Corpus Christi College Oxford

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Library History

 

Before the College


Corpus Christi College occupies the former site of several Academic Halls in medieval Oxford, just within the southern line of the City Wall, south of Merton Street, and east of the former Schidyerd Street. These halls were houses, often belonging to local monasteries, which were leased to graduate principals who then sublet to students. The Halls fell out of use in the last quarter of the fifteenth century due to a declining population following outbreaks of the plague.


The Front Quad – the Founder’s College


The Founder of Corpus Christi, Richard Fox, was a prosperous bishop and a statesman. Fox was successively Bishop of Exeter, Bath and Wells, Durham, and Winchester. This final appointment in August 1501 formalised his association with Oxford University, as the Bishop of Winchester was the Visitor of both New College and Magdalen; in 1507 he produced new statutes for Balliol and carried out a visitation of Magdalen. Fox first acquired land for Corpus in 1511, and began building his monastic college in 1512. By 1516, the College had been reconceived as a secular institution and grew to twice Fox’s first-intended size. The statutes of 1517 established for Corpus a President, 20 Fellows (BAs) called scholarii and 20 discipuli (undergraduates). The foundation included public readings in ‘Humanity’ and Greek, for learned priests who could read literature and theology. The College’s members were to be as industrious and well-regulated as a beehive.


The first buildings consisted of a single quadrangle with a Hall and Chapel on the east side and a library on the south, all completed by 1517. The President’s Lodgings were in the gate tower on the north range, and sets of residential rooms were placed around the quad. Fox contracted the master mason William Vertue and master carpenter Humfrey Coke to build the college.  Both were prominent craftsmen in the royal service, and accomplished at their trade. The early buildings were constructed in the plain late Gothic/Tudor style familiar in Oxford from the late 15th century.


The Library


The medieval library takes up the whole of the first floor of the south range of the front quadrangle, and has been used continually as a library since the college’s foundation.  The building was a typical first-floor library with stalls, designed to house a chained collection, and Fox dictated that it was to be carefully curated so that every book should be ‘of competent price or utility’.  Duplicate books or those of small value were to be kept separately from the Library, in a small circulating collection. These two collections were probably amalgamated as part of the library renovation of 1604, which saw the original lecterns replaced by the book presses that remain in use to this day. In 1700 these book presses were raised in height to increase capacity as the library’s collections grew. They preserve some of the best surviving metal furniture of a chained library, even though the practice of chaining books ended mid-way through the 18th century as books became less expensive and smaller. The library’s wooden ceiling dates from 1843, when the College chapel was also renovated.


Fox demonstrated concern for the upkeep and preservation of his Library. He kept his own books well, and in his statutes, he set out that ‘all persons whatsoever of our College who enter the Library shall shut the books which they find open, and look to the windows, lest from the rising of the wind, or a shower, damage accrue either to the glass or to the books. And so often as anyone goes out without leaving any person there, he must lock the door’.  The College obviously took heed of the Founder and looked after its books over the ensuing decades and centuries: of the 371manuscripts and printed books listed in the first catalogue of 1589, 320 still exist today, along with another 60 from the circulating stock of the 16th century.


The Library today


The Library has continued to evolve to meet the changing needs of its members and collections, with the 20th century seeing the greatest changes. The Hodgson room was built above the cloisters to house a donation bequeathed in 1912. This links the medieval library to the space in the 18th-century Fellows’ Building that housed the undergraduate library in the 1930s-60s, and is now part of the Library proper.  The ground floor beneath the medieval library was also absorbed to create further space for both books and readers, and a former residential room was adopted as the Library Office. This development has kept the medieval space part of a popular library open 24 hours a day and housing c.65,000 volumes on the open shelves. To maintain this working library, and preserve the special collections, the early printed books were moved into refurbished basement stores in the 1970s, joining the archives that had been moved there from the Tower. The manuscripts later joined them in these air-conditioned strong rooms.


 


References


Liddell, ‘The Library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in the Sixteenth Century’


Thomson, The Medieval Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford


A summary of the history of the Library has been written by a former member of library staff:
Library History by Jonathan Bengtson


 


Publications on College history


The history of Corpus Christi College, with lists of its members by Thomas Fowler (Oxford, 1893)
The early history of Corpus Christi College, Oxford by J.G. Milne (Oxford 1946)


Corpuscles : a history of Corpus Christi College, Oxford in the twentieth century, written by its members Edited by Brian Harrison (Oxford 1994)


The fox, the bees and the pelican : some worthies and noteworthies of Corpus Christi College, Oxford by Richard Symonds (Oxford, 2002)
Daring to be wise : more worthies and noteworthies of Corpus Christi College, Oxford by Richard Symonds (Oxford, 2004)
Raising the ladder : further worthies and noteworthies of Corpus Christi College, Oxford by Richard Symonds ; edited by Stephen Harrison (Oxford 2008)


Biographical details of Corpus members can be found in:
Biographical register 1880-1974 Corpus Christi College, Oxford by PA Hunt and NA Flanagan (Oxford, 1988)
Supplement to the Biographical Register 1974-1991 Corpus Christi College, Oxford by A Nockels (Oxford, 1992)
Alumni Oxonienses : the members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714 by Joseph Foster (Oxford, 1891-2)
Alumni Oxonienses : the members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1886 by Joseph Foster (Oxford, 1887-8)


Some of the Corpus publications are available for purchase via the Lodge (see the College's Publications page for more information).


Information about the special collections (including the archives of the College), and published catalogues can be found at Catalogues and collections.

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