bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Leviathan in the Library

Posted in History of Political Thought, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 8 May, 2017

I am preparing the first of a brace of talks that I am to give this week. They are on a rather different topics from each other but they are both to be presented in the same location, the ball-room-like expanse of the Upper Library of Christ Church, Oxford. The setting is particularly appropriate for the first event, which takes place this evening. It is a speaker meeting of the Oxford Bibliographical Society and is entitled ‘More than a House for Books: collecting and Christ Church Library‘. It grows out of the work I have done reconstructing the history of the collection for the introduction to the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, and it also is in anticipation of an exhibition that will be staged in the autumn. My intention in this post, however, is not to pre-empt this evening’s discussion but briefly to introduce something which caught my eye while doing the research for it.

I have been poring over the Library’s Donors’ Book, a hefty volume which was created in 1614 in imitation of the equivalent made for the Bodleian. Its original purpose was to celebrate the generosity of Otho Nicholson, a Londoner with no previous connexion to Christ Church, who bank-rolled the ‘restoration’ of the Library (then situated in the cloisters, behind the grand Hall built by Thomas Wolsey). After a few years of enthusiastic record-keeping, the entries became more erratic, but were kept more consistently in the 1650s. This is a striking moment: the Founder’s descendant, who had also set up his palace in its quads during the Civil War, had suffered the removal of his head from his body; the institution’s dual status as college and cathedral had been diminished by the Republic’s opposition to the episcopacy. Christ Church itself, however, survived, and in some ways (which I will discuss this evening) became a symbol of continuing royalist loyalty. This is reflected in some of the gifts the Library received but not, perhaps, in the one to which I draw your attention now. Here is the entry:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1 (Donors’ Book), p. 108

That an Oxford library should receive a copy, soon after publication (it appeared in 1651) of a work which we consider a classic, might not seem surprising. But Hobbes’s Leviathan was such a controversial work that, only a couple of decades later, just a few hundred yards north of Christ Church’s library, the University’s authorities ceremoniously burnt copies of it. In its presentation of a ‘science’ of princely power, it was seen to undermine the very moral order that justified such power; it was considered the enemy of legitimate kingship, rather than its supporter.

It is not just this potential incongruity that struck me when reading this entry; it was also the description of its donor, Vincent Denne, himself an alumnus of Christ Church. He is here described as in supremis Regni consiliis municeps, participating in the ‘supreme councils of the Kingdom’. Is that noun simply a slip, a failure to remember that the kingdom was now a republic or is it some sort of wishful thinking? Does it hint at how the librarian would have read Leviathan?

The ‘supreme councils’ is an euphemistic phrase which presumably refers to Denne’s status as Member of Parliament for his hometown of Canterbury; he was elected in 1656. The librarian who makes this entry is rarely given to periphrasis: is this some sign that the legitimacy of a Parliament called into being without royal authority was considered problematic? Would the donor have shared such misgivings? The very fact that he was an MP and also a JP for Kent in these republican years suggests he had made his peace with the new regime. The result was that at the Restoration, he found himself in difficulties, though he himself claimed his family had shown their loyalty to their king.

So, what was Denne thinking when he offered to them this recent work on government? Did he consider it a counter-balance to the nostalgic royalism apparent in his college’s library? Or was the act of donation to his alma mater a suggestion of his continuing loyalties in new times which required new ways of acting and of thinking? And what was the Librarian thinking when he accepted and entered the gift in the Register?

Without other evidence, we will not know. The volume itself has disappeared from the library — the only copy of the 1651 edition now present was given by a grander old boy, William Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1738; probably after this point, Denne’s book was considered surplus to requirements and, like many others, de-accessioned. There is an intriguing issue lying behind this short entry: how far were gifts and their recording a coded language in this unquiet years? It deserves further consideration — but I better write my paper for this evening, instead.

 

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