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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