Treasures of Jesus College from Cirencester

The following article by Andrew Dunning appears in the 2016 Jesus College Record.

Among the medieval manuscripts owned by the Jesus College library are fifteen from Cirencester Abbey, a community of Augustinian canons. They are beautiful examples of bookmaking in 12th-century England, and the care taken with them over the centuries makes them one of the most unique collections of such material.

Orosius (MS 62)

Opening of Orosius (MS 62, folio 4v, photo: Andrew Dunning, © Jesus College, Oxford)

The most obvious allure of the Cirencester manuscripts is their colourful initials, which are better illustrated than described. Less apparent, but even more exciting for scholars, is the fact that they can be dated with relative precision. In the late 12th century, one of the canons recorded the names of the scribes at the front or back of many of the volumes. For example, Jesus College MS 52 bears the inscription This is a book of St Mary of Cirencester, written in the time of Dom Andrew, the second abbot, through the hand of Dom Alexander, afterwards cantor, and Ralph of Pulham, a scribe, while Dom Adam de la Mora was cantor. This tells us that the book was written between 1149 and 1176: Andrew was abbot from 1147 to 1176, while Adam was preceded in office by a Gilbert, who was still cantor in 1149. Alexander was one of the Cirencester canons, but Ralph was a professional scribe. His employment gives a sense of the importance the community placed on creating a library.

The inscriptions are all written in a single hand. The most recent of them names a scribe Walter, suggesting that the person responsible was Walter of Mileto (fl. 1180-1220), a scribe and administrator at the Abbey. He was later the clerk to the Abbey’s most famous writer, Alexander Neckam (1157-1217), commemorated in a 16th-century gateway installed in the Weston Library in 2015. He also acted as his literary executor, and sought to create a complete collection of Alexander’s sermons. One can sense his urgency in a surviving note to Roger Noreys, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury: Mark on a sheet the beginnings of all the sermons that you have in your possession and send them to me by the first messenger you can find!

Pseudo-Hegesippus (MS 63)

Opening of Pseudo-Hegesippus (MS 63, folio 4v, photo: Andrew Dunning, © Jesus College, Oxford)

The Jesus College Cirencester manuscripts are also highly valuable for their bindings, many of which are original. Particularly from the 17th to 19th centuries, collectors and institutions would rebind their books, not because they were in poor condition, but because they wanted bookshelves that presented a uniform aesthetic. Volumes were bound with matching spines and covers that bore their coat of arms. For this reason, new books in this period were often sold unbound, and manuscripts were subject to the same treatment. Unfortunately, the trend in this period was to bind books very tightly and to trim the edges of pages to make them appear uniform, causing severe damage. We owe the past librarians of Jesus College infinite gratitude for their restraint in not abandoning their collections to this trend. The Cirencester manuscripts at Jesus College are among only a handful of surviving examples of English Romanesque bindings. Occasionally one even finds original bookmarks left by the canons. This allows us to appreciate the books’ original artistry and learn more about how they were used; they are the only evidence that Cirencester had a chained library in the later Middle Ages.

After the Abbey’s dissolution by King Henry VIII in 1539, some of its manuscripts were saved by the administrator Sir John Prise (1501/2-1555). The books now owned by Jesus College appear in the list of those willed to the College by his son Gregory Prise (1535-1600), as the late College archivist Chris Jeens showed in the 2015 issue of the Record. Prise took an interest in the history of England, and it might be because of this that so many works of Bede survive from Cirencester.

Bede's commentary on Samuel (MS 53)

Bede’s commentary on Samuel (MS 53, folio 3v, photo: Andrew Dunning, © Jesus College, Oxford)

In 2017, the town of Cirencester will be celebrating the nine hundredth anniversary of the Abbey’s founding with the Abbey 900 Festival. This will include a special exhibit at the Corinium Museum, in which Jesus College MS 52 will be among four manuscripts on temporary display.

Dr Andrew Dunning is Curator of Medieval Historical Manuscripts, 1100-1500, at the British Library. He was the RBC Foundation-Bodleian Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Book during Hilary Term 2016.

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New staff: Harry Wright

Several college libraries in Oxford take part in the Bodleian’s training scheme for graduates (of any university) intending to become professional librarians. The fourth trainee at Jesus College is Harry Wright, who wrote the following piece for the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog.

