The 17th Century

Beyond the Work of One

Several notable 17th-century donations to college libraries reflect contemporary fascination with the study of the early history, language, and literature of the British Isles. Whether they were academics or were simply educated men with historical interests, many collectors formed important research libraries of documents and early printed books. To them and their families a college library seemed a natural home for their collections, which would be treated there as possessions for all time. In addition to gifts of books and manuscripts already considered to have significant historical value, former students might also present to their colleges copies of their own published works.

13. William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum
Magdalen College, MS Lat. 172
Gift of Samuel Foxe (1560–1630)
This manuscript is the working copy of William of Malmesbury’s history of English bishops, written around 1125 in his own hand and preserving his subsequent annotations. It was later acquired and annotated by John Foxe (1516/7–1587), Fellow of Magdalen, who used it as a source for his Actes and Monuments (‘Foxe’s book of martyrs’). Magdalen College received the manuscript along with Foxe’s library from his son Samuel Foxe in 1614.

14. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, [London, 1477?]
Merton College
Gift of William Wright (died 1636)
The popular Canterbury Tales was the first major large-format work printed by Caxton after he moved his business from Bruges to London in 1475 or 1476. In this copy, the openings of some of the tales are distinguished by hand-illuminated floral borders. Merton College received this book as a gift from the wealthy Oxford goldsmith, baker, and sometime mayor, William Wright.

15. Thomas Hobbes presents his Opera philosophica Bodleian Library, MS. Aubrey 9
Hobbes, one of the best-known English political philosophers, presented this copy of his complete Latin philosophical works to his old college, Magdalen Hall, in 1673. He had feared that his controversial works would not be well received, as can be seen in a letter (recorded by John Aubrey) written to the Vice-Principal of Magdalen Hall:

‘I assure you that I owe so much honour and respect to that Society [Magdalen Hall], and I would have sent them … long ago, if I could have done it as decently as now that you have assured me that your selfe and some others of your house have a good opinion of them’.
Hertford College, Hobbes Opera philosophica
16. Thomas Hobbes, Opera philosophica (Amsterdam, 1668)
Hertford College (successor of Magdalen Hall)
Gift of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Hobbes’s gift was recorded in the Hertford Library Benefactor’s Book (see item 77).

University College, MS 165
17. Bede, Life of Saint Cuthbert
University College, MS 165
Gift of William Rogers (1646/7–1730)
Saint Cuthbert, a 7th-century bishop of Lindisfarne revered especially in north-east England, is patron saint of University College. It is probably for that reason that William Rogers, a lawyer, amateur historian and devout Catholic, gave this 12th-century manuscript along with 22 other printed and manuscript books to his old college in 1670. The illustration here shows an angel miraculously healing St Cuthbert’s diseased knee.

18. Galileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius (Venice, 1610)
Corpus Christi College, Rare bks d.22.1(6)Corpus Christi College, Rare bks. delta.22.1(6)
Bequest of Brian Twyne (1581–1644)
Images of the moon and planets as seen through a telescope brought Galileo fame and fortune when this book was published. The first owner of this volume, Brian Twyne, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, is now known primarily for his work as first Keeper of the University Archives (1634). He also maintained interests in mathematics, astronomy and navigation. Twyne left manuscripts and about 350 printed volumes to Corpus.

19. ‘A Harmony of the Whole Law of God’
St John’s College, MS 262
Bequest of William Laud (1573–1645)St. John's College, MS 262
Nicholas Ferrar established a religious community consisting of his extended family at Little Gidding in 1625. As a religious exercise they constructed a unified biblical narrative by cutting up printed bibles and series of prints and pasting them into albums that were bound by the women of the community. This copy of such a compilation was given by the Ferrar family to Archbishop Laud, through whose bequest it reached St John’s in 1646.

This exhibition celebrates over 700 years of gift-giving to Oxford college libraries. The chronological arrangement (by date of donation) illustrates how patterns of giving developed. Now and in the future, colleges will continue to depend on benefactions, and their libraries will cherish their treasures and preserve them for study and the delight of readers.
Back to top