The Natural History of Serpents

In honour of World Snake Day (celebrated every July 16th) we take a look at an interesting natural history book in our collection: An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents, by Charles Owen, published in 1742. [1]

Title page of Owen's book An Essay on the Natural History of Serpents

Owen was one of a number of clergymen in the 18th century who wrote books on natural history, which are strange mixture of fact and fable as much symbolic as scientific. He was not a scientist so he draws on classical, biblical and mythological sources for his information on ‘serpents’. These include not only snakes, but frogs, scorpions and spiders, as well as mythical creatures such as basilisks and dragons. His aim was not just to inform and entertain, but to share his belief that the natural world, as created by God, had moral qualities, which could guide people as to how to live their lives.

So how useful today is Owen’s book to anyone looking for scientific information on reptiles? Trinity Hall student Alex Howard, who is writing her PhD on snakes takes a closer look!

Woman holding a snake in her hand
Alex with her snake, Ada

Snakes: Fact or fiction

Although almost 280 years have passed since the publication of this book, and our knowledge of the natural world has increased considerably since then, there are some great passages that show an 18th Century view on one of the world’s most enigmatic reptiles.

The Adder

The first passage that caught my eye was a section referring to one of the UK’s native species, the only venomous snake found in Great Britain. The European adder, Vipera berus, is a small, secretive viper that is usually found in heathlands and woods. While the bite can be painful, the venom this animal produces is not dangerous to most humans. Preferring instead to hunt lizards and small mammals, adders can grow to a length of 80cm and live up to 15 years.

A viper next to an engraving from the book of a viper
The Adder

The passage in Owen’s book makes mention of the striking orange eyes of this species:

The Viper or Adder, a subtle and poisonous Creature, slender in Body, about a Foot and a half long, with fiery and flaming Eyes.” p. 51

Owen also notes the presence of the incredible way that Adders reproduce. While many snakes lay eggs from which the babies hatch (known as being oviparous) and mammals give live birth (known as being viviparous), the Adder incubates it’s young internally. These offspring are still technically within separate ‘eggs’, although the shell is reduced to just a membrane that the babies break out with after being born. This process is known as being ovoviviparous and Owen notes as follows:

Snakes lay their Eggs, twenty, thirty, fifty, and a hundred sometimes, in one Nest […] whereas Vipers make use of their own Matrix, and bring forth live Vipers: Their young ones come forth wrapt in thin Skins, which break on the third day, and set the little venemous Creatures at liberty, therefore rank’d among the viviparous Animals.” p. 52


A blindsnake
A blindsnake

Another section that brought me particular joy is one that mentions a group of snakes that take the focus of a part of my PhD, the blindsnakes. These snakes, the scientific name for which are Scolecophidia (which literally translates to worm snake, another common name for this species), are found primarily underground, where they hunt the larvae of social insects such as ants and termites. When most people come across one of these, they usually consider it to be a particularly large worm, unless they see the characteristic forked snake tongue.

Owen remarks on their incredibly small eyes that give them their ‘blind’ moniker:

“The Caecilia or Typhlinus, the blind Worm, as the Greek word imports; not that it wants Eyes, but because they are so little, that he must be furnish’d with good Optics that can discern them.” p. 80

He also notes the presence of viviparity:

“Conradus Gefner tells us, his Wife struct one of these Serpents on the Head, when ‘twas pregnant, and it immediately cast forth its young”.

I find it interesting that he refers to blindsnakes also as “The Caecilian Serpent”. Caecilians as described today are a group of legless amphibians that also spend the majority of their lives underground. Superficially they are very similar to blindsnakes, so it is likely that these two groups of animals were often confused with one another.

Text from page 80 of Owen's book
Owen on the blindsnake, p. 80


Two engraved drawings of dragons, one with legs and the other with a body like a snake
Two dragons

Finally, it appears that also included in the 18th Century categorization of snakes, were the mythical dragons. There is a surprising amount of biological information for these animals, given that they don’t exist:

“Among Serpents, Authors place Dragons; Creatures terrible and fierce in Aspect and Nature. They are divided into Apodes and Pedates, some with Feet, and some without them…” .

“Some have observed, that about the Ganges, are Dragons whose Eyes sparkle like precious stones”.