Hi, I’m Harry, and I’m this year’s Graduate Trainee at Jesus College Library, where I’ve been in post since June. Jesus is one of the more central colleges, whose students need access to a wide range of information, resources and study spaces, and it’s my job to help provide those things! My role this year involves assisting the librarian with the day-to-day running of the library, from removing damaged and superseded books to helping readers with all kinds of enquiries. I also help look after the beautiful Fellows’ Library and am enjoying learning about rare books.

Fellows' Library

Fellows’ Library (© Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0)

I’m currently in the early stages of planning my Graduate Trainee Project, focused on expanding our Welfare Library.

Prior to working at Jesus, I did a similar traineeship in a secondary school library in Hertfordshire, after studying English Literature and American Literature & Culture at Cambridge and Leeds respectively. Teenagers are a lot of fun to work with (but exhausting at times) and over the course of my two traineeships, I’ve learned a lot about different demographics’ information needs. While I was there, I helped Sixth Formers with their university applications, which opened my eyes to their desire for good-quality information and differing levels of knowledge on how to acquire it. As a result, I am becoming more and more interested in access to information, and hope to specialise in information management within the academic sector one day.

That’s all from me, but I look forward to seeing how this year progresses and finding new areas of interest as I discover more and more about the library world.

Upper Meyricke Library

Upper Meyricke Library (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Harry Wright (Graduate Library Trainee, 2016-17)

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Organ donation

The completed refurbishment of the organ in Jesus College Chapel provides an opportunity to announce the new John Wellingham Organ Studies Library.


Scores from the John Wellingham Organ Studies Library (© Jesus College, Oxford)

John Wellingham is a distinguished organ teacher and organist who taught at Jesus for over 30 years. The College marked his retirement from teaching last summer by hosting a celebratory recital and reception, at which donations were solicited to establish an Organ Studies Library in his honour. To quote the original invitation:

The aim is to gather a collection of the standard organ repertoire that may be accessed by the university’s organ scholars (and others on application) and borrowed on loan. Literature on the organ and organ studies will augment the collection. To assist students who may not be able to afford to buy their own scores at this early stage in their professional development, it will make available a variety of sheet music and offer a resource that they may explore in order to decide what repertoire they may themselves wish to possess in the future.

So far, the library comprises 150 scores, including anthologies, facsimiles, and hard-to-find editions from Eastern Europe. Many have been donated by John Wellingham himself and others come from the personal library of the late conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood. Each has been catalogued individually on SOLO, the library catalogue covering the majority of the library collections of the University of Oxford, as well as in the current list of scores. To see the collection, please email both the Chaplain and the Librarian to arrange a visit.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

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New online: Welsh manuscripts

Several important Welsh medieval manuscripts belong to Jesus College, most famously the Red Book of Hergest. These manuscripts were photographed twenty years ago for the pioneering digitisation programme Early Manuscripts at Oxford University originally called the Celtic Manuscripts Project. The images are now newly available on the Digital.Bodleian platform, together with a further six manuscripts which were photographed in 1996 and 1997 but which were not previously available online.

The original nine manuscripts:

  • MS 15 – Welsh grammar
  • MS 16 – Welsh-English-Latin dictionary
  • MS 20 – poetic and historical miscellany
  • MS 22 – calendar of saints with medical texts
  • MS 28Dares Phrygius & Brut Tysilio
  • MS 57 – laws of Hywel Dda
  • MS 88 – poetry
  • MS 111 – the Red Book of Hergest
  • MS 119 – the Book of the Anchorite of Llanddewi Brefi
MS 17 title-page

Alpha Beta, the first page of text in MS 17, defining Greek terms in Welsh (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The six manuscripts which have been added:

  • MS 17 – glossary of New Testament Greek
  • MS 137 – poetry
  • MS 138 – the Book of Robert Davies of Gwysaney
  • MS 139 – copy of The Book of the Vicar of Woking
  • MS 140 – poetry
  • MS 141 – chronicles

The College’s medieval and early modern manuscripts have been housed in the Bodleian Library since 1886. They may be consulted in the new Weston Library by appointment.

Qualified conservators from the Oxford Conservation Consortium have recently completed a high-level survey of our manuscripts’ physical condition. Separately, a team of researchers is preparing a new catalogue, due for publication in 2021, as the most recent catalogue dates from the 1850s and is in Latin!

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

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The manuscripts of Sir John Prise

The following article appears in the 2015 Jesus College Record. Chris Jeens prepared it for publication in February 2015. He died in August 2015 and is remembered in the College Record.

