Corpus Christi College Oxford

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Library History

by Jonathan Bengtson



The library of Corpus Christi College dates to the foundation of the College in 1517 by Richard Foxe. The building, a typical first-floor library with stalls, was incorporated into the original architecture of the front quadrangle. The Founder's statutes set out a library policy in which only "worthy" books were to be chained and duplicates could be sold or left in a small circulating collection maintained by the College. Access was limited to Fellows of the College and a procedure to acknowledge donors was established. Measures to protect the books from damage were insisted upon, such as closing any books found open on the desks and closing the windows to keep out inclement weather. The physical structure of the library, with its medieval-style stall system, is little changed from when the stalls were heightened and the Library reorganised at the beginning of the seventeenth century.


Corpus Christi's foundation marked a breach with the traditional medieval model of a college based on the monastic tradition. As such it drew praise from the highest circles, including Erasmus, who claimed that the Corpus Library would be on a par with the Vatican as a magnet for study. Although the study of theology was of foremost importance to Richard Foxe, it was to be study based on the New Learning which de-emphasised medieval writers in preference to the Latin Fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose, Origen and Jerome. Indeed, the earliest collection was rather stronger in classics than theology. The study and teaching of Greek and Latin were provided for in the statutes - particularly study based on Euripedes, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Aristotle and Plutarch for the Greeks and Cicero, Sallust, Pliny, Livy, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan and Terence for the Latins. Early gifts to the Library laid the foundation for the study of these authors and ever since, the Library has acquired the most important new editions of classical texts. Just as the theological bent of Thomas Ames greatly influenced the early development of the Bodleian Library's collection, so too did Richard Foxe's insistence on humanist learning influence the collection policy of Corpus for centuries to come.


The collection was largely assembled in the first hundred and seventy years after the foundation of the College in 1517 and includes a considerable number of manuscripts given by the founder, Richard Foxe, and the first president, John Claymond. The Library also received notable additions from seventeenth-century scholars such as Brian Twyne and William Fulman: Brian Twyne gave 73 manuscripts formerly owned by Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), the Elizabethan magus, as well as an extensive collection of seventeenth-century tracts; William Fulman left over 20 volumes of notebooks, some of which are indispensable for the early history of the College. Not surprisingly, given the humanist aims of the College, there is a significant group of Greek manuscripts, as well as a small collection of medieval Hebrew books, which, in particular, illuminate the attempts of fourteenth-century English scholars to acquire a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. The early printed books are numerous and include, among many other notable books, a number of Aldine Aristotles, a Florentine Homer of 1488, a Venetian Tacitus of 1468, Cicero's De officiis on vellum (Mainz, 1466), as well as many early religious commentaries and bibles, and vernacular works printed by Caxton, Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde.


The earliest library catalogue dates to 1589, but until the twentieth century the Library primarily relied on interleaved copies of the Bodleian catalogue. Lists made by Edward Edwards, the pioneer of public libraries, also exist from the late 1870s. Thanks to a benefaction by William Cobb in 1597, the Library had ten pounds per annum to spend on books. Extra money was occasionally available from obligatory payments by members taking higher degrees, but most books, as in other Oxford libraries, were acquired through donations. Of particular note was a large collection given by President Thomas Turner in 1714. Turner also provided funds for the enlargement of the library and a stipend for the librarian, and demanded that the rules be reformed for the "better regulation and care of the library". On 26 March 1717, President John Mather and the College officers agreed to eight reforms and provided for the nomination of an official librarian every year. The new rules insisted on two visitations per year; the monitoring of book purchasing, binding and chaining; the close regulation and record-keeping of borrowing; charges for damage to books; fines for taking books out without permission; the provision of a deputy librarian; and the upkeep of a list of who had library keys. Sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, the collection was unchained as books became less expensive and smaller formats became popular. In 1791, fees began to be charged to graduate members and gentlemen commoners for the upkeep of the Library. Undergraduates were not allowed access to the collection until 1862, though a separate smaller circulating collection was also maintained. In 1889, a College library committee began to meet regularly. The Library still receives a small stream of donations, though most books are now purchased from College funds, based on the recommendations of students and fellows.

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