“Dragons are Inhabitants of Africa and Asia; those of India exceed most in Largeness and Longitude: In the Tower of London, is the Skin of one, which is of vast Bulk”. p. 74

While dragons don’t exist, it is possible that these reports are sightings of the large snakes that inhabit these areas. Burmese pythons and reticulated pythons are found across South East Asia, and African rock pythons in Africa. These species are the giants of the snake world, with reticulated pythons reaching over seven and a half metres.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down snake history as much as I did. I’ll leave you with a quote from Charles Owen:

“The Knowledge of mere Animals (who have no School for Arts and Sciences) is most surprising; these, without visible Instructors, know how to perpetuate their Species to the End of the World.” p. 4

"The knowledge of mere animals (who have no school for arts and sciences) is most surprising"
How do snakes know things without going to school?!


 [1] Owen, Charles, An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents : In Two Parts : I. The First Exhibits a General View of Serpents, in Their Various Aspects; … II. The Second Gives a View of Most Serpents That Are Known in the Several Parts of the World; … III. To Which Is Added a Third Part; Containing Six Dissertations … : The Whole Intermix’d with Variety of Entertaining Digressions, Philosophical and Historical. London: Printed for the Author, Sold by John Gray, at the Cross-Keys in the Poultry, near Cheapside, 1742. Online at:

What a Larke!

The Early Modern period of the College’s history is dominated by the likes of Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Preston, and Thomas Bilney, but there is another character from that period who deserves a little attention. Thomas Larke was the College’s 12th master, immediately preceding Stephen Gardiner. Larke was an exceptional man. He rose from humble origins, being the son of an innkeeper at Thetford, to become one of the chaplains of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey’s confessor, and he aided in brokering peace with France. 

King’s College Chapel South Front by David Loggan, 1690

Little is known about him prior to 1507 when he became one of Henry’s chaplains. Soon after entering Henry’s service, he was charged with supervising the business side of the construction works at King’s College. He was possibly made a fellow of Kings in 1508/9, and by 1511, he was promoted to official surveyor of the site. Around this time, he had also become Cardinal Wolsey’s confessor. Interestingly, his sister, Joan Larke, was Wolsey’s mistress. She bore Wolsey two children before he married her off to a Cheshire gentleman.   

Rather refreshingly, it appears Larke was a genuinely good man. While Larke was living in Cambridge supervising the works at King’s, he became friendly with Desiderius Erasmus, who was lodging near him. In a letter, Erasmus remarked that Larke was “the most civilised and open-hearted” of all he had known in England. He also received praise from Wolsey’s chief agent in Rome who paid tribute to his modesty and virtue.  

Once the building work was completed at King’s, he was employed in a similar capacity over the work being carried out at the palace of Bridewell between 1515 and 1517. Larke became Master of Trinity Hall sometime between 1517 and 1520, around the same time he was made Archdeacon of Sudbury. He held that position from 1517 to 1522, and from 1522 to 1528 he was the Archdeacon of Norwich. A year after he resigned as Master from Trinity Hall in 1525, he was assisting the work at Wolsey’s college in Oxford, now known as Christ’s Church. 

THAR/8/3/2/3: Grant of John Tayllour, John Puregold, and Thomas Pecok to Thomas Larke, Master of Trinity Hall and the Fellows of Trinity Hall of 6 acres of arable land in the Fields of Cambride1523

Regrettably, very little is known about his time as master other than Stephen Gardiner was one of his fellows. It is unlikely Larke ever lived in College, because in 1524-5 his residence in London was the location of secret meetings between Cardinal Wolsey and the ambassador of France, which led to a peace agreement with France in 1525. That year he resigned his Mastership, and he began receiving a pension from the King of France as a reward for his services. He died in 1530.   


Alumni cantabrigienses : a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900. Compiled by John Venn and J.A. Venn. Cambridge : University Press, 1922-54. 

Cobban, Alan. The King’s Hall within the University of Cambridge in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press., 1969. 

Crawley, Charles. Trinity Hall: The History of a Cambridge College, 1350-1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. 

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Epistles of Erasmus From His Earliest Letters to His Fifty-first Year, Arranged in Order of Time, vol 2. Translated by Francis Morgan Nichols. London : Longmans, Green, 1904. 

