9.

As a humanist (beginning life as a priest, and then becoming a tutor and university lecturer), Erasmus tirelessly promoted the study of Classical languages and literature, and insisted on consulting primary texts, Greek and Latin manuscripts, instead of relying on extant Latin and Greek editions. Many of these Greek manuscripts surfaced as a result of the sack of Constantinople by the West, an historical focal point which is arguably a major reason the Renaissance occurred. He embodied the Renaissance and the revival of Classical learning.

Photo of woodcut on title-page of C. 2. 9.

Woodcut on title-page of C. 2. 9.

It was no small thing to produce a new edition of the New Testament which did not solely rely on the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome, the bible of the medieval Catholic Church. The effect of the Novum Testamentum omne was enormous, and many humanists immediately realised that much of theology of the day was based on error. Humanists, Erasmus waving their banner, wanted to get back to the original biblical languages, and they noticed straight away that current editions of the Bible were full of errors and insertions. As other scholars raced to publish polyglots such as the New Testament volume of Cardinal Ximines’ Complutensian Polyglot (Alcalá de Henares [Complutum], 1514-22), Erasmus had to very quickly complete something to match the production of other contemporary humanist scholars. The result was his rushed and many-times edited (but no less popular for that) Greek and Latin New Testament. Because Erasmus’ New Testament was widely available, convenient with just Greek and Latin, and slightly cheaper, the Complutensian New Testament never challenged it in popularity, although Erasmus went as far as obtaining exclusive publication rights for several crucial years from 1516 from the Pope (so the rival Complutensian had to wait until 1522). Erasmus’ edition became the critical standard New Testament of the Renaissance.

Photo of back cover from C. 2. 9.

Detail of back cover of C. 2. 9.

Queens’ third edition copy of the Novum Testamentum omne [4] was previously owned by a Polish friend of Erasmus, John Lasky, a.k.a. Jan Laski or John a Lasco (1499-1560), Bishop of Veszprim (Hungary) and reformer (he resigned the bishopric in 1531 as he did not wish to give up his wife, whom he had secretly married). Lasky bought the majority of Erasmus’ library when he died in 1536. This copy contains many of Lasky’s annotations and his ownership stamps.

In the centre of the upper cover is “I. L.”. The lower cover is stamped with “Ioannis de Lasco” and “1527”. The third edition of 1522 is the one which was most likely used by Tyndale for his English translation of the New Testament.

Ownership inscription at foot of title-page: “Joannes lasco Poloni & amicorum”. His Greek motto is also present at the top of the title-page: Νηφε και απισει, which means “Be sober and let him be unfaithful”.

The margins of the main text are heavily annotated, almost certainly by John Lasky. This edition also contains a woodcut portrait of Erasmus.

Queens’ old college publication The Dial also featured this famous edition. [5]

Lent Term 1913, The Dial

Lent Term 1913, The Dial

As mentioned above, there are a large number of typographical errors in the numerous early editions of the Novum Testamentum omne. Erasmus wrote that the production was ‘rushed’ rather than ‘edited’ into print: “proecipitatum fuit verius quam editum” (Erasmus, Epistle 694). But Erasmus sold like hotcakes whatever he printed. His immense popularity while alive (and port-mortem infamy) is a main reason why he is remembered today. His time spent in England was divided between lecturing at Cambridge, making lifelong friendships with so many humanists of Henry VIII’s England, and complaining about English women, weather, and ale and the poverty of his own accommodation at Queens’. Despite poverty and discomfort, the stay was clearly a success for five years at least. Though he could have stayed indefinitely in the post of Lady Margaret Professor, he opted to leave for Basel, Switzerland, where he had to manage the publication of the Novum Testatmentum omne with Froben.

Lasky annotation from C. 2. 9.

A Lasky annotation in C. 2. 9.


Debates with Protestantism

Towards the end of his life, as Protestantism spread like wildfire over the continent, Erasmus engaged in debate, frequently and heatedly, with the reformers and scholars of his age. Besides famously debating Luther over free-will, he also engaged in a wild debate over Luther-supporter and humanist Ulrich von Hutten.

