Corpus Christi College Oxford

Follow Corpus Christi College Oxford on Facebook

Part 1: A trilingual library in 16th century Oxford

In 1519, Erasmus wrote to John Claymond, first President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, singing high praises of Richard Fox and his newly-founded college, which Erasmus described as

"consecrated to the study of the three most important languages and to the study of the best literature of the ancient authors."
(Desiderius Erasmus (ed. P.S. & H.M. Allen), Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1913).)

The three languages Erasmus had in mind were Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Greek and Latin were the basis for all humanist learning. Hebrew was essential for the study of Scripture and theology according to humanist principles. In Fox's college, the study of Scripture was to be underpinned by a sound instruction in Latin and Greek, and by the study of patristic texts. Furthermore, what Erasmus had heard of the library at Fox's college led him to declare that the

"spectacle of that trilingual library... will draw to Oxford in the future more people than were once attracted to the sights of Rome."

The modern day curator of the Corpus collections may be forgiven for a sigh of relief that Erasmus' fortune telling was not entirely accurate, but it is the purpose of the first part of this exhibition to show why Erasmus might have formed such a high opinion of the Corpus Library.

Fox himself gave to the Corpus Library a collection of some 97 printed books and at least 16 manuscripts (N.R. Ker, "The provision of books", in The history of the University of Oxford. Volume III, The collegiate university edited by James McConica (Oxford,1986), pp. 458-159). Many of these were the texts and the authors he himself prescribed for study in his statutes. Of the Latin authors prescribed by Fox in his statutes, all were represented in Fox's gift except Virgil, Pliny and Sallust (J.R. Liddell, "The library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in the sixteenth century", in The library (1938), p. 388). Some books doubtless were given to the library at its foundation; others came at various times until his death. Some had been parts of Fox's own working library and are heavily annotated with his marks: mediaeval-style nota benes in the style of long pointing fingers, and curly lines highlighting paragraphs. The Greek books, however, lack annotation. As far as we know, Fox himself did not read Greek. This is doubtless the reason why Fox overlooked the Greek books when he inherited the Latin books in the library of John Shirwood, Bishop of Durham 1484?-1493, when he succeeded to that see in 1494. Shirwood's Latin books came with Fox to Corpus. Their main interest comes from the fact that Shirwood inscribed the date and place of his purchases in his books, most of which he bought in Rome. Shirwood seemed to favour the editions coming off the press of Rome's first printers, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, who were printing in Rome from 1468 to 1473. But he also purchased editions from Venice, Milan, Ferrara, Treviso and Florence. Shirwood was buying books in Rome from 1474 to 1481, and again in 1487, when he was in Rome as the King's proctor. He died in Rome in 1493.

From the first, Corpus had both Greek and Latin books, and was undoubtedly the finest library for the study of the classics in Oxford in the first half of the sixteenth century. Neil Ker ("Oxford college libraries in the sixteenth century", in Books, collectors and libraries: studies in the medieval heritage edited by Andrew G. Watson (London, 1985)) suggests that Corpus may have been the only college in Oxford to have Greek books in its library before 1535. Within twenty years of its foundation, Corpus Library held at least 25 Greek manuscripts, as well as rather more Greek printed books. This is not to deny that individual scholars in other colleges owned Greek texts. Corpus was to acquire several Greek manuscripts from the library of William Grocyn (M. Burrows, "Linacre's catalogue of Grocyn's books, followed by a memoir of Grocyn", in Collectanea. 2nd series (Oxford, 1890)), Fellow of New College, in 1521, and again in 1537 when Claymond bequeathed to the College library book she had purchased from Grocyn's executors. Greek too had been taught sporadically in Oxford prior to Fox's foundation. Fox, however, was the first to fund a regular set of public lectures in Greek. Fox certainly equipped the Corpus Library with a set of Greek texts hot off the Aldine and other Italian presses. Of the Greek texts he prescribed to be taught by the Reader in Greek, Fox presented copies of every author except Sophocles and Hesiod.

Fox's statutes require the Reader of Humanity to

"manfully root out barbarity from our garden."
(G.R.M. Ward, The foundation statutes of Bishop Fox for Corpus Christi College, in the University of Oxford, A.D. 1517 (London, 1843).)

(Fox's image of his college as a beehive allows him to pursue his allegory and refer to all teaching as a garden from which his bees suck nectar.) Barbarity here means the Latin of the mediaeval Schoolmen rather than the purer Latin or Greek style of the classical authors which the humanists strove to emulate. Aldus Manutius, the Venice printer, who corresponded with Grocyn and Linacre among Oxford scholars of the period, describes England as the place from which once only

"barbarous unlearned works have reached us"

in his dedicatory letter to Linacre's translation of Proclus' De sphaera which he published in 1499. Thomas Linacre (1460?-1524), a Fellow of New College, translated a number of works from Greekinto Latin. He presented a copy of his later work, a translation of Galen's De sanitate tuenda (Paris, 1517), to Fox. This book is not, however, in the Corpus collection, but resides in the library of the College of Physicians in London.

If Fox's gift made Corpus a fine library for the study of Classics, its theological holdings were comparatively weak. However, this shortcoming was largely overcome by the gifts of Thomas Walsh, Fellow of Corpus (d. 1528), and John Claymond (d. 1537).

Fox did not institute a lectureship in Hebrew in his college, but Oxford's first professor of Hebrew, John Sheprey (Shepreve), was a Fellow of Corpus. The Regius chair was founded c.1540. If Sheprey owned any Hebrew texts, he did not leave them to his College library when he died in 1542. But by 1537, when Claymond's library was bequeathed to the College, the library was enriched by seven Hebrew manuscripts. It is from this date that the library can truly be called trilinguis bibliotheca.

Claymond's gifts to the library filled some of the gaps remaining after Fox's gift had set it on its way. Claymond's books have interesting provenance notes, and those that were once in his own library are heavily annotated. We often find a fly leaf covered in a manuscript index that he has laboriously made. Claymond also frequently recorded the price he paid for his books and inscribed his name on the fly leaf.

In the main, the exhibition shows the Corpus Library as a rich repository for the works of scholarship emanating from the European presses. However, it should not surprise us to find Corpus, via its President John Claymond, furthering the spread of knowledge by co-operating with the printing houses of Europe. To the student of early printing, perhaps Corpus' most interesting books are a manuscript (CCC Ms. 97) lent by Claymond to Simon Grynaeus, which was to be the printer's copy for Grynaeus' edition of the text of Proclus. The manuscript was returned to Corpus heavily marked with printer's chalk, together with a copy of the printed edition sent by Grynaeus to Claymond. The printed pages of the Proclus are heavily annotated in pencil, and may have been sheets of Grynaeus' proof copy.

The first part of the exhibition shows books donated by Richard Fox, the founder, and John Claymond, the first President, and includes books formerly owned by Bishop Shirwood of Durham and William Grocyn of New College.

Catalogue to Part 1

Network Design