Discover the treasures of the Cambridge University Library
The creaking parchment of a 1700 year old handwritten bible has only been seen and heard twice by University Library’s deputy director of collections Mark Purcell.
This ancient Codex Bezae is one of the very earliest copies of the new testament in existence and is rarely brought out of careful storage to protect it from disintegrating.
But as one of the treasures of the library - which includes everything from Sir Isaac Newton's notebooks to a bottle stopper made from a mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden - it is now available for anyone to examine on the library’s new Google Arts and Culture pages.
Mark says: “You don’t get blasé when you work in the University Library, but the Codex Bezae is astonishing and is the kind of thing that makes you catch your breath.
“With objects this ancient we have to be extremely careful. A lot of the library’s treasures you can call up to study with just a reader’s ticket. But we would have to ask some hard questions before we took the Codex Bezae out of storage. In fact I have only seen it twice. The parchment of which it is made is incredibly delicate and fine and the minute you get it out you can almost hear it flexing and crackling. You immediately get the sense that this is something very ancient and was once alive.”
The university library has collected a selection of it’s greatest treasures, such as the codex, and made them available on Google Arts and Culture to be enjoyed by the public. It joins organisations such as the British Museum, Rijksmuseum and the White House, among many others, who share their collections online.
Home to nearly ten million books, maps, manuscripts and curious objects spanning more than 4,000 years of human history, the University Library has digitised much of its content to allow users to zoom in on objects in great detail.
The ‘Treasures of Cambridge University Library’ on Google Arts and Culture brings together manuscripts, books and other objects collected throughout the library’s 600-year history.
Some are unique, many have significant historical importance, and others are simply beautiful objects in their own right.
Cambridge University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner said: “Cambridge University Library is home to thousands of years of human history and is one of the world’s great research collections, drawing visitors, writers, academics and researchers from all over the world to engage with our unique collections”.
“From ancient historical records carved into clay, to beautifully illuminated and illustrated medieval manuscripts, to works illuminating the human body or the night sky above us, we are so pleased to begin sharing our collections on Google Arts and Culture.”
Mark Purcell, Deputy Director for Research Collections has shared his highlights from the collection below.
There are half-a-dozen ancient manuscripts which are the foundation of our understanding of the text of the New Testament writings and this is one of them. It is a bilingual manuscript, with a Greek text and a Latin version on facing pages, and provides a valuable insight into the reception of the Gospels and Acts in the western Christian tradition.
The Codex Bezae differs from other texts and contains a story about Jesus found in no other manuscript, the story of the man working on the Sabbath.
“My personal reaction is that this is one of the most important manuscripts of the new testament anywhere in the world,” says Mark. And in fact I have only seen it twice. We are very cautious about this manuscript which is around 1700 years old and so is very fragile and rarely comes out of the box in the air conditioned strongrooms where it is kept.
When you realise its antiquity and how much closer it is to when the new testament is written to now it is a really astonishing thing and for hundreds of years, we were given it in 1584, that has been regarded as the greatest manuscript by the university. The pint about the text is there are all sorts of weird and wonderful variants of the text which make it an editing tool. So this is used from the digital versions.
I’ve chosen this because it’s the first European printed book and the Cambridge copy of that book - there are only about 20 surviving -is especially important because it was marked up after it was first produced with the working notes for the typesetting of the third edition of the bible in printed in strasbourg in 1469. So this is a unique piece of evidence of how people did printing in practice at the very beginning of printing from type in Europe.
This came from a benefactor in 1934 who turned up in Kings Parade in a rolls royce and sent a message into the library saying he had some books to donate. It's pretty clear that the porter on duty at the old university library building, that we now call the old schools, which is next to kings, clearly rolls his eyes and goes, ‘Oh God, someone is turning up with a load of old rubbish once again’. But he passed the message onto the university librarian who came down and there was a Gutenberg Gible. It was a Mr Arthur William Young who was a gentleman book collector and a Cambridge graduate.
We also have a single page of a second copy we bought in the 1870s. It’s a really astonishing object and one I get a personal kick out of it, as there are only four copies in the UK.
Gutenberg bibles do not come up for sale but it is very valuable indeed. There are no copies of this in private hands - they all belong to world class national collections.
