This week I requested my first manuscripts from Special Collections – which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you take into account that this involves a Bodleian librarian cheerfully handing over 800-year-old books into my
grubby carefully scrubbed hands.
As fond a place as the Bod holds in my heart, it is not without its idiosyncracies (as I may have mentioned before). These are infinitely multiplied when it comes to the domain of Special Collections, which holds the largest collection of medieval manuscripts of any university in the world. While this archival wealth is undoubtedly an incredible boon to any Oxford medievalist, with great numbers, inevitably comes great confusion – at least to the uninitiated student. The problem is that Oxford has collected so many manuscripts over the past 400 years, since Sir Thomas Bodley first put out his plea for donations in 1602, that it no longer seems to be quite sure of what it has, and certainly not in any kind of centralized, digital format.
Merely knowing that the Bodleian has a work is not enough – to make a request, you have to track down its unique shelfmark (for example, the famous Ashmole Bestiary‘s shelfmark is MS Ashmole 1511). If you are looking for a manuscript of a certain work or by a particular author or from a particular place, your best bet is the indexes of the catalogues which occupy several shelves in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room, ranging from 18th century tomes to 20th century hardbacks. The easiest seems to be the Summary Catalogue, which lists all Western manuscripts acquired before 1915 (except for all the ones it doesn’t) by unique catalogue numbers which then can be cross-referenced to shelfmarks. Should this not avail, there are also the Quarto Catalogues (for specific collections), online or digitized catalogues, an index card catalogue, etc.
However, if you’re lucky, you’re looking for a specific manuscript for which you already have a shelfmark. The book I was reading on medieval theology cited two works from the Bodleian, a commentary on Job and one on Isaiah. On a whim, I thought I would take a look – really, just because I could. So I dutifully filled in my green requests slips at the Weston Library and dropped them in their little box. Onsite manuscripts usually take about an hour or so to fetch, so I returned to the next morning and casually handed over my Bod card in return for two manuscript boxes containing two very genuine twelfth-century books.
Upon opening these carefully on the appropriate book rests, my scholarly findings were, admittedly, rather minimal. They were both fairly standard 12th century glossed Biblical commentaries, with small section of Scripture in the center surrounded by medieval commentary and study aids, or “gloss”. With the remnants of last term’s paleography classes and my still rudimentary Latin, I was able to make out most of the first few sentences of highly abbreviated medieval Latin, but I’m afraid I am still a very long way from ‘reading’ a medieval book. Still, I quite literally held history in my hands, which is a pretty good start for a Friday morning!
Addendum (Trinity 2018): Some of the mystifying vagaries of Bodleian manuscript catalogues have now been mercifully mitigated for medievalists by last year’s introduction of the searchable Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries catalogue, which contains links to (among other things) Summary Catalogue entries and references in secondary scholarship.