Sir John Prise’s supposed gift of 47 medieval manuscripts to Jesus College has long posed a puzzle. He died in 1555, 16 years before the foundation of the College. In his will he made specific and different arrangements for the disposal of the manuscripts he had acquired in the course of supervising the closure of religious houses in the West Country. His ‘written books of history’ were to go to his (second) son Richard, while his ‘written
books of divinity’ were left to Hereford Cathedral Library.

MS 94 front

A 13th-century theological manuscript. (MS 94, photo: Andrew Dunning, © Jesus College, Oxford)

Hereford Cathedral did indeed receive some such works, but the greater part found their way to Jesus, where in a register entry c. 1621/22 (RE.1, page 42) they were listed under the heading Nomina Librorum Manuscriptorum ex Donatione Johannis Prise Equitis Aurati Herefordiensis – ‘Titles of manuscript books from the gift of Sir John Prise of Hereford’.

Recent research by the College Archivist has provided an answer to how Prise’s bequest was so disposed to the benefit of the College. Sir John’s eldest son, Gregory Prise (1535-1600), was principal executor of his father’s will and a leading figure in the city of Hereford where he resided in his father’s old property of St Guthlac’s Priory. Gregory’s own will, made and executed in 1600, is preserved in the National Archives (TNA:PROB 11/95). Again, it makes provision for written books of divinity, but in this case Jesus College is the named recipient: ‘And all that the rest of my books of Divinitie in wrytten hand I geve and bequeath to the colledge or howse called Jesus Colledge Oxfforde to be there regestred kepte and reserved forever.’

MS 94 folio 79r

Alexander Neckam (1157-1217), Tractatus super mulierem fortem (Treatise of the virtuous woman) (MS 94, folio 79r, Photo: Andrew Dunning, © Jesus College, Oxford)

It is a matter of speculation as to why these manuscripts remained in Gregory’s possession after his father’s death, and why he subsequently chose to leave them to Jesus College, with which he had no other known connection. However, it seems clear that it was Gregory Prise rather than Sir John who was our real benefactor in this case.

Chris Jeens (Archivist, 2007-2015)

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In memoriam Chris Jeens, College Archivist (1954-2015)

The following article appears in the 2015 Jesus College Record.

Chris by K_Wloch (33)

Chris Jeens in the Archives in 2012. (Photo: Kat Wloch, © Jesus College, Oxford)

The College was saddened by the unexpected death of the Archivist, Chris Jeens, on 13 August 2015.

Chris joined Jesus College in 2007. He was in College one day a week, but worked much more than that, often sending emails from home to ensure a timely response. He devoted the rest of his working week to the medieval library at Gloucester Cathedral.

The role of the College Archivist is not bound to one department. The corporate memory of the College resides in the Archives, to be drawn upon by the Estates Bursar, the Development team, the Librarian, and many others. Not just ancient documents but modern records fall under their care: the Property Director might need details of building projects; the Chaplain might need the deed of consecration of the Chapel; a Fellow might have an open-ended question about College life.

The outside world, too, has reason to be grateful for the Archivist. Both professional historians and amateur genealogists find themselves wanting to confirm the details of a student’s time at Jesus. Admissions registers preserve the facts while photographs, especially of sports teams, can hint at character.

Colleagues across Oxford contributed to a book of condolences, which drew forth reminiscences of Chris’s sharp mind, his dry humour, his breadth of knowledge, his generosity, and his professionalism. To quote the words of the Chaplain, ‘Not only
was Chris our greatest source of knowledge about our College history and identity, indeed the careful keeper of so many of our treasures, he was himself a treasure to this place.’

Chris could be droll about the self-importance of an Oxford college, but he was always conscientious in giving a full response to every enquiry, whether from inside or outside Jesus. With characteristic practicality he had recently established an inventory of all the College paintings, and he was beginning to work through basement stores of more unglamorous modern records.

We at Jesus have just committed ourselves to publishing a new history of the College. Chris had been invited to contribute and advise and was looking forward to being intimately involved. Even without his words, the College history will benefit from his dedicated stewardship of the Archives.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

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Lib Lab

Plaque 1

The plaque installed on Friday 5 February 2016 (© Owen McKnight, CC BY-SA 2.0)

A new plaque marks the former home of the Sir Leoline Jenkins’ Laboratories in Jesus College. As explained in the post ‘150 years of the Meyricke Library’, the labs are now occupied by one of the College’s three libraries.

photo 5

The entrance to Staircase XVII, showing the new plaque alongside chalked records of rowing successes (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

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