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.

The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493): Queens’ College copy of a 15th-century bestseller, recently restored



R39First published on 12 July 1493, the  Liber Chronicarum (now termed by English speakers, the Nuremberg Chronicle) was one of the most popular books of the 15th century. A glance through its sizable leaves quickly reveals clues as to its timeless allure: intended as a universal history of the world from the beginning of time to the 1490s (and conceived from a specifically German perspective), this work is packed with information that is inextricably combined with lavish and detailed woodcut illustrations. If to 15th-century readers The Nuremberg Chronicle conveyed a popular subject via a vivid and innovative approach to book design, from our own perspective the work also offers unique insights into 15th-century life and thinking. Reformation vandalism, 500 years’ wear and tear, together with a botched 18th-century restoration had rendered this Queens’ College copy in urgent need of thorough conservation (one early reader scorched some of its pages by reading too close to a candle): this has all now been put right thanks to the painstaking and skilled intervention of the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium.

R1The project to produce the Nuremberg Chronicle was instigated by the artist Michael Wolgemut (1434/37–1519), who with Wilhelm Pleydenwurif (c. 1450-94), conceived and executed its illustrations and engravings (one of Wolgemut’s apprentices had included the young Albrecht Durer but it is no longer thought that he worked on the Chronicle). To finance this expensive and hugely risky undertaking Wolgemut obtained the support of two wealthy patrons, Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kamermaister(1446-1520), after which the famous Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger (ca.1440-1513), agreed to do the printing. The task of actually writing the work was assigned to the Nuremberg physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). The diverse range of medieval and Renaissance sources used were drawn from authors Schedel studied as a student (at Leipzig and Padua), including Bede, Vincent of Beauvais, Martin of Tropau, Flavius Blondus, Bartolomeo Platina and Philippus de Bergamo.  Like most incunabula (ie books printed before 1501), the work was published in Latin, although a German version was also produced a few months later, which was quickly followed by further pirated editions .


Schedel’s use of different graphic layouts to integrate text and image is all the more impressive if we remember that book production was still in its infancy. Images of biblical, mythological and historical events, family trees, views of towns and countries in Europe (including ‘Anglia’) and the Middle East all afford the 21st century reader a fascinating insight into the European world at that time (both physical and intellectual).  Of particular historical importance are two double-page maps: a world map and a map of northern and central Europe.  Based on Mela’s Cosmographia (1482), the former is one of only three 15th-century maps showing Portuguese knowledge of the Gulf of Guinea of about 1470. The map of Europe, by Hieronymus Münzer (1437-1508) after Nicolas Khyrpffs, is claimed to be the first modern map of the region to appear in print.  We must, however, bring to the work an awareness of book design conventions of the day.

R7The Nuremberg Chronicle offers a prime example of the 15th-century practice of recycling the same image to depict more than one object (e.g. the same scene can represent a number of cities; and the same portrait, several different men). Thus of 1809 illustrations only 645 woodcuts were used, the remaining 1164 illustrations being repetitions of woodcuts used elsewhere in this same book.

R42Through this closely integrated interplay of text and images world history is vividly portrayed in parallel with the seven ages of man: Whilst the first five ages detail Old Testament events, Classical history and mythology, the sixth age takes the reader up to the reign of Maximilian I (who was  Holy Roman Emperor when the work was published) .  Political and ecclesiastical history is interspersed here with descriptions of cities and biographies of famous people. The seventh age is that of the Anti-Christ. The Last Judgment, is also treated very briefly, followed by a longer section, describing further places. (Poland and Russia).

Queens’ College’s Copy

R40It was not until 1760 that Queens’ Nurmeberg Chronicle came to the college. Although we know little of its existence prior to the 18th century, the book was certainly well read and used in the 16th century, as is indicated by the presence of several early annotations. Sadly these were obscured when the book was cropped during its 18th-century restoration: it seems that old annotations were valued less in the 18th century than they are today. This, though, is not the book’s only sign of use. As a work of religious history it contains numerous references to, and images of popes. In accordance with widespread practice in protestant lands during the Reformation period, many of these have been angrily defaced with black inc, and thus obscured, thereby providing the modern reader material evidence of the religious passions of the period. A small minority of images were removed at some point: the presence in the volume of a handwritten list of them suggests this occurred in the 18th century or before.

