The 13th - 16th Centuries

Beyond the Work of OneWilliam of Wykeham (c. 1324–1404)

As royal administrator and churchman, Wykeham rose to become bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England. Having amassed a large fortune, he established colleges in Oxford (New College) and Winchester to enable talented young men of humble background, like his own, to pursue careers in the service of church and state. Wykeham intended New College to surpass all existing Oxford colleges in design and facilities. It was the first college to include a purpose-built library room as part of the original plan (1386). Regulations dealing with the care and use of library books were included in the college statutes, and Wykeham himself ensured that the library was well-stocked, setting a pattern for future founders.

1. Bishop’s mitre
New College, Chattels 1752
Gift of William of Wykeham

Wykeham’s gifts to New College included his own mitre, crozier, rings and vestments, as well as ecclesiastical plate for use in the chapel. This sumptuous silk mitre is decorated with seed pearls, semi-precious stones, and silver gilt.

2. Acts, Epistles and Apocalypse with gloss
New College, MS 27
Gift of William of Wykeham

The founder’s provision for the library at New College comprised some 250 manuscript books covering essential subjects: 136 in theology, 30 in philosophy, 43 in canon law and 37 in civil law. In this impressive 13th-century manuscript, written and decorated in England, scholars could find the biblical text and accompanying commentary laid out on the same page for easy reference.

3. Royal grant of Newton Longville estates, 1441
New College, NCA 11980
Gift of William of Wykeham

Wykeham planned for the future growth of his college. The estates at Newton Longville, located near other college lands in Buckinghamshire, were acquired through a fund established by Wykeham especially for such purposes. The image of the Annunciation at the opening of the document may allude to the Virgin as patron saint of the college. The grant bears the Great Seal of Henry VI.

College libraries in the 13th to 16th centuries

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, members of a college were expected to leave their books to the college library. Some of these volumes would have been chained in the library room, but others could be borrowed by Fellows – a valuable privilege. Many contain inscriptions asking future users to remember the donor and sometimes also requesting prayers for family members and friends. The library thus kept alive the memory of departed colleagues. Oxford had a thriving second-hand book trade, and some books also preserve evidence of their origins in earlier monastic libraries, or in the continental centres of study such as Paris. Most books donated in this period relate to the Oxford curriculum. Over time they reveal a shift in interest towards classical languages and literature (Greek, Latin and Hebrew) and reflect new developments in natural sciences.

4. Aristotle’s Metaphysics with commentary by Averroes (Ibn Rushd)
Merton College, MS 269
Probably gift of Richard de Cleanger

Ibn Rushd's commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, 13th century ms.

For medieval scholars, Aristotle was simply ‘The Philosopher’. This 13th-century manuscript contains historiated initials that attempt to convey some of the abstract concepts discussed in the text. On the folio shown here, a scholar contemplates a representation of Being. The manuscript belonged in the 14th century to Richard de Cleanger (Fellow of Merton 1331), who is recorded as having given books to his college.

5. Earliest surviving gift of a book to an Oxford college
Balliol College, MS 317
Bequest of Peter of Cossington (died by May 1276)

Balliol College MS 317

This 12th-century copy of Boethius’ De institutione musica was bequeathed to Balliol in 1276, making it (probably) the book that has been longest in the possession of any Oxford college. Music theory was one of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. De Musica was a ‘set book’ in the University statutes until the mid-19th century.

6. Early depictions of Oxford colleges
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 13

Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 13

When Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford in 1566, Thomas Neale, Professor of Hebrew, composed for her a Latin poem in dialogue form in which the Earl of Leicester (then Chancellor of the University) describes to the Queen the colleges and university buildings, with special emphasis on college founders. For her dedication copy, John Bereblock provided pen-drawn illustrations, now particularly valuable as the earliest known representations of many of the colleges; the manuscript is open to show All Souls and The Queen’s College.

7. Hebrew–Latin psalter
Corpus Christi College, MS 10
Bequest of John Claymond (1467/8–1536)

Corpus Christi College, MS 10

John Claymond, President of Magdalen College, then appointed first President of Corpus Christi College (1517), was an advocate of humanist learning and included Erasmus and Thomas More among his friends. Claymond bequeathed lands, books and funds to Corpus Christi, Magdalen and Brasenose colleges. Among the printed and manuscript books left to Corpus was this 13th-century psalter laid out in three columns (two different Latin translations and Hebrew).

8. A royal psalter
Exeter College, MS 47
Gift of Sir William Petre (1506–73)

Exeter College, MS 47

This richly illuminated psalter was originally made c. 1360–70 for Humphrey de Bohun. Through marriage it passed into royal ownership and belonged in turn to Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, and to Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Along with other books, lands, and money it was donated to Exeter College by Sir William Petre, a lawyer who studied at Exeter and served four Tudor monarchs.

9. A monastic manuscript
Jesus College, MS 52
From the collection of Sir John Prise (c. 1502–55)

Jesus College MS 52

This copy of Bede’s De tabernaculo and De templo was written at Cirencester Abbey in the 12th century. Almost 400 years later it entered the collection of Sir John Prise, an administrator who played an active role in the dissolution of the monasteries. Prise collected and studied medieval manuscripts and worked to preserve the literary heritage of his native Wales. Part of his collection came by donation to Jesus College.

William Reed (d. 1385) – books for the University

William Reed, bishop of Chichester, collected what was probably the largest private library in 14th-century England, and was one of the University’s greatest benefactors at a time when most gifts were made only to one’s own college. Reed (also spelt Rede) studied at Oxford and by 1344 was a Fellow of Merton, where astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy (science) flourished. Like his contemporary William of Wykeham, Reed wished to provide resources for Oxford scholars. As there was no University library at the time, Reed donated and bequeathed some 350 volumes to Merton, Exeter, Balliol, Oriel, Queen’s, and New Colleges. Reed also provided a large sum of money that supported the building of the library – still in use –in Merton’s Mob Quad. Although we have no likeness of William Reed, many of his surviving books bear his ownership inscriptions.

10. 14th-century quadrant
Merton College
Probably gift of William Reed

Medieval astronomers like William Reed and his Merton colleagues used several types of instruments to make observations about the motions of celestial objects. With a quadrant (this example is of the type called ‘Profacius’s new quadrant’) one could determine the time by measuring the altitude of the sun or stars. Such instruments were kept in the college library, and Fellows could borrow them for use ‘in the field’.

11. Compilation of astronomical texts and observations
Bodleian Library, MS. Digby 176
Gift of Thomas Allen (1540–1632) via Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–65)

The parchment booklets forming this 14th-century manuscript include the earliest surviving records of the weather in Oxford. William Reed added his own annotations to some of the texts he had acquired from the estates of several friends. Intended by Reed to be shared between Merton and Exeter, the manuscript was obtained by Thomas Allen (see Theme 5), eventually entering the Bodleian.

12. Medical treatises
Bodleian Library, MS. e Mus. 19
Bequeathed to the Bodleian by Thomas Clayton of Pembroke College (died 1647)

Bodleian Library MS. e Mus. 19

William Reed purchased this fine illuminated book of medical treatises with funds provided by his patron and friend Nicholas of Sandwich. The folio displayed here depicts a series of famous physicians treating patients by cautery for different complaints. The manuscript was written and decorated in Italy in the late 13th century; Reed donated it to Merton, and after passing through various hands in the 17th century, it came to the Bodleian.

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.
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