Erasmus’ own handwriting is present in a volume containing multiple works by his. The first text of the volume is Erasmus’ Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni (Basel, 1523; shelfmark X.8.1(1)). [6] On the title page of this publication he wrote a dedication to his friend, John Botzheim. Botzheim, a canon at Constance Cathedral, who corresponded frequently with Erasmus, and Erasmus’ auto bibliography (Catalogus novus omnium lucubrationum, Basel, 1524) is written in a form of a letter addressed to Botzheim.

The inscription reads: “Eras. Rot. Ioanni Botzenio Abstemio amico incomparabili. DD.” Johannes Botzheim (1480-1535). Erasmus of Rotterdam to John Butzheim, Abstemio incomparable friend. DD.

Erasmus’ inscription in X. 8 .1. (1).

Erasmus’ inscription in X. 8 .1. (1).

Erasmus was a prolific writer, who penned, amongst other pithy sayings, “The desire to write grows with writing.” He is also credited with, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Besides stomping his feet in contemporary religious debates, sabotaging the publication of the first printed polyglot bible, and working on his critical editions of the New Testament, Erasmus also completed critical editions of Classical giants Aristotle and Cicero, as well as the works of St Jerome (the Latin Vulgate) and John Chrysostom. Following his death in 1536, all of his publications were placed on that monument of the Catholic Counter Reformation, the Index of Prohibited Books. Despite being a devout Catholic and fighting all his life against heresies and Lutheranism, he was still credited with having sown the seeds of the Protestant Reformation. Infamy only seemed to increase the sale of his books.

In the sixteenth century, authors wrote pro gloria and for immortality. Erasmus was once criticized, scathingly, of accepting payment to write. He was mortified that anyone would think he would write for money. This itinerant philosopher once wrote, “When I get a little money I buy books, and if there is any left, I buy food and clothes.”


[1] John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge (1448-1986) (Woodbridge, Suff.: Boydell Press, 1986)

[2] I.R. Wright, Erasmus, An Exhibition in the Old Library Queens’ College, Cambridge, May 1980 [pamphlet]. (Old Library Office)

[3] Mary Milner, Life of Isaac Milner (London: 1842), p.596 and n.

[4] ERASMUS. Novvm Testamentum omne, tertio iam ac diligentius ab Erasmo Roterodamo recognitum, non solum ad Graecam ueritatem, uerumetiam ad multorum utriusq linguae codicum. Basel, 1522. [shelfmark C. 2. 9.]

[5] F. G. Plaistowe in The Dial, Lent, 1917. [shelfmark Per. 5. 1. 5.].

[6] ERASMUS. Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni. Bound in volume contains three other editions of Erasmus: Exomologesis sive modus confitendi, Basel, 1524, Precatio dominica in septem portiones distributa, Basel, c. 1524, and Commentarius in nucem Ovidii ad Ioanne Thomae Mori filium. Basel, 1524 [X. 8. 1(2), X. 8. 1(3) & X. 8. 1. (4)]. [shelfmark X. 8. 1 (1).]

Golden Age of Science Fiction comes to Queens’ Library: Queens’ alumnus donates his huge collection

By Tim Eggington, assisted by James Leonard.

We are most grateful to Queens’ College alumnus, Simon Mainwaring (1961-64), for this 617-book gift which adds an entirely new dimension to Queens’ diverse range of special collections. Bearing in mind Cambridge’s historic and on going status as a powerhouse of science it is, perhaps, unsurprising to find that science fiction has also been a preoccupation of its members.  Indeed, it was due to the presence of a community of fellow enthusiasts at Queens’ at the time of his arrival here (in 1961) that Simon Mainwaring’s scifi collecting gained impetus. One of that Queens’ community, Tom Shippey, has subsequently achieved fame as a scifi author in his own right (he is also a Medievalist and leading Tolkien scholar).  As for many of Mainwaring’s generation, his first exposure to SciFi was provided by the 1950s comic strip “Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future”:  I understand that Mainwaring first school report complained that he “lived in a world of space”!

In contrast to the modern-day emphasis on scifi fantasy, the earlier 20th-century authors that predominate in Mainwaring’s collection imagine technological advances and encounters with alien intelligence together with the challenges that these might bring. Some of the science was very good: Fred Hoyle (The Black Cloud) was Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge and Arthur C Clarke has been credited with anticipating the use of satellites for telecommunications. Others such as Larry Niven were more fanciful but still told good tales. Further well-represented authors include Jack Vance (who writes about ESP, genetics, brain parasites, body switching, etc.), Kurt Vonnegut (whose Slaughterhouse-Five draws on its author’s experiences of fire bombed Dresden), as well as  the ‘Big Three’ of Science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov.

