'Freedom above all things': A display of John Selden's books at the Bodleian Library

24 June 2010

poster_web_smallThe Bodleian Library July display features one of the prominent scholars of the 17th century, John Selden (1584-1654). Inspired by his motto ‘Freedom above all things’ which he started using in 1619 after being attacked by the church establishment, the display celebrates the 400th anniversary of Selden’s first publications.

Educated in Oxford and at the Inner Temple in London, he was hailed by his contemporaries as the greatest English scholar of his day. John Selden was the greatest historian of English law before the nineteenth century. But he was also a polymath with an insatiable appetite for knowledge of non-Western cultures. One of the greatest of all Christian Hebraists he also promoted the study of Arabic in England and was the friend and patron of the most important seventeenth-century Arabist, the first Oxford Professor of Arabic, Edward Pococke. Selden’s correspondence network grew to encompass scholars from across Europe, and extended eastward to Aleppo in Syria . The books displayed here show some of the breadth of his explorations in diverse cultures and languages.

John Selden’s publications on display:

  • Historie of Tithes (1618) is one of Selden's greatest and most controversial achievements. It enraged the contemporary churchmen who saw it as an attack on their authority.  In what remains the only full study of its subject, Selden traces the history of tithing from the Old Testament to contemporary England.
  • Drafts for a projected third edition of De Diis Syris (On the Syrian Gods), published in England in 1617 and in revised form in Leiden, 1627. Selden's most celebrated work among European scholars in his own lifetime, the book was an extraordinary work of comparative philology which attempts to reconstruct how non-Jewish people described in the Bible worshipped their gods. 
  • De Iure Naturali et Gentium (1640) The work which prompted Milton to call Selden England’s “chief of learned men”. In it, Selden sought to illuminate the study of laws believed to be perpetually incumbent upon all mankind (natural laws). Such an approach was virtually unprecedented.  Readers throughout Europe and across religious divides celebrated the work as a stupendous achievement.

By the end of his life, Selden had collected one of the most important scholarly libraries in Europe. 8,000 volumes of books and manuscripts encompassed the entire range of his studies. After his death in 1654, initial negotiations for the library to be kept at the Inner Temple collapsed, and the vast bulk of his collection came here to the Bodleian Library.

Highlights of Selden's books on display:

  • Codex Mendoza, one of the world's most important manuscripts featuring the Aztec rulers and a description of the daily Aztec life, is a treasure prepared shortly after the Spanish conquest. The manuscript came to Selden via the travel-writer Samuel Purchas.  Selden astutely noted that the manuscript’s pictographs are 'like hieroglyphics'.
  • Laila and Majnun by the early sixteenth-century poet, Hatifi (d.1522) is one of Selden's finest illuminated manuscripts.  The Persian love-story originates among seventh-century Afghan Bedouin poets and received its classic form in Persian literature in the version by the celebrated twelfth-century poet, Nizami.  This manuscript was given to Selden in 1641 by a member of the famous North family, Gilbert North. 
  • Anthologiae by the Greek-Egyptian, Vettius Valens (120-170) is Selden's manuscript of the principal work of practical astronomy.

This display was curated by Thomas Roebuck, Magdalen college and Jeffrey Miller, Magdalen College.

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'Freedom above all things'


    24 June – 23 July 2010
    Bodleian Library Proscholium
    Old Schools Quad
    Catte Street, Oxford
    Mon - Fri 9am – 7pm
    Sat 9am – 4.30pm
    Sun 11am – 5pm
    Admission free
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