Saltmarsh, John. King’s College Chapel. Cambridge: King’s College, 1967. 

Oh behave! Conduct books for women

Katherine, Countess of Chesterfield, and Lucy, Countess of Huntingdon, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1636–40, oil on canvas (Yale Center for British Art)

In the late 17th to mid-18th century there was a boom in the publication of conduct books for women, which instructed on proper manners and moral behaviour. As with modern etiquette guides, the existence of such books hint at the anxieties about the proper way to conduct oneself in social situations. They also provide a valuable insight into the conventions surrounding behaviour, and the expectations of women at that time.

Seventeenth century conduct books were almost entirely written by men for a female readership – and they give strikingly similar advice to their target audience of young aristocratic women. Such books typically contain guidance on religion; how to choose a husband and live with his faults; how to manage a household and raise children; and appropriate behaviour and recreations. This is mixed with censure of faults such as vanity, immodesty, talking and laughing too much, and keeping company with those who might damage their reputation.

We have two conduct books from this time in Trinity Hall’s libraries. Richard Brathwaite’s The English Gentlewoman, first published in 1631, was one of the first conduct books aimed specifically at women. It is a companion work to The English Gentleman, which was published the previous year – and our edition combines both books into a single volume [1]. In his preface, Brathwaite explains that he is presenting something for ladies to aspire to: ‘I have here presented unto your view one of your own sex one whose improved education will be no blemish but a beauty to her nation’. The frontispiece gives the motto ‘Grace my guide, Glory my goale’ which expresses the conventional ideal of feminine behaviour.

Frontispiece to Brathwaite, The English Gentleman and the English Gentlewoman

Published more than fifty years after the English Gentlewoman, came George Savile, the Marquis of Halifax’s (1633-1695) The lady’s new-years gift, or, Advice to a daughter [2]. It was written for his daughter Elizabeth (1675-1708) when she was twelve years old. Full of fatherly affection, Halifax gives Elizabeth advice on how to exist within the strictures of society and of marriage. Halifax never intended the book to reach a wide audience. It was circulated privately at first in a few manuscript copies, but before too long it was pirated for publication. And it was incredibly popular, with six editions in the 17th century and dozens of reprints in the 18th century.

So what were the key rules for a lady in the 17th century to follow?

Dress modestly

Women’s vanity and pride was seen as the root of much of their challenging behaviour. Richard Brathwaite devotes considerable space to appearance in The English Gentlewoman, arguing that women should dress modestly.

He condemns brightly coloured fashionable clothing (‘pye-coloured fopperies’ and ‘thinne Cobweb attires’) which ‘detracts from the native beauty of the feature’. He is particularly incensed by women who wear ‘gaudy’ dresses with a low neckline that exposed the breasts, or ridiculous foreign fashions. In his opinion, such dress is against Christian values, and likely to encourage licentious behaviour and sin.

Halifax similarly cautions Elizabeth against vanity: ‘the Fault to which your Sex seemeth to be the most inclined’. In part because it makes the person obnoxiously full of themselves and ridiculous in the eyes of others:

Shee doth not like herself as God-Almighty made her, but wil have some of her own workmanship; which is so farr from makeing her a better thing than a woman, that it turneth her into a worse Creature than a Monkey. (p. 400.)

Be seen and not heard

As well as modest dress, modest speech is a must. In a nutshell, a gentlewoman should be seen and not heard. As Brathwaite declares: ‘It will become her to tip her tongue with silence’. This is part of the all important modest behaviour. There are also certain topics young women should not talk about. As Brathwaite puts it, she should not venture any ‘strange opinions’ on matters of state or religion. As the majority of women were given little education, they were unlikely to have had an advantage in such debates.

Halifax also cautions against women being too talkative or amusing:  ‘Jollity is as contrary to Wit and Good Manners, as it is to Modesty and Vertue’.  A woman drawing too much attention to herself opened herself up to ridicule. The ideal woman has nothing to say.

Don’t have too much fun

Taking part in amusements outside the home brought disapproval, because it risked her spending time in dubious company. And further, for married women, it took her away from her family responsibilities. Brathwaite advises gentlewomen not to frequent ‘stage playes, wakes, solemn Feasts and the like’ where they might come into contact with company that might corrupt them. Instead, he urges women to spend their time at home looking after their family or in religious devotions – the price of having too much pleasure on earth would be paid for in the afterlife with ‘their soules appointed to hell fire’.

