The Bodleian, Memory of Mankind

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Today we take libraries for granted. They are part of the fabric of society, what make us civilised. But libraries are one of the world’s resources that have proven most difficult to build, equally difficult to maintain and, arguably, are the most precious treasures we possess. BDS Life went to visit one of those treasures in the heart of Oxford, the Bodleian Library, one of the world’s great collections…

The association between Oxford University’s principal library and Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) dates back to 1598 when the linguist and fellow of Merton College decided to restore the library to “former glory”. The task took four years to complete but Bodley’s ambition implies that what became known as the Bodleian library has a much longer history.

During the Middle Ages knowledge in Northern Europe lay in Paris. The French capital’s university attracted and trained the best minds in England. However, the Plantagenet kings realised that relying on the enemy to train its scholars, lawyers and doctors could leave their hold on power and their dynasty vulnerable to French ambitions. Such a reliance on learning abroad had to be remedied.

Learning, however, requires books and so along with the creation of Oxford University there came the collecting of learned manuscripts, treatises, classics and codices. A room to house these was funded by Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and begun in 1320. This was the first Oxford library.

It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like standing in a damp, poorly lit and cold room faced with a large, heavy, unique, hand-written tome scribed in Latin or Greek. But the library was England’s path to intellectual sovereignty.

The collection expanded with the gift of 281 priceless manuscripts by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester (1391-1447), younger brother of King Henry the fifth. To house the collection it was decided to build a new library over the Divinity School, itself still under construction. Perhaps prefiguring today’s national problems, the library suffered chronic underfunding and was not completed until 1488.

It is fascinating how the history of the library reflects the history of its times, underlining the central role of the library in the development of culture and civilisation. That truth can be ascertained through enquiry beyond scripture was an idea enshrined in this new library independent of the Church. The Duke Humfrey Library was the first on the current Bodleian site.

The invention of the printing press was to open intellectual enquiry to a much wider social spectrum. The zeal and anti-papist feeling rife in the Reformation lead to the destruction of the greater part of the manuscripts and sold the stalls of the Duke Humfrey Library. A contemporary wrote that the quadrangle “was a thick bed of torn books and manuscripts”. Today, three books remain of that precious collection, one a translation by Leonardo Aretino of Aristotle with an original dedication to the Duke.

The Elizabethan era is, for many, England’s golden age and it was at the end of Elizabeth’s reign that what has come to be known as the Bodleian Library opened in 1602. During its four years of reconstruction Shakespeare had written Hamlet and the East India Company was founded by Royal Charter. The world was changing.

Bodley travelled extensively in Europe and brought back many innovations to add to his library. Notable was the introduction of the press as it was called then or what we know today as the shelf. Perhaps even more significantly, Bodley’s ambition for his library and his desire to keep it up to date and acquire all the latest material meant that in 1610 the Stationers’ Company of London was required to submit to the library a copy of everything registered at Stationers’ Hall. The English Legal Deposit system began with the Bodleian.

Bodley extended the library and left one of the most delightful, elegant and inspiring architectural spaces dedicated to learning in the world. It is a map of the mind and soul of man and the world he inhabits. As English explorers sailed the globe uncovering new continents and territories, seeing hitherto unseen stars in the sky, so the Bodleian library grew. An inscription above the entrance to the quadrangle reads, “That it might turn out happily Oxonian academics for you and for the republic of learned men Thomas Bodley places this library” – it embodies the confidence, independence and humanity that the library had come to re