A new cover for old books

January 19, 2001

Matthew Parker did not pay much to accumulate his library. But four centuries later, it is going to take £20 million to house it properly. Parker’s library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was cheap to assemble because people invited to contribute tended to say yes. After all, he was archbishop of Canterbury, a post of vast political reach during the reign of Elizabeth I. He had previously been chaplain to Anne Boleyn - and master of Corpus. One of the founders of the Church of England, he drafted the 39 Articles that form its theological base. Visitors to the library can see his own copy there today, with “Matthew Cantuar” the first signatory.

Parker accumulated his library in an era when theological tomes that we might regard as being only of scholarly interest were political documents, too. And there were plenty of them about, albeit largely concealed, only a few decades after Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and scattered their libraries. With the encouragement of Henry’s daughter, Parker - a known bibliomane - was able to combine business with pleasure on a terrific scale. He and his agents built up 4,000 to 5,000 books printed after 1500, 100 incunables (pre-1500 printed works) and 500 older manuscripts, 40 in old English. The library has been added to since and now contains 637 manuscripts and about 20,000 early printed books.

Corpus Christi has decided that this collection, rivalled in England only by the British Library and the Bodleian in Oxford, both of more recent origin, is an under-used asset. For one thing, there is a constant flow of requests to use the library, far outstripping the space available at the small table reserved for up to four visiting scholars. For another, visitors to Cambridge cannot see the collection. It should be a major attraction. Its many spectacular book illuminations and treasures include the Gospel Book , which belonged to St Augustine and is still shipped to Canterbury for the installation of his successors as archbishop of Canterbury, and a politics text, the Policraticus , known to have been owned and read by Thomas â Becket.

Under the plan, for which funds are being raised, the library will begin the transfer to a 21st-century building rather than its present 19th-century one with better storage and security. There will be space for up to 20 scholarly researchers and for casual visitors. In addition, money already raised is being used to give the library a scholarly cutting edge in the shape of Christopher de Hamel, who joined in the autumn after more than two decades in charge of medieval manuscripts at Sotheby’s. In that job, he sold documents much less impressive than many in the Parker library for millions.

As enthused as Patrick Moore let loose with the Hubble space telescope, de Hamel says the Parker library is far more than a collection of documents. It contains precious treasures but also includes the working library of a leading light of Elizabethan England. “Imagine the insight into someone you get when you go into their house and look at their books. Here we can see what books he had, which he annotated and studied, which he bound together and how he used them,” he says. “Think how much we would know about Shakespeare if we had his library.”

As de Hamel points out, one of Parker’s reasons for assembling the collection was to gather evidence that the Church of England, far from being a recent heresy, had solid historical foundations. Parker used manuscripts in the collection to show that, in pre-1066 England, services could be in English and priests could marry, both suggesting the concept of a separate English Christian tradition. He also provided evidence for King Alfred’s translation of the gospels into English, still a revolutionary idea in the 16th century. In addition, the library contains substantial relics from the older, Celtic tradition of British Christianity, which merged with the continental arm deriving from St Augustine. It includes a gospel book from Lindisfarne comparable to the Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Library and a century older than the Book of Kells in Dublin.

De Hamel adds that the library also contains vital evidence about early English itself, especially in the Corpus Glossary . This is a dictionary in Latin of words in old English, probably produced in the 9th century for use by missionaries to England from Mediterranean lands.

He points out too that it was printing that “turned books black and white”. When they were handwritten, they were also richly illustrated in astounding colours. And although some are magnificent, many were treated with scant respect. Both Parker and earlier owners felt free to scribble on them or rebind them, so that their later owners and users are a project for research just as much as their original creators.

De Hamel says visitors to Cambridge tend to stare at buildings, but a university is really about books, and the new Parker building will allow some amazing ones to be seen more widely. In addition, the project involves making them visible worldwide via a collaboration with reprographics company Océ, which has been developing technology to allow the images to be reproduced accurately in colour for the first time. They will also be used on a website. Its kings, queens, angels and saints, and exotic animals - including the first elephant seen in England - are set to make it a cult favourite.      

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