Halifax is perhaps more concerned with appearances than with sin. He sees nothing wrong with his daughter making occasional visits to the play house, entertaining company, playing cards, and dancing. As long as it wasn’t so often that it gave her reputation for idleness:

It wil engage you into a habit of idlenesse, and ill howers, draw you into ill mixed company, make you neglect your civilities abroad, and your business at home, and impose into your acquaintance such as wil doe you no credit. (p.405)

Obey your husband

One of the key functions of conduct books was to advise women on how to avoid marital discord. Both Brathwaite and Halifax say that this could be achieved by a woman obeying her husband, and managing his faults through her feminine wiles. If a marriage was unhappy she would have little option than to learn to live with it. Divorce was difficult and costly, and would lead to a woman’s social ostracisation.

The majority of Hallifax’s guide is a manual on how to survive a bad marriage. There are hints that he was concerned to arm his daughter against the inevitable discontents of a life spent in subjection to a husband.

Elizabeth was to marry just four years later, aged sixteen, to Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield (1673-1726). Unfortunately the marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one, and correspondence shows that she had to put up with his adultery, drunkenness, and neglect, until her death in 1708. [3]

Use of conduct books

Conduct manuals sought to define every aspect of women’s lives by presenting an ideal of how they should behave. Both Brathwaite and Halifax wrote these books with gentlewomen (not women in general) as their target audience. Unsurprisingly, the books uphold the 17th century ideal of women: as modest, restrained and subservient to her husband. To modern eyes, however, nothing could be more virtuous, restrained or dull than the lady they describe!

What might a gentlewoman have thought if she had been given this book? Was she grateful for the advice, and viewed it as a model to aspire to? Did she laugh at its precepts? Did she read it at all? These questions will have to remain unanswered.

Jenni Lecky-Thompson


[1] Brathwaite. The English Gentleman; and the English Gentlevvoman : Both in One Volume. The Third Edition Revised, Corrected, and Enlarged. ed. London: Printed by Iohn Dawson, 1641. Available online at:

[2] Halifax, George Savile. Advice to a Daughter. Aberdeen: Printed for and by Francis Douglass and William Murray, 1753. Available online at:

[3] Savile, G. (1989). The works of George Savile, Marquis of Halifax. (Vol. 2). M. N. Brown (Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (2013), pp. 361-62. doi:10.1093/actrade/

Trinity Hall invites you to Colour our Collections

Woodcut image of group of people at a theatre
Image: Detail of Terence, Therence En Francois : Prose Et Rime Auecques Le Latin. (Paris: Anthoine Vérard, 1499.)

Trinity Hall is delighted to be taking part for the second year in a row, in an international week-long (1-5 February) initiative to raise awareness and engagement with rare books and special collections. It is known as Color Our Collections and has been run by the library of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) since 2016.

#ColorOurCollections offers free downloadable colouring books by libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world, which are perfect for all ages. You will find a huge variety of colouring books at ranging from national libraries to small-scale specialist museums. Whether you like botany or beasts, motorcycles or medicine, there will be a colouring book to fire your imagination.

Participants can share photos of their colouring on social media using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections (an American initiative, hence the ‘color’). You can be as creative as you dare! So get colouring in and share your creations with us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and tag us #TrinityHallOldLibrary.

Research suggests colouring can reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance mindfulness – something we all need during the current lockdown.

Trinity Hall’s 2021 colouring book features an interesting range of characters and historical figures from Adam and Eve to Richard the Lionheart, which we hope you’ll enjoy.

Download it here to get colouring

Our colouring book from 2020 is also available. It contains a mixture of places, animals and plants and is worth downloading for the resplendent cat alone.

Plum porridge anyone? Christmas recipes from the past

Frans Snyders – Cook with Food. Wikimedia Commons

Food is an important part of Christmas festivities and many of our present day gastronomic traditions have their origins in centuries old recipes. These recipes were shared by word-of-mouth or passed down in private notes or journals, but from the 17th century the first printed cook books began to appear. These provide a fascinating insight into past traditions and how culinary tastes have changed over time.  At Trinity Hall we have two cook books in our collection, which were both best-sellers that revolutionised cooking in the 17th and 18th centuries. This post will look at some of the festive treats contained within them.