Writing under the 50s shadow of impending nuclear doom, many authors included in the collection portray a grim, yet insightful reflection of the cold war era.  A further well represented theme in Mainwaring’s collection is the computer age. In place of the hand held devices we know today authors of the 50s and 60s looked forward to a time when one single computer would dominate the universe to out-live man and even the stars. Some imagined future technology seems unexpectedly regressive today: Asimov’s robots and computers still used punched cards and slide rules, whilst his Foundation and Empire (1952), looked forward to an era when a newspaper could be bought at a vending machine! A number of books in the collections have provided the basis for films e.g. 2001 a Space Odyssey, I Robot and Do Androids dream of electric sheep (made as Bladerunner).

The Mainwaring collection is currently in the Library office & is searchable via an online listing accessible via this link (it has yet to be catalogued onto Newton).  If you’re curious about the collection or would like to borrow from it please just speak to a member of library staff, who will be happy to help.

Roger Ascham, Queens’ College, and educational models


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Attention Pedagogues and Classicists: A blog on Roger Ascham marginalia

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

Roger Ascham, Cambridge humanist

Roger Ascham, Cambridge humanist

Queens’ College Old Library has an association with Roger Ascham (1515-1568), the pupil of Sir Thomas Smith (Queens’ fellow and humanist, 1513-1577). Ascham was taught by Smith while a student, and then became his scholarly contemporary as a fellow at St John’s, Cambridge. They were both avid Classicists and dedicated humanists. According to Thomas Smith, Ascham lectured frequently on Isocrates, who was a major influence on Ascham in addition to Cicero.

Sir Thomas Smith, Queens' College fellow and humanist

Sir Thomas Smith, Queens’ College fellow and humanist

The Library possesses an annotated volume containing two of Ascham’s Classical books, bound together in limp Italian vellum (Andreas Dudito Pannonio, Dionysii Halicarnassei De Thucydidis historia iudicium (Venice: Aldus Press, 1560) and Paul Manutius, Demosthenis Orationes Quatuor contra Philippum (Venice: Aldus Press, 1551) – shelfmark: C.9.15) . We also have an excellent copy of schoolmaster James Bennett’s edition of Ascham’s own life’s works and letters, with an introductory life of Ascham by Samuel Johnson (The Works of Roger Ascham, London, 1771; shelfmark: D.3.26).

The Enlightenment edition of Ascham's complete works, including the Schoolmaster and Toxophilus, a book on the benefits of archery

The Enlightenment edition of Ascham’s complete works, including the Schoolmaster and Toxophilus, a book on the benefits of archery

Inscribed in the title page of the Dionysius text is Roger Ascham’s familiar and famously beautiful handwriting, for which he was almost as well-known as for his very readable English prose style. It reads: ‘Est hic liber, mea opinione, summae doctrinae, magnae diligentiae, gravissimi iudicii, sine quo, Grecus Thucyd. recte et facile intelligi non potest. R. Aschamus. 1568. 7o die Junii 1568. Londini in Aedib. Meis.’ – ‘Here is this book, which in my opinion is the sum of teaching, [in] great diligence, [and] in most serious judgment – without which the Greek of Thucydides cannot rightly and easily be understood. R. Ascham. 1568. 7th of June 1568. In my London house.’

It should be plain that Ascham’s inscription was written in his last year alive on earth, in London. Whether the rest of his annotations and markings are also only from his last year is unknowable – as only this inscription is dated. For those who remember their history lessons, in 1568 Queen Mary I (Queen of Scots) was imprisoned by her sister Elizabeth I. Ascham died 30 Dec 1568 from serious illness.

Ascham's inscription

Ascham’s inscription – click to enlarge

Ascham’s marginal notes comment on the Dionysius text. He mainly makes comments on how easy or difficult certain passages are, and underlines important passages. They are notes made with a teacher’s eye. The Dionysius of Halicarnassus text is a Latin translation by Andreas Duditus – ‘without which the Greek is unreadable’ – and the Demosthenes was translated by the third son of Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, Paul Manutius. There are no notes on the Demosthenes, but Ascham’s binding the two together by 1560 might be a good indication he approved of that translation, too.

