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Must-see objects at the Bodleian Treasures

By Minjie Su

Even in an area as small as Oxford, the recent year has seen quite a few excellent, exciting new exhibitions. One of the them is the Bodleian Treasures, a tiny yet innovative and by no means unimportant exhibition that occupies a single room in the Weston Library.

Bodleian Libraries in Oxford – photo by Alison Day / Flickr

This exhibition contains 21 pairs of carefully selected items. Most of these are manuscripts, but there are also a few other objects; together, they feature some of the Bodleian Libraries’ best collections. But in addition to the value of the items themselves, what makes this exhibition interesting and unmissable is the way these items are arranged.

The items on display come in pairs. What connects them is often a simple shared theme, but other than that, there is no limit to the items’ time period, function, and region of origin. In fact, the idea is to break such boundaries, thus creating a conversation between different eras and cultures. By putting the new side by side with the old, the plain with the extravagant, the professional and the personal, this exhibition aims to show not only the contrast but the continuity, and to find common grounds between otherwise rather different things. One sheds lights on the other; such pairing certainly offers the viewers some new perspectives to view these items.

The following are a few highlights from the exhibition (and some of which are from the Middle Ages). Although they form but a small part, they nevertheless capture the spirit of this unique treasure hoard.

The first item introduced here is none other than the famous Magna Carta. The copy on display here, shelf-marked MS. Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142b, is one of the only seventeen survived Magna Carta publications in the 13th century, and one of the four in the keep of the Bodleian Libraries. Issued in 1217 in the name of the 10-year old King Henry III, this document served both as reinforcement of the 1215 agreement between King John and his barons, and as a move on behalf of the royal house to win over their political enemies. The seals attached to the document are not the king’s but belong to his guardians, including the great William Marshall. During its long history, the document has apparently been stored folded up. Three big holes are found around the creases – they are works of mice.

This valuable copy is paired with a miniature manuscript with a silver chain attached to it. The tiny book (MS. Eng. misc. g. 2) is a sermon in shorthand, composed by Jeremiah Rich, the pioneer of shorthand writing. The delicate chain is the contribution of Henry Octavius Coxe, a librarian in the Bodleian Libraries in the 19th century, whose great fear, apparently, was that the smallest manuscript in the library may be carried away by a mouse.

Agas map of Oxford

The second pair consists of the oldest map of Oxford in the Bodleian collection and a printed version of W. B. Yeats’s ‘All Souls’ Night’, heavily revised by the poet himself. Celeberrimae Oxoniensis academiae…descriptio, now preserved in Weston Library’s Map Room, is engraved by Augustine Rythers in 1588, based on the drawing of Ralph Agas in 1578. The map is known for its exact measurement and meticulousness; if you look very closely, you will see that even the buildings are drawn in perspective. Those winding streets and ancient buildings no doubt provided Yeats with a ghostly setting, where he calls upon a group of spirits, while the bell of Christ Church Cathedral chimes in the deep of the night. Perhaps, having lived in Oxford for almost five years, Yeats discovered some secret magic pattern in the landscape depicted in Agas’s map.

Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson B 503 – the Annals of Inisfallen

The next item is the Annals of Innisfallen (MS. Rawl. B. 503), and the pages on display here (16v-17r) records the death of Uallach ingen Muinecháin in the year 934. Uallach was a female poet, highly saluted for her skills as the Ollamh Érenn, or the greatest poet of Ireland. It is very rare to have a female’s name recorded in these annals, and the fact that this page is the only written record of her makes the manuscript more interesting and valuable. The Annals themselves describe the Viking invasions and the heroic deeds of kings and warriors. It is no surprise that this manuscript is paired with Shāhnāma (‘Book of Kings’), an epic poem completed by the Persian poet Firdawsī in 1010. Brightly illustrated, it tells the history of kings from creation to the conquest of the Persian Empire.

The last but perhaps one of the most eye-catching pairs consists of J. R. R. Tolkien’s letters from Father Christmas and Kenneth Grahame’s letter addressed to ‘My dearest mouse’. Both are letters from a father to his child or children. Grahame’s tales started as bedtime stories for his son, who refused to go on holidays with his governess unless his father promised to post new stories to him. These tales eventually became The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908. Tolkien wrote to his children annually for 23 years, disguised as Father Christmas. Those letters were always posted with Polar post stamps. They relate what had been happening in Father Christmas’s house and are accompanied by Tolkien’s drawings to make the stories more vivid. Tolkien also wrote with a shaky hand, carefully showing how upset Father Christmas was due to these mishaps and adventures in the busy time of Christmas. Some of these letters shall also be on display in the Weston Library summer 2018, as part of the ‘Tolkien: Maker of the Middle-earth’ exhibition.

Click here to learn more about the Bodleian Treasures

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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