The French Cook

One of the most important cook books of the 17th century was The French Cook,  first published in Paris in 1651 [1]. It was written by François Pierre de la Varenne (c1615–1678)  chef to the Marquis d’Uxelles, so as such, he was tasked with producing food to impress the crème de la crème of  French society.

La Varenne’s cook book was intended for a professional audience rather than home cooks as he says in his preface it was written for: “my fellows in the profession… of whom some, lacking experience or a ready memory, are unwilling or too timid to become involved in learning what they do not know…”The French Cook was a best-seller and enormously influential across Europe.  In 1652, a year after its first publication, it became the first French cook book to be translated into English by “IDG”. [2] It was to influence cookery across Europe, leading to a move away from highly spiced sweet and sour dishes towards a more natural savoury cuisine.

The recipes in La Varenne’s book do not contain any detailed instructions or helpful measurements for the cook. The modern reader would find many of the dishes suitable for a food trial on the television show I’m a Celebrity, in particular cow udder, pottage of tortoise, head of wild boar, and ‘calfes feet fried’.

Of the more palatable recipes is the familiar festive favourite turkey, which was a popular meat for Christmas in France as early as the 16th century. The French Cook contains a basic recipe for roast turkey: “It must likewise be plumed dry, whiten it on the fire, rost it, and serve.” For the more adventurous chef there is also a more avant garde recipe for turkey with raspberries, which you could imagine in the cookery books of celebrity chefs today:

Turkie with Raspis

When it is dressed, take up the brisket, and take out the flesh, which you shall mince with suet and some little of Veal-flesh, which you shall mix together with yolks of Eggs & young Pigeons, & all being well seasoned, you shall fill your Turkie with it, and shall season it with Salt, Peper, beaten Cloves and Capers, then you shall spit it, and turn it very softly; When it is almost rosted, take it up, and put it into an Earthen pan with good Broath, Mushrums, and a bundle of Herbs, which you shall make with Parsley, thime, and Chibols tied together; for to thicken the sauce, take a little Lard sliced, pass it in the pan, and when it is melted, take it out, and mix a little flower with it, which you shall make very brown, and shall allay it with a little Broath and some Vinegar; then put it into your Earthen pan with some Lemon-juice, and serve.

If it be in the Raspis season, you shall put a handfull of them over it, if not, some Pomgranate.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

At the start of the 18th century the French courtly way of cooking still predominated in refined households. Cook books were usually written by male chefs who offered complicated recipes, designed for professional cooks and without any detailed or practical instructions.

In Georgian England the aspiring home cook’s prayers would be answered by the Delia Smith of the day, with the publication of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by ‘A lady’. [3]. This cook book, first published in 1747, was in fact, written by Hannah Glasse (1708–1770). When her husband got into financial difficulties, she wrote the book as a means of raising money to support the family. The recipes were extensively ‘borrowed’ from earlier books by other writers.

Glasse’s book became the most popular cook book of its time going through twenty editions in the 18th century. A key reason for its popularity was that it was intended for the everyday cook and so it contained simple, detailed instructions on how to make dishes. In the introduction she states: “I believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon”. Glasse was a severe critic of the French influence of British cuisine, although she does include simpler versions of French recipes in her cook book.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy contains several recipes for Christmas favourites including mince pies. Although unlike the modern version, they include meat (usually mutton, beef or pork) as an ingredient. Glasse’s recipe contains neat’s (beef) tongue, sirloin of beef and three pounds of suet; along with sugar, the spice mace, cloves, and nutmeg, currants, raisins, apples, brandy, red wine and lemon juice.

These were used to produce a single large pie, which must have been substantial enough to serve many people at once. The idea of sweet, spiced minced beef sounds quite unpalatable to modern tastes, but it was not until the late Victorian period that mince pies became meat-free. It appears that they weren’t just eaten at Christmas either there is also a recipe for Lent mince pies (chopped eggs replaces the meat).

If this hasn’t whetted your appetite, consider her recipe for ‘Plumb porridge for Christmas’. This delicious gem contains a whole leg and shin of beef, which was boiled into a stock, thickened with bread, spiced, and mixed with dried currants and raisins, plums, sugar and wine. The quantities of meat and dried fruit are enormous!

Although families were generally much larger in Georgian times, it is evident that this recipe would have produced a vast quantity of porridge that would last for weeks. It could be prepared ahead of Christmas, and then perhaps heated up in smaller amounts to give to guests during social visits.

By the end of the 18th century the tradition of eating plum porridge had vanished. If you are inspired to make this dish yourself or are wondering whether it tasted as revolting as it sounds, you can read about Allegra McEvedy’s attempt to recreate it using a recipe from Martha Bradley’s 1756 cook book The British Housewife, or the Cook’s, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion. [4]

Inscriptions inside the book show that our copy had two women former owners: Sarah Ann Parsons who owned it in 1841 and Mrs S. Wal[she?], 1850. It is in rather poor condition, and there is some staining to indicate that it was used for cooking. Although strangely not on the pages of these festive recipes. Personally, I will be sticking with my usual nut roast this year.

Jenni Lecky-Thompson


[1] La Varenne, François Pierre De, Le Cuisinier François Paris, 1651.

[2] La Varenne, François Pierre De, The French cook: Prescribing the way of making ready of all sorts of meats, fish and flesh, with the proper sauces, either to procure appetite, or to advance the power of digestion. Also the preparation of all herbs and fruits, so as their naturall crudities are by art opposed; with the whole skil of pastry-work. Together with a treatise of conserves, both dry and liquid, a la mode de France. With an alphabeticall table explaining the hard words, and other usefull tables. / Written in French by Monsieur De La Varenne, clerk of the kitchin to the Lord Marquesse of Uxelles, and now Englished by I.D.G. London: Printed for Charls Adams, and Are to Be Sold at His Shop, at the Sign of the Talbot Neere St. Dunstans Church in Fleetstreet, 1653. Trinity Hall   Strangman Collection   641.59 VAR.  Available online at

[3] Glasse, Hannah, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. The eighth ed., Printed for A. Millar, J. and R. Tonson, W. Strahan, T. Caslon, B. Law, and A. Hamilton, 1763. Available online at:

[4] McEvedy, Allegra and Martha Bradley, ‘How about Christmas ‘plumb porridge’?’ The Guardian Tue 15 Dec 2009. Accessed 11/12/20 at:

A brief(ish) history of the founding of Trinity Hall

Today marks the 670th anniversary of the royal confirmation of the first piece of property purchased by Trinity Hall.

THGB/4/3/4: Reconfirmation of Trinity Hall’s charters by Elizabeth I, 1559

Although it is popularly touted, particularly amongst the punt tour guides, that Trinity Hall was founded primarily to train new priests to replace those who died during the Black Death, but in reality, Bishop Bateman had most likely been planning his foundation before the outbreak of 1349. His application to found a new college was dated January 15th 1350, and it was approved by the Bishop of Ely on January 20th and by the University the following day. The royal licence for the foundation must have predated this. On February 23rd 1350, the King gave permission to the Master, fellows, and scholars of Trinity Hall to acquire houses.  

The first piece of property was purchased on November 6th 1350 (and confirmed by royal charter on November 20th) from Simon de Brunne for £300 for land and a house, which formerly housed the monks of Ely studying in Cambridge. Four years later the house called “Draxesentre” was purchased, thus completing the acquisition of land and buildings that would make up Front Court. Soon building work began on the hall and east range of the quadrangle. Permission to build a chapel was granted in 1352, but it is unclear when it was actually built, as it wasn’t consecrated until 1513. Work began on the kitchens and additional chambers in 1374. Once it was finished, the quadrangle was larger than any of its predecessors. The College continued to acquire small parcels of land, and the present size of main site was reached by 1544, save for one small piece of land in the northwest corner purchased in 1769.  

Bishop Bateman’s vision for his new college was ambitious. He planned to create a college with more members (a master and 23 fellows and scholars) than any other college in Cambridge at the time. However, when he died suddenly in 1355, he left the college with only a master, 3 fellows, and 3 scholars. Seven fellowships were funded through bequests in the 16th century, but only one fellowship was created between then and 1931. It wasn’t until 1952, 602 years later, that his vision was finally realized.  

THGB/5