Notes with an educator's eyes.

Notes with an educator’s eyes.

According to Smith, during Ascham and Smith’s time at Cambridge in 1542, there was a large debate in the University over the new pronunciation of Greek put forward by Erasmus, with which all students of Classical Greek today are still taught. Reportedly, Ascham was a staunch defender of the new pronunciation, but soon left Cambridge because he was becoming ill with worry over the matter.

Ascham was one of the first popular education theorists in England, and tutor to Elizabeth I when she was yet a princess, though for all of two years (1548-1550). He is most well-known for his book, The Scholemaster, finished in 1563 but published posthumously in 1570, which outlines a Ciceronian method of learning and a Montessouri-style model of discipline. He was wholly against the beating of pupils, and encouraged the use of praise as the largest assistant in learning, and encouraging a child’s love of learning. He wanted teachers to instil a love of learning in pupils, not terror. In his biography of Ascham, Dr Johnson – a man ever conscious of authors’ royalties and livelihoods – reckons that he did not publish it during his lifetime because the printers offered him too little in payment.1

The Ciceronian method described by Ascham involves the following:

‘First, let him teach the child, cheerfully and plainly, the cause and matter of the letter [of Latin Cicero] then let him construe it into English so oft, as the childe may easily carry away the understanding of it: lastly parse it over perfectly. . . . after this . . . let him translate into English his former lesson. Then showing it to his master, let the master take from him his Latin book, and, pausing an hour at the least, then let the child translate his own English into Latin again, in another paper book. When the child bringeth it, turn into Latin, the master must compare it with Tullies [Cicero translation] book, and lay them both together: and where the child doth well, either in choosing, or true placing of Tullies words, let the master praise him, and say, “Here ye do well.” For I assure you, there is no such whetstone, to sharpen a good wit, and encourage a will to learning, as is praise.’2

Ascham’s love of Classical languages, something he shared with Thomas Smith, who dedicated all of his Latin and Greek books to Queens’ College, formed the basis of his advice about what to teach young English gentlemen. And after a conversation with Sir Richard Sackville (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1559-1566) on gentle schoolmasters fondly remembered, Sackville invited Ascham to write a book on the topic, and this formed the ‘how’ part of his teaching advice in The Scholemaster.

More marginal notes and underlining by Ascham.

Marginal notes and underlining by Ascham.

The works by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Demosthenes in Latin and Greek may have accompanied him during his extensive travels (and occupational changes) around England and the globe. When Ascham fell out with Elizabeth’s steward he returned briefly to Cambridge in 1550, and Elizabeth is reported to have had fond memories of him. After some time he was appointed ambassador to the Spanish Emperor Charles V from 1550-1552, after which he returned to England, married a woman called Margaret Howe, and was tutor to Mary Queen of Scots for a year. In 1554 he became presbyter of York Minster until 1559, and MP for Preston in 1560.3 Sometime during these years he came to possess these two books, bound together, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ De Thucydidis historia iudicium (Venice: Aldine Press, 1560) and Demosthenes’ Orationes (Venice, Aldine Press: 1551).

Famously, he also stumbled upon Lady Jane Grey, herself a budding humanist, in her rooms reading Plato’s Phaedrus. She complained to Ascham that she only found solace in reading and learning, ‘For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.’ She also reported, ‘One of the greatest benefits that God ever gave me, is that He sent me so sharp, severe parents and so gentle a schoolmaster.’4

Marginal note and underlining by Ascham.

Beautiful handwriting and underlining by Ascham.

Because of his beautiful handwriting he was also appointed as writer of official letters during his time at the University of Cambridge. He was also a Greek orator in Cambridge. It is remarkable to have the books of so instrumental a humanist and educationalist, whose popular work on teaching influenced generations of English schoolmasters to be kinder and teach even more Latin and Greek, and who was an early advocate of nonviolent classroom teaching.


1. Roger Ascham, ed. James Bennett, The Works of Roger Ascham, preceptor to Queen Elizabeth, London, 1771.

2. Sir Thomas Smith, De recta et emendate pronuntatione Graecae linguae, 1568.

3. J. Venn and J. A. Venn, eds. “Ascham, Roger”, Alumni Cantabrigienses, 10 vols, Cambridge University Press, 1922–1958 [online edition].

4. Ascham, The Scholemaster.