23 September 2009

The Allestree Library, 'Fragrant With Age, Beatitudes, & Old Leather'

There is a wonderful book about the city of Oxford by a—brace yourselves—transsexual named Jan Morris, called Oxford, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1988), which I have already mentioned here. The information, stories, and sundry materials that make up the content are grouped roughly into themes: ‘Town and Country’, ‘College Spirit’, ‘Fauna and Flora’, and ‘Vineyard of the Lord’ are a few examples. It is a delightful book, fascinating and hilarious. One of the more interesting gems I came across when I first read it a few years ago is in the chapter called ‘Learning’, where Morris discusses the libraries of Oxford. I shall give the relevant passage in full:

My own favourite college collection is the Allestree library at Christ Church. This was bequeathed by a seventeenth-century canon to be used in perpetuity by the Regius Professors of Divinity, and it remains unaltered to this day—the complete theological collection of a Restoration scholar. It is kept in a cold bare chamber above the cloisters, into which there has been inserted a washbasin for the use of the man in the rooms next door—his shaving brush stands beside the mirror, and on the window-sill he keeps, apparently to read while he washes, a file of the University Gazette. Everything else is just as Dr Allestree left it. The books are fragrant with age, beatitudes and old leather, there is a little rickety table for writing sermons at, and through the windows you may look down into the cloisters beneath, watch the chaplains hastening into the south door of the cathedral, or project seventeenth-century injunctions upon passing heretics. For years the Regius Professor was the only man allowed to enter this magically evocative little room: now, I suspect, nobody uses Dr Allestree’s books from one ecumenical council to the next, unless the man with the washbasin, tiring of his lecture lists, reaches out a spare hand to thumb through an ordinal, or remind himself about the codicils to the Decrees of Trent. (p. 149)

Wow! In a book of which every other page has something to capture my imagination, this single paragraph still manages to stand out. A theological library essentially untouched since the seventeenth-century? I had to find out more, and with a little help from my Orthodox librarian friend, I did.

There is an article that is all about this library: Mark Purcell, ‘“Useful Weapons for the Defence of That Cause”: Richard Allestree, John Fell and the Foundation of the Allestree Library’, The Library 21.2 (1999): pp. 124-147. While it is not, of course, written in the romanticising, journalistic style of Morris’s book (a style that reminds me somewhat of the writers mentioned in another post of mine), it presents all of the concrete detail that is only suggested by Morris’s account. Purcell’s study was published 11 years after the last date on the edition notice of my copy of Oxford, and he tells us that the library ‘is now in the process of being re-catalogued’ (p. 124), since at the time he is writing, ‘the only catalogue of the Allestree Library is a hand-written card catalogue created by W.G. Hiscock, successively assistant and deputy librarian of Christ Church from 1928 to 1962; it contains no details of printers or publishers, and there is no provenance index’ (p. 139, n. 77).

Richard Allestree (1619-81), apart from being Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity and an avid bibliophile, was Provost of Eton College, a (literally) militant royalist, a high churchman, and, anonymously, a best-selling author (p. 125). His The Whole Duty of Man is thought to have been owned by ‘one in ten late-seventeenth-century households’ in England, and was considered—

an indispensable work for all devout Anglicans, the sort of book that was provided in prison cells and that condemned men read on their way to the gallows. It was divided into seventeen chapters, one of which was to be read each Sunday, making it possible to read the whole book through three times each year, and it was promoted and encouraged by the restored Anglican hierarchy. (p. 128)

Purcell points out that although obscure now (and perhaps in his day too), Allestree exercised an enormous influence over Restoration England, first as a best-selling author, and second, ‘as a dominant personality at Oxford at a time when the University was intimately linked with the Stuart regime, and when it was the chief civil and ecclesiastical nursery of an Anglican confessional state’ (p. 128). He was also the first cousin of an important London bookseller and publisher near St Paul’s named James Allestree, ‘one of the major figures of the Restoration book trade’ (p. 129).

As a polemicist of the Church of England, who with ‘an equal steadfastness . . . asserted the Gospel truth, against the usurpations of Rome, the innovations of Geneva, the blasphemies of Cracow, and the monsters of our own Malmsbury’ (p. 136), Allestree in large part saw the rôle of Oxford divinity professors as the use of knowledge, and thus books, to fight error and heresy. Thus, according to Allestree’s friend and biographer, one Henry Hammond left his books to Allestree ‘knowing that in his hands they would be useful weapons for the defence of that cause he had during life so vigorously asserted’, that is ‘the fundamental grounds of controversy between the Church of England, and the most formidable opponents thereof’ (p. 136). For this cause, and due to the great inconveniences of the Bodleian (which was badly catalogued and poorly arranged) and various college libraries at the time (Christ Church’s own had no heating or artificial light, and had found it necessary several times to remove birds and bees), Allestree assembled and bequeathed a library for the exclusive use ‘of the said Richard Allestrees Successors forever those that shall be Kings Professor of Divinity in the Said University of Oxford’ (p. 135). It is now the only professorial library surviving intact. Purcell writes:

The Allestree library is a time capsule; the books have not been systematically repaired or rebound, and have never been systematically weeded. The contents have received little more than a few lines in print, and few readers have disturbed them in the last century and a half. Together, its curious legal status, institutional apathy, and the fact that few people can ever have known of its existence, have preserved it from meddling. (p. 135)

The Allestree, already described in 1849 as ‘an ancient Theological library’ (p. 137), is situated in the ‘cloister chamber’ at Christ Church College, the former Priory of St Frideswide, a house of Augustinian canons. Purcell tells us that it houses between 2500 and 3000 volumes (an impressive number by 17th-c. standards), at least three (late) Mediæval manuscripts (p. 139), ‘large numbers of binding fragments, both manuscript and printed’ still in the books (p. 140), eight incunabula, 900 to 1000 books printed before 1641, and the rest between 1641 and Allestree’s death in 1681 (p. 141). Most of them are in rather plain seventeenth-century bindings, and most are Latin and English, with French, Italian, Greek, and Hebrew as well. Purcell mentions, ‘There is even a book in Serbian recension Church Slavonic: a translation of [the Jesuit] St Peter Canisius’s catechism printed in Rome by Domenico Basa in 1583 (J.8.9)’ (p. 141). Although there is a lot of theology, the books cover many different subjects, for according to John Fell, the contemporary bishop of Oxford, few of Allestree’s coevals ‘had either a greater compass, or a deeper insight into all the parts of learning, the modern and learned languages, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, history, antiquity, moral and polemical divinity’ (qtd. in Purcell, p. 141). The books are well-used and extensively annotated: ‘In the nearby Christ Church Library, perhaps one sixteenth- or seventeenth-century scholarly book in five is annotated; in the Allestree Library it is more like one in two’ (p. 142).

Many of the books are second-hand, including a number obtained from the Bodleian when it weeded out duplicates (‘interpreting the word duplicate very liberally’ [p. 132]). Purcell cites as an example a 1498 copy of a book called Stellarium coronae beatae Virginis Mariae by Pelbartus de Themeswar (p. 143), and then adds, ‘It is an odd coincidence, if coincidence it is, that the next book along—Th. 4° L. 70—was (and still is) Allestree’s [work] The Divine Authority and Usefulness of the Holy Scripture Asserted (Oxford, 1673)’ (p. 144). Most, however, were relatively new when they were bought or added to the library, and many probably originated with Allestree’s bookseller cousin, James Allestree. But there are a good number that were probably acquired abroad as well. Purcell notes:

The best available evidence is a rather curious letter from Elias Ashmole to Allestree, in which Ashmole asks Allestree to look out for ‘an old decayed Booke of Paracelsus about Coena Domini’ last seen in 1603 ‘in an old ruined chapell’ in the Tyrol. Ashmole’s request is an odd one, suggesting that Allestree shared his uncle’s interest in judicial astrology and arcane knowledge, but more importantly for a study of the Allestree Library it shows that Ashmole either knew or took for granted that Allestree would be looking out for unusual books during his travels. (p. 145)

Sadly, Purcell notes that Allestree obviously ‘assumed that his books would be extremely useful to his successors’, but the evidence suggests that their usefulness wore out quickly. There are very few published after 1681, and scarcely any of the annotations are later than 1700. According to Purcell:

There was, of course, a significant flaw in Allestree’s plan to attach a library to the Regius Chair of Divinity. Neither he nor John Fell nor anyone else provided money to maintain the library: nothing to catalogue or clean books, and nothing to buy new books to keep it in line with contemporary scholarly interests. . . . Within fifty years of its foundation the purposes for which Richard Allestree established the Allestree Library must have seemed quite remote to his successors, and the books redundant. (pp. 145-6)

The only exception to the neglect was William Jacobson (Regius Professor, 1848-65), who produced ‘a rather feeble hand-written catalogue’ and used the volumes in his lectures as specimens of old religious books, like a museum exhibit (p. 146). Purcell points out that bibliographic expert Strickland Gibson commented in 1914 on the ‘dusty desolation and unbroken peace’ of the Allestree, and in the 1940’s, the library was nearly broken up (p. 146). It is now considered an annex of Christ Church Library, but is still legally unique. Purcell concludes:

Allestree’s aim was to leave an outstanding intellectual legacy to the University, and he succeeded in this, though not in the way that he intended. The Allestree Library has survived as a time capsule precisely because it quickly became irrelevant to its original purpose of defending the Church of England against Popery, Atheism and Dissent. Today it remains much as it was when Allestree died in 1681: the only intact and separately housed Oxford professorial library, and the forgotten private library of one of the most influential figures of the seventeenth-century Church. (p. 147)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it might be a nice setting for the next Dan Brown book! Let's pray not. . . .

aaronandbrighid said...

I think the ideal 'setting' for the next Dan Brown book would be the dustbin!