The book was bequeathed to Queens’ by John Pooley (d. 1757) of Boxted hall (a 14th century manor in Suffolk) who was admitted to Queens’ as a fellow commoner in 1694. The volume came to the College following his death around which time it appears to have been rebound in a somewhat slipshod manner (the boards were not square; the pages were not properly cropped). The volume has now been resewn and bound in a goatskin binding.

The Queens’ copy can be viewed durng the Queens’ Old Library Open Week on 25 Feb-1 March.  There are several copies of this hugely important and influential book in Cambridge all of which will have their own provenance story and copy-specific features. To see the complete work online see the University Library’s digitised hand coloured copy.


Tim Eggington, Queens’ College Librarian

Queens’ College Old Library’s copy of the 1611 King James Bible and the mystery of Ruth 3:15


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The Queens’ copy of the King James’ Bible, Robert Barker, London 1611; shelf mark R.1.1

Written by Lindsey Askin, Queens’ Old Library volunteer and PhD student in Divinity

Queens’ Old Library has a unique 1611 print of the King James Bible. Last year saw the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version or the King James’ Bible (KJV for short), first printed in 1611. One of the current trends in rare book research is for annotations, interesting features, and other unique features – things which this Queens’ copy certainly does not lack. When the Authorized Version was printed for the very first time in 1611, it contained what was viewed as an error in Ruth 3:15 (amongst other printing errors, below). ‘Also he said, Bring the vail that [thou hast] upon thee, and hold it. And when she held it, he measured six {measures} of barley, and laid it on her: and he went into the city.’ The text was corrected in a second printing to say ‘…and she went into the city’. KJV’s today have it in that second form. Strangely, however, Daniel Bomberg’s edition of the Hebrew Bible—the Hebrew edition consulted for the Authorized Version—actually reads ויבא העיר ‘And he went to the city’ (Mikraot Gedolot, Daniel Bomberg, Venice, 1524-25; shelf mark K.10.1-4, vol 4).

Ruth 3:15 "and she went into the citie"

Ruth 3:15 (R.1.1)

It is entirely possible that the error was made not directly from other English texts used, or from the Aramaic or Syriac, both of which sometimes read ‘She’, but out of context and confusion. In the Vulgate and Greek, you cannot tell which gender is meant. Clearly there was some ambiguity about the narrative flow in this portion of Ruth. In fact, if the KJV had gone strictly on Bomberg’s (as today’s) Hebrew text, they would not have needed to correct this verse at all. It is not wrong in the Hebrew. It would have been ובאה העיר if it was indeed talking about Ruth going somewhere. What might have actually happened is that the KJV translators looking at Bomberg might have seen the ה ‘he’ at the start of ‘the city’, and mistook it for a feminine ending to the verb. This option would have been grammatically impossible since the י ‘yod’ letter is a masculine prefix to the verb, but it explains where the confusion might have arisen from! As can be seen in the photo, the space between the two words is none too clear.

Hebrew Ruth 3:15

Ruth 3:15 from the Queens’ copy of Daniel Bomberg’s Mikraot Gedolot, Venice, 1524-25, vol 4 (K.10.4)

This subsequent printing in 1611 is thus technically second edition (though the first meant to be free of typos). The Old Library was given this particular ‘She’ edition of the 1611 print in 1777 from benefactor David Hughes, Queens’ Fellow 1727 – 1777 (Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures, Robert Barker, London, 1611; shelf mark R.1.1). Most of his donation to the library consists of more than 2,000 eighteenth century pamphlets, which are available to consult for research, especially if you are interested in Georgian-era sermons.

