The Bodleian Collection

The Bodleian takes pride in its rich holdings of medieval manuscripts from the German-speaking lands, but is conscious of the vicissitudes of history which have sometimes formed the background to their acquisition. The 1630s were a time of religious strife both in Germany and in England. The invasion of Catholic lands in southern Germany and the Rhineland by the Protestant armies of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his allies led to the devastation of religious houses and the dispersal of the books in their libraries. In England Archbishop William Laud held office as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645, and simultaneously as Chancellor of Oxford University from 1630 to 1641; but his alliance with King Charles I in the religious struggles between ‘high church’ Arminians and Calvinists would lead ultimately to his execution in 1645.

In his capacity as Chancellor Laud is remembered as almost the ‘second founder’ of the Bodleian. He presented to the Library both western and oriental manuscripts, most of them religious and patristic in content; in accordance with the Library’s tradition of preserving the memory of its benefactors, the shelfmarks of these manuscripts continue to bear Laud’s name. The manuscripts from Germany (some 322 in number, together with a couple of early printed books) were mostly assembled between 1633 and 1639, and arrived in Oxford in three main batches. The 15th-century Library room (known today as Duke Humfrey’s Library), re-opened in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, was expanded at its western end (now known as Selden End) in 1640-41 to house this expansion.

Laud’s agents (whose names are still unknown to us) had obtained significant groups of manuscripts from the cathedral in Würzburg, from the Carthusian house (the Charterhouse) in Mainz, and from the Cistercian abbey of Eberbach in the Rheingau. (Meanwhile purchases from the same sources were being made on behalf of Thomas Howard, second Earl of Arundel; these are today in the British Library.) The fact that the Bodleian’s holdings are not random gatherings, but are instead coherent groups of manuscripts from individual houses (of a nice variety of religious orders), renders them of immeasurably greater significance; the Würzburg manuscripts include a body of Carolingian manuscripts which would be hard to parallel in a British collection. But it is not always certain if individual manuscripts were acquired from one of these three major houses, or from elsewhere in Germany, and we hope that the present digitization project will assist in the task of untangling the origin and provenance of some so far ‘unattached’ manuscripts.

Apart from that of Archbishop Laud, the principal 17th-century collection with material from Germany which came to the Bodleian was the small but select group of manuscripts donated by the Dutch philological scholar Franciscus Junius (1589-1677), sometime librarian to Thomas Howard. These include the Library’s most celebrated manuscript from the German lands, MS. Junius 25, a set of distinct fascicles from the 8th and 9th centuries, including three Old High German glossaries and the Latin hymns with interlinear German glosses known as the Murbach Hymns. From Reichenau on Lake Constance the earliest parts of the manuscript were taken to (and augmented at) the abbey of Murbach in Alsace, whence by the 17th century the codex had come to the Netherlands and into the hands of the philologist Marcus Zuerius Boxhorn, and from Boxhorn to the humanist scholar Isaac Vossius, who passed it on to his kinsman Junius. Alongside its medieval manuscripts, the Junius collection also contains abundant documentation of his study of the early Germanic languages in his transcriptions and preparatory editions of texts in Gothic, Old English, and Old High German.

No further collections with major numbers of manuscripts from the German-speaking lands were acquired until the 19th century. In 1817 the greater part of the collection of the Venetian sometime Jesuit Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727-1805/6) was bought, still the largest single purchase of medieval manuscripts in the history of the Bodleian. The Canonici manuscripts include the 11th-century Sacramentary from Reichenau (MS. Canon. Liturg. 319) which is the Library’s one great treasure of Ottonian manuscript illumination; early in its life the manuscript was taken to Aquileia which, as well as giving it a place in the larger story of the influx of Ottonian manuscripts to Italy, also explains how it came to be within reach of Canonici and thus to find its eventual resting-place in Oxford.

The bequest of Francis Douce (1757-1834) included perhaps the single greatest collection of illuminated manuscripts ever acquired by the Library. Douce was purchasing at a time when books from Germany were coming onto the market as a consequence of the secularization of the monasteries during the Napoleonic period; he possessed some German examples such as the Homiliary evidently made for a community of nuns in the Rhineland (MS. Douce 185), for which a companion volume survives in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (W. 148). Meanwhile the Hamilton collection, donated by the sons of Sir William Hamilton (d. 1856), who had received the books from John Broad some time before 1841, when Hamilton was living in Edinburgh, includes a substantial body of manuscripts from Erfurt. The Latin text of the Consolatio Philosophiae of Boethius in MS. Hamilton 46 is accompanied by a German translation of large portions of the Latin text in the margins and on interleaved slips, evidently in the hand of the translator.

In the 20th and 21st centuries the Library has continued to add to its stock of medieval manuscripts. The selection of one hundred manuscripts which the Library was permitted to make from the collection of James P. R. Lyell (d. 1948), a London solicitor, included several important items from Austrian monastic libraries. The collection of Alfred Ehrman (1890-1969), named after the village of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, was donated by his son John in 1978; Ehrman had acquired a manuscript of German geomantic and astronomical texts (MS. Broxb. 84.3), copied by Nicolaus Breys of Bayreuth in 1469, for the sake of its fine binding. Amongst the most recent acquisitions is a 15th-century manuscript of Latin texts and prayers focused on the contemplation of the Passion of Christ (MS. Don. e. 250), a remarkable survival from the library of the Strasbourg charterhouse, still in its original limp parchment binding and purchased in recognition of the contribution, to the world of scholarship in general and to the study of manuscripts in Oxford in particular, of Professor Nigel Palmer.

Adapted from: Nigel F. Palmer, ‘Medieval German manuscripts in Oxford libraries’, Oxford German Studies, 46/2 (June 2017), 126-40.

by Martin Kauffmann