As I said goodbye to the old streets of Oxford last week, I dismayed that I had not had the opportunity to fully explore the lovely little university city. Indeed, I barely took any photographs at all—many potential shots seemed to have waves of tourists, trucks, garbage bags, traffic, pylons, construction, and other everyday objects that reduce the quality of a picturesque landscape photograph (though Oxford is quite lovely). Nevertheless, here are a few photographs I was fortunate to snap:
Photography is an art form and the composition often deliberate. For some of the shots posted on the site I may have stood in one place for a good half hour waiting for something to move or the light to change in order to snap the desired photograph (for the Arcadia Bookstore photo above I spent fifteen minutes waiting for the right group of folks to come along). I recently stayed with a professional photographer in Dublin and the many, many gorgeous photographs strung along his walls attests to this fact well. Oxford, in short, was incredibly difficult to photograph (for me). I also wasn’t staying in Oxford itself, but rather commuting from Reading. The entire commute to the library took about an hour each way (train+walking), so I began to associate Oxford with “work” and Reading with “leisure.” That said, as I have been flipping through the photographs from my time in Oxford, it struck me that I did explore, but not in the typical tourist sense. I didn’t explore Christchurch (though I did peek in). I didn’t go on a literary walk. Or to the park. Or to the Ashmolean Museum.1 Most of my time was spent in the Radcliffe Science Library (where the medieval manuscripts are currently housed while the Bodleian Library undergoes renovations):
Magdalen College, Oxford
Past bustling Broad street and streams of bicycles, near the south-eastern end of the campus on the River Cherwell sits Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudelin”), a college founded in 1458 by William Waynflete (Bishop of Winchester). Magdalen College, one of the prettiest colleges at Oxford, features a deer park, Addison’s Walk, and Magdalen Tower—a famous Oxford landmark—but these were not the places I was visiting. I had been running late because of a long line at the Reading post office and a delay with the train schedule, which set me an hour behind. As I scurried past tourists and students alike, I made my way to the porter. “The New library for accessing medieval manuscripts?” he asked quizzically. “Yes, that’s what the email said,” I replied. “Well, try the old library first, just in case. Go through this courtyard on the right, through the corridor, and up the winding stairs. Knock on the door and someone should let you in.” I followed suit:
I knocked twice on the large, wooden door and a young man opened it. “Apologies for my extreme tardiness,” I stated, “I got held up at the Post Office.” “No problem,” he answered, “I didn’t even realize you were late.” Ahh the British. “So you work on medieval games?” he asked, seemingly curious to know more about the project. “Yes, for my dissertation. The work I’m accessing here today is a copy of Jacobus de Cessolis’ Liber de moribus…ludo scaccorum, a Latin chess morality copied in England. I take it that this manuscript is not requested often.” He laughed, “not at all. Most researchers want to see the William of Malmesbury manuscripts here. We’ve only had a few requests for this one in the past few centuries.” The past few centuries, I smile, that sounds about right.
As I make my way into the library, its subtle majesty unfolds. Like most rare book libraries at European colleges, this one has an open stack layout. The dimmed lights and sun peeking through the dusty fifteenth-century windows casts shadows among the old book bindings. The long hall through the stacks lifts up toward a modest high ceiling, giving the room a true sense of depth and serenity. He leads me to a small nook between two bookstacks, with the manuscript propped up and ready to go.
I take in my new surroundings: I am sitting in a cubby surrounded by old books and catalogues. The windows overlooks an inner courtyard below. A single lamp lights up the manuscript leaves in front of me, and the smell of vellum fills the little alcove with an antiquated splendour.
I am searching for something.
The Liber waits in front of me, but I sense that I have somehow disturbed its rest. It was scripted in an English humanistic hand—the only Liber I have witnessed so far that is copied in this bookhand. How interesting, I ponder, and scribble notes in my coiled journal, which I’ve labeled “
PhD Work Notes. PhD Work Notes & Other Musings.”
Does this bookhand reveal an attempt to update the Dominican-influenced Liber ? Other games, after all, sometimes served the interests of early humanists.3 On the other hand, the humanistic bookhand may be a by-product of current changes and developments in curricula at Oxford and Cambridge. The scribe, Simon Alward (c. 1432-1503), copied this particular Liber text in 1456 during his MA at King’s College, Cambridge (c. 1456-57). In 1484-85 he took up a post as the proctor general in legal business at Magdalen. This manuscript therefore traveled with him and now finds its permanent home in Magdalen College library.
I continue studying the manuscript. The furry vellum leaves linger on my fingertips. The script, so neat and carefully copied by Alward! But it perhaps reveals more than it claims. This lovely little treasure was composed by a young hopeful quietly in devoted study—and the book, through the numerous marginalia throughout, proved to serve him well.
St. John’s College, Oxford
The porter greets me as I walk into corridor of St. John’s College. “They’re expecting you,” he says and directs me where to go. This college is different: I walk through a courtyard and reach an unassuming door on the far right-hand side. After filling out the necessary paperwork, I wait as the secretary summons the archivist down from his office Upon arriving at the entryway, the archivist motions for me to follow him up a flight of stairs. A locked wooden gate at the top of the stairs presents the entry point to the library. Beyond it I can see the long rows of old books resting in the alcoves. We walk along the bindings and I set my gaze on two remarkable eighteenth-century globes featured in the hallway between the shelves. “One is in need of serious repair,” the archivist remarks “we need about £20,000 but cannot raise the money. Without help, this globe may deteriorate.” Sad, but sometimes inevitable.
We sit down at a long table at the end of the library. I begin work on the manuscript in front of me. This particular Liber manuscript is written in Anglicana in the early fifteenth century—a distinct contrast to Alward’s handiwork.
Manicules, marginalia, and annotations dot its pages. This text, produced and circulated in England, seems well used. I am pretty sure I am the fifth or sixth person to consult this manuscript since about 1634 (the date it was bequeathed to the college):
‘Liber Collegij Divi Joannis Bapistae Oxon’ ex dono Domini Gulielmi Paddei Militis et Collegii olim Convictoris 1634’ (fol. 2, upper margin).
After ten minutes or so, the archivist sighs getting up and mutters something about ‘being back in awhile.’ He leaves for about forty-five minutes and I am left completely alone in a library filled with old books. A manuscript over six hundred years old sits patiently in front of me. The light peering in from the windows illuminates the disintegrating globes. A hushed stillness falls onto the scene. This is no longer just a library, but a manifestation of the soul.
- Though I was able to attend an enjoyable book signing by Jen Campbell, author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, at Blackwell’s Bookstore. [↩]
- For anyone wishing to access these libraries, you must first email the head archivist with an inquiry and request for access. They also require you to have an Oxford Reader’s Pass and a letter of introduction. [↩]
- The astronomy game the Ludus Astronomorum is one example. [↩]