Stamp on R.1.1 labelling it as a gift of David Hughes

A note inserted in the book dated March 18th, 1889 by Mr A. Wright states that there were (at least as of 1889) only 70 copies of these ‘She’ editions of the KJV in the world. Today that number has vastly increased and no one, despite whatever the BL has speculated before, knows the exact number of both editions except that the ‘He’ edition is generally rarer.1

Yet despite not being the first of the first, editio princeps, this 1611 ‘She’ edition is interesting for other reasons. This is because many ‘She’ Bibles contain recycled pages from the first edition. This is indeed the case with our ‘She’ Bible. Some ‘She’ editions still actually contain the famous first-edition mistake of putting ‘Judas’ for ‘Jesus’ in Matthew 26:36. In our copy someone has scratched out the middle of ‘Judas’ leaving only J and S and pencilled in ‘Jesus’ instead. Therefore our second printing contained a first printing cycle error. Recycling was preferred over purchasing a new copy. It is not clear at what stage of printing the recycling occurred, but more expert advice is welcome. But this suggests our Queens’ copy is unique, as are all KJV bibles to have been printed in 1611, whether or not they were the first first editions.

Matthew 26:36 (R.1.1)

The black-letter ‘gothic’ type present in the KJV was as much tradition as a religious-political statement, a font which differentiated Anglo-Saxon England from Catholic Southern Europe. Italian and French books had been printed in roman (or antiqua) fonts for over a century. But Robert Barker, the King’s printer, decided that there should be both roman and black-letter editions, for many people by that time black-letter was harder to read.2 Evidently, the black-letter editions had some roman fonts as well.

The notorious typos of early English printed bibles are well-known. There is the Breeches edition of the Geneva Bible (Adam and Eve sew themselves ‘breeches’ instead of the more common translation—back then—of ‘aprons’ Gen 3:7), ‘Parable of the Vinegar’ Bibles (for Vineyard, Luke 20), and countless others.3 Another example is the Fool’s Bible, in which Psalm 14:1 reads ‘The fool says in his heart: there is a God’ instead of ‘no God’, which caused the printer to be fined an incredible £3000 for “gross error” and the recall of all copies.4The typos of British bibles are altogether an oddity and curiosity, and a wicked source of irreverent humour. That the Old Library contains both Bomberg and this unique 1611 Authorized Version is quite special.

A page from the biblical genealogies of the Queens’ copy of the KJV (R.1.1)


1. Donald Brake, ‘The 1611 first edition King James Bible after 400 years’,

2. S.H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, British Library & Oak Knoll Press, London, 1997, p.77.

3. Steinberg, p.98.

4. Bill Paul, ‘Bibles with Misprints or Unusual Renderings’, Bible Collectors’ World (Oct/Dec 1998).

Sir Thomas Smith and the recycling of Humanist learning: Recent Discovery in Queens’ Old Library:


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16th-century roll-decorated binding of H.1.17

Recent restoration of a Queens’ 16th-century law book (shelf mark: H.1.17) has brought to light an intriguing find. Hidden within its covers were 19 leaves from an even older, and incredibly rare edition of the 6th century Roman law text  Corpus Juris Civilis [Body of Civil Law], printed by Jean du Pré in Paris, around 1495 (this was identified by our Old Library cataloguer, Paul Harcourt) Like many (or all?) early printed books there are numerous reaons why this particular volume is unique and of interest in its own right.  Residing for the past 400 years on a bookcase devoted mainly to 16th-century law texts, H.1.17, like several of its near neighbours was bequeathed to Queens’ Library by the noted 16th-century Queens’ fellow,  Thomas Smith (1513-1577). Although Smith attained high political office during the reigns of Edward VI (Secretary of State (1548-49)) and Elizabeth I (Principal Secretary of State (1572)), it is as one of England’s foremost humanist scholars that he is most remembered today.  Moreover it is, in part, through his Queens’ bequest of over 70 Humanist and legal books that we can build a picture of Smith’s scholarly activities, both in terms of the texts that interested him and, through his annotations, how he read them  (see brief details of the Smith bequest from the digitised 17th century Queens’ Library Donors’ Book) .

For the modern scholar Smith’s propensity to annotate, underline and even illustrate his books makes his collection of unique interest, not least because it suggests to us which books he actually read and found most important.   Of the two complete law-related texts that comprise H.1.17 only one is annotated, a text by the Frenchman Joannes  Millaeus, entitled Praxis criminis  persequendi, published in Paris by Simonem Colinaeum in 1541 (this translates as The practice of prosecuting crime).

