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.


A manuscript possibly from St Frideswide’s, Oxford

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 2 March, 2017

The problem with finishing is that you never really do finish. You produce your text, replete with footnotes — and you think it is done. You feel that you should receive advice from your peers and betters, and so you importune others to read it, some of who do, and you revise (probably not as much as you should) in light of their feedback and your own re-reading — and you think it is done. You submit it, you receive further comments, you have it accepted — and you think it is done. You receive queries from the copy-editor and you are grateful for being saved from several slips and refine it accordingly — and you think it is done. You see the proofs and realise that there is more to be corrected and you work by the midnight oil to improve it at that late stage — and you think it is done. Of course, it is not. It remains imperfect and provisional. Your last word is only part of the ongoing conversation.

I have very recent experience of this, with the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, Oxford. This is the work mainly of Ralph Hanna, but I helped at a late stage, updating the descriptions and adding some more (of sixteenth-century manuscripts), as well as expanding the introduction. In that introduction, we survey what little is known of books of the previous institution, whose Norman buildings provide now the college chapel which doubles as Oxford’s cathedral. Until their dissolution in 1524 by Cardinal Wolsey, making way for his new foundation of Cardinal College, these were the buildings of the Augustinian priory of St Frideswide’s. As we say in the introduction, it was not known for being a place of learning, and only a few manuscripts are associated with it. We also say that ‘only a single literary manuscript has been identified as being owned by’ it, and technically that is true: the bible of English medieval institutional provenances, Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, now available on-line as MLGB3 (thanks to James Willoughby and Richard Sharpe), mentions only that codex as the one literary survival. I have now, however, convinced myself that another volume should really be added to that list and so should have appeared in our introduction.

The manuscript is hardly unknown: it sits in the Bodleian with the shelfmark MS. Digby 177. It is an obvious candidate for coming from the priory, as it provides a unique copy of a description of the miracles attributed to St Frideswide, said to have been compiled in the 1180s by Prior Philip of the Oxford house. In revising W. D. Macray’s nineteenth-century catalogue of the manuscripts given to the Bodleian in 1634 by Sir Kenelm Digby, Andrew Watson, working with the materials of the late Richard Hunt, addressed the issue of this manuscript’s provenance and expressed unresolved ambivalence: ‘it is possible that [it] comes from St Frideswide’s Priory, Oxford, but … it may be no more than a section with an Oxford interest which has been detached from a larger book with no Oxford connection’. It was, of course, Andrew Watson who provided the Supplement to Ker’s MLGB and he saw no reason there even to hazard the suggestion that it is expressed so tentatively in the revision of the Digby catalogue. What, then, persuades me that the issue should be reviewed?

First, against the suggestion that this manuscript was part of a larger book, Watson’s own comment can be quoted: ‘the last page looks as though it had been the final page of a unit on its own’. The last recto is, indeed, rubbed, and so is the first recto, suggesting that this fascicule travelled alone for some of its life. Morever, as Watson also notes, it reached Digby from the Oxford antiquary, Thomas Allen and it appears in his catalogue, listed alone as an item (‘fo. 7’), in contrast to the volumes entered immediately before and after it where multiple contents are listed. In other words, it is likely that Allen came by it in its present state, unencumbered with other material, and this may well have continued its prior existence, as a discrete codex.


Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Digby 177, fol. 1

The codicology of the manuscript is strongly suggestive of its Oxford provenance. The main part is written in an elegant bookhand on the cusp between so-called protogothic and a textura rotunda. The final columns (fol. 28vb– 30rb) are in a darker ink and by different hand, spikier and yet closer to being fully gothic. That addition provides the tale of an extra miracle which, it says, happened ‘in ciuitate oxoneforde eciam nostris temporibus’ — it appears, in other words, to be updating the collection with a recent occurrence. Even if the main text was not produced in Oxford, it would seem likely that this addition was made there.

In addition, the title added at top left of fol. 1 may be notable in its phrasing: ‘Incipit prologus domini philippi prioris de miraculis sancte fridwide’. That the author is known but it is felt unnecessary to state of where Philip was prior hints that this was written within the community. Moreover, there are signs of later use of the volume, not just notes in plummet the bottom margin of fol. 15v-16, showing that there was continuing interest in the text, but also at the top right of the final verso where an acrostic is added, in a thirteenth-century anglicana hand, on the name ‘Fridesuuida’. Wherever this was, there was a continuing devotion to a saint whose cult was localised to Oxford and centred on the priory named after her.

The clinching evidence would, of course, be an ex libris. It seems to me that there was once one, near the top left of the first folio, just right of the later shelfmark, ‘A 14’. I have tried checking it under UV but to little avail. Its secret remains, for the moment, just beyond our grasp, as frustrating as any branch of fruit with which Tantalus was tormented.

Even without that, though, I feel there is enough to merit at least proposing an association with St Frideswide’s as probable, though by no means certain. With, however, the proofs of the introduction of the Catalogue now back with the type-setter, it is too late to add a footnote, and so that work is out-of-date before its off the press. I have half a mind to beg them to stop and not complete the publication process: we all have a duty only to publish when we can place our hand on our heart and promise we believe a work is as polished as it could possibly be. As I have said before, if a work is half-decent, then that is not good enough. But assuming for a second that the publishers would even countenance a delay, it would not be a momentary pause: this one hypothesis creates several ramifications which deserve to be pursued. Pitted against that, our society piles on the pressure to see texts in print — it prefers something to be available than to be perfect. The result, of course, is that the threads woven together to form the text begin unravelling as soon as the fabric is complete. If we are to be finishers, we are to be the heirs not to Tantalus but to Sisyphus.

Addendum: the delight of the online is that one can, of course, update. Having completed this draft, I came across this talk by Andrew Dunning which I was not able to attend but which, using different evidence, makes a persuasive case for the manuscript I discuss here being Prior Philip’s fair copy of his collection of the saint’s miracles. I am pleased that there will be someone to point out the oversight in the Christ Church catalogue.