bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Mandrakes in the Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 6 November, 2017

One of the items which belongs to the Library of Christ Church, Oxford, is a silver box, in fine filigree, possibly an early eighteenth-century Parisian product. In it sit two mandrakes which look so much like miniature long-faced humans, complete with unkempt hair, that it is hard not to think of the sunken heads from a very different tradition that sit across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum. These mandrakes fascinate viewers but they also disconcert. That is not just because they hint at the magical qualities that lore claims these roots hold but also because their presence in a library seems so out of place. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, when the circumstances of their arrival in the Library was recognised, what was considered worthy of attention was the box in which they had been donated; the mandrakes themselves were all but ignored.

Christ Church Library Mandrakes

Christ Church Library’s mandrakes in their filigree box

The mandrakes set us a challenge. That they should have been given to a library and that the Library of this learned foundation should keep them — both facts seem decidedly odd. We know that a library, particularly in such a place of education, is a home for tomes, carefully classified and arranged on shelves. What shelfmark could a mandrake be given? How dare they offend the order of the place? It is not, though, these things alone: coins, clothing, instruments (scientific and musical), paintings, pottery and toys, all have come to live in Christ Church Library. All may appear incongruous interruptions or, worse, blemishes, specks of dirt in the system. To think like this is to find our sense of order colliding with that of the space itself, its genius.

The challenge, in other words, is to question our own perception of what makes a library. We know that it is formed not only of books; the volumes have to be corralled into order, with labels and a catalogue. We expect also furniture: shelves, desks, chairs. We know there must be sources of light (without endangering the books), so windows and, nowadays, electric lamps. We also know that other items are considered appropriate: works of art, for instance. If these things, then why not others? The decisions about what is suitable will change with time but a constant will be this: the other items put the books in context; the un-books make this book space. They are not in conflict with the library; they are constitutive of it.

The mandrakes and their box did not arrive alone. They were part of a bequest given in 1686 to the Library by the executors of Christ Church’s late dean, John Fell. He, who had presided over the building of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, had himself been a towering figure in Oxford. His whole life had been associated with Christ Church: he was the son of Dean Samuel Fell, who had been ejected from his position at the end of the Civil War. John never gave up his royalist and Anglican allegiances, making him a suitable candidate to be eventual successor to his father following the Restoration. He set about constructing Christ Church’s identity as a bastion of the restored establishment, committed to both tradition and educational advance. He continued as dean even when he was promoted to the role of bishop of Oxford in 1676. His passing was the end of an era.

What his executors considered a suitable bequest to the Library was eclectic. The donation included three printed books, as well as the ‘Two Mandrakes in a Silver Box’; in addition, there was ‘The Picture of King Henry 8th’ and ‘Libr. palmeum ling. Selanensi’, that is, a book on palm leaves in the Ceylonese language. The list suggests something of the range of items that were thought appropriate for a library. Its walls could be adorned with portraits and there was no more fitting act of piety than to display an image of Henry VIII, founder of the institution (if, though, there was not one in situ before this gift, that would be striking). Likewise, its books did not have to confine themselves to the Western tradition, and thus the book on palm leaves could take its place in the collection. This should give us pause for thought.

ChCh MS. LR 1 fol. 198a

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1, fol. 198a (detail): part of the record of the bequest from John Fell, 1686

We know a library is about the possibilities of intellectual interaction with the written word. We recognise that there might be volumes in its collection which may be in a language or in a style of writing we cannot decode but we are confident that they are there because somebody else will. What happens, though, if that polyglot decipherer of texts does not arrive? What if the words are so obscure to be permanently illegible? In the case of Fell’s Ceylonese book — which was perhaps testimony to his encouragement of missionary work — we can certainly doubt that he, with all his wide learning, or anyone else in Oxford at the time, could have sat down to read it. That being the case, was it status so very different from that of an object like the mandrakes? This book too borders on being an un-book. If this is so, it did not stand alone in the collection. To acknowledge that the supposedly out-of-place items in a library have a rationale for being there is to begin to ask how many of the books are considered merely or primarily repositories of texts and how far they had greater charisma as objects.

These are the questions which the new exhibition in Christ Church Upper Library is addressing. The display coincides with the publication of the Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, up to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford by Ralph Hanna and myself (published by Oxford Bibliographical Society). It grows out of the research undertaken for that work’s introduction, in which the changing place of the western manuscripts within the wider collection was reconstructed. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Neagu and myself, gives a sense of the array of objects that have, over time, become part of the Library’s identity and asks visitors to consider what that history can tell us about what we expect a library to be.

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