Smith underlines ‘murder’, ‘adultery’ and ‘Rape’ and draws a small church to highlight reference to places of worship

Illustrated by a series of  13 idealized woodcut illustrations, we can, perhaps, see why and when Smith  acquired this textbook on crime.  In 1540-2 following his Cambridge appointment as Regius Professor of Law (a post for which he was, as yet, unqualified), he had toured Europe to familiarise himself with Humanist legal scholarship. It seems likely that the text could have been picked up during his time in France.

Although to the modern reader gratuitously gruesome, these woodcuts afford a detailed insight into some grim realities of 16th-century life through their vivd depiction of  a series of events:  a street crime, the apprehension of a perpetrator, his ‘interrogation’ (i.e. torture –by water, by the ‘boot’) and final condemnation.  We must remember that the 16th century holds a place in the history of criminology even more bloody and violent than that of the middle ages. An expanding criminal justice system encompassed increasing varieties of punishable offenses  for which spectacular public punishments were meted out as a form of ‘deterrent theatre’.

Interestingly, it was during this era of Renaissance Humanism that Roman precepts of Justinian law were most fully absorbed into the European legal systems Smith was trying to find out about.  It is ironic to discover, therefore, that the boards (or covers) of H.1.17 were manufactured out of 19 recycled leaves stuck together from the classic Roman text Corpus Iuris Civilis.   Only two other copies of this edition and its extensive commentaries are known to exist (in New College Oxford and Nantes).

The style and appearence of the panelled ornamental roll-decorated border of the binding confirms that the volume was bound in the 16th century, and not after the time of Smith’s bequest.  However, the fact that Smith’s annotations and doodles are in many cases cropped in order to bind the volume suggests that it was bound after Smith first aquired, read and wrote on the text.

Leaves from ‘Corpus Iuris Civilis’ found in the binding of H.1.17. Conservators from the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium separated these and bound them together in a new volume

In an era when nothing was wasted it was common for binders to recycle leaves from earlier books by incorporating them into new bindings: Queens’ College Old Library is full of such examples.  Whether Smith, the Humanist and bibliophile, was aware that the binding of his copy of Praxis criminis was made out of such a rare printing of Corpus Iuris Civilis, and whether he would have cared we will never know. The leaves from Corpus Iuris Civilis have now been bound into a separate volume so that modern-day scholars can examine them.

Final leaf from, Jean du Pré’s edition of ‘Corpus Iuris Civilis. Digesta Iustiniani. Digestum novum’, (ca. 1495) showing index and the printer’s device (or trademark)

Open Cambridge in Queens’ Old Library: Fri, 07/09/2012, 10am-1pm – Sat, 08/09/2012 – 10am-3pm



Queens’ College Old Library will be opening its doors to the public as part of this year’s Open Cambridge festival. On display will be an exhibition of books acquired by Queens’ in the 17th century entitled ‘The Advancement of Learning’ at Queens’ in the 17th century: Revolution, Innovation… & Book Collecting. Included are some beautifully decorated medieval manuscripts as well as fine specimens of 17th century printing that reflect the advancements in arts and sciences that took place during that century. There will also be on display the College’s 17th Century Donors’ Book. Most importantly, visitors will also be able to view the interior of one of Cambridge’s most interesting and impressive historic libraries. Booking is not necessary, just drop in. Please note, only five visitors will be allowed in at any one time.  If you have any enquiries, please contact Tim Eggington, the College Librarian at or telephone 01223 335549.
For more information on Open Cambridge and to see what other exciting events are on offer that weekend, visit the Open Cambridge website.

Welcome to Queens’ Old Library books blog


Welcome to Queens’ Old Library”s books blog, which aims to talk about the fabulous and little known rare books and early manuscripts that form Queens’ College’s historic Old Library.  We hope you will enjoy finding out about the many unique feaures of the library. As a start please see the article posted about the library on the University of Cambridge ‘Research Features’ Site ‘Discover the secret history of books‘.