Japanese wooden pagoda
I love this. It is a reminder that culture is not just about Europe and that the UL collection is global and I think this is a really intriguing and beautiful object. It was commissioned by the Empress Shōtoku and is a little wooden pagoda with tiny scraps of paper in it. But it is also a reminder that the Gutenberg Bible is simply the first printing with type in Europe, but in China and Japan and Korea they had been printing for hundreds of years before we started printing in Europe. There are prayers printed on the individual pieces of paper and put into the pagoda. These are Buddhist invocations called Darani were printed by woodblock between the years 764 and 770 CE. These are among the oldest printed materials in the world.
Breviary of Marie de St Pol
I’m a member of Pembroke college and Marie de St Pol founded Pembroke as well as Denny Abbey, which sits between Cambridge and Ely and was a priory for the Franciscan Poor Clares. She was later buried at the abbey. The breviary is a really beautiful object, made in Paris. It shows the countess on her knees in front of the Virgin Mary saying her prayers and there is a window in Pembroke College modelled on this image.
Marie de Saint Pol was the Countess of Pembroke (c. 1304-1377) and wife of Aymer de Valence. The manuscript is heavily ornamented with decorated borders which have been identified as the work of a single artist, known as 'Mahiet' a professional illuminator who worked in Paris during the second quarter of the fourteenth century. A breviary contains the prayers, hymns, psalms and readings for everyday use.
The University Library building
The new building is on the front page of the Google Arts and Culture slides but we also have a 16th century illuminated image of the old university library. I'm saying the buildings themselves are treasures. The current building from 1934 was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Liverpool cathedral and Tate Modern. The old library is now known as The Old School. Parts of the building are still there and that building is where the library was for 500 years before it moved, so that is another cultural treasure.
If you look at the illuminated image of the old library,you can see the little gothic archway around the front door on the drawing. That is now in the park at Madingley. The building was rebuilt in 1756 and the gateway was taken down and installed as a sort of garden ornament at Madingley and it is still there.
Life of Edward the Confessor
This is an absolute masterpiece of medieval manuscript illumination. This is one of the most wonderful things that we have. Everything in the library is available to study for anyone with a reader’s ticket. There are a handful of items we are more restrictive and we would ask very very tough questions of ourselves and others about whether it is really necessary to get them out. But this object is available to be ordered and studied. It is a gorgeous object. It is about the miracles of the King. This is the English royal saint associated with Westminster Abbey so this is a piece of english medieval royal art and was on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum about three years ago.
It is considered a masterpiece of mid 13th century English illumination, telling how Edward was exiled as a boy during the Danish occupation and how his rule proved of benefit to the English people. In this page, we see Edward reporting a vision to his nobles in which the Danish King drowns.
Gabriel Harvey’s annotated book.
We still acquire things for the collection and this is a recent arrival. There is nothing remarkable about the book itself but what is interesting is it has been marked up from top to bottom by Gabriel Harvey, who was a Cambridge don at that period and is associated with Pembroke College. It is about the massacre of French protestants in the 16th century and Gabriel Harvey's reaction to that. I used to work for the National Trust and one of the questions that always came up about the libraries in those houses was whether anybody read the books. People thought the books had just been bought for ornament at a place like Wimpole. Everyone wanted to believe that nobody had read the books, but if people wrote in the book what they thought of it you can see they read it. And when you got the books down from the shelves you often found notes in them. These days it is a bad thing to write in books but 400 years ago it was expected behaviour, you were supposed to write your own observations into your books. I think that is a nice thing.
Shakespeare’s First Folio
We have a copy of the Shakespeare first folio with the famous portrait of Shakespeare, which is a lovely thing to have. The library has evolved over 600 years so we also have a wooden stopper allegedly made from the cut down mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden. It was bought as a curiosity and ended up in the library alongside several hundred other curious objects. We mostly have books and manuscripts but we might also have a scroll, ancient Egyptian papyrus, coins; there’s a pair of boots in the collection which have been there for 300 years.
We also have individual archives - around 50 km of archives, papers and parchments such as Darwin's paper, Newton’s papers, Stanley Baldwin's papers. We have literary archives of all kinds.
Newton’s Plague Notebook
There are Newton papers all over the place but we have his scientific papers in the library, which are clearly a collection of global significance and which are available on the Cambridge digital library from which the Google Arts and Culture pages have been extracted.
In 1665, the University of Cambridge temporarily closed due to an outbreak of plague, meaning the young Isaac Newton had to work from home.
It was in this notebook that Newton recorded his work during this period, in which he began to develop his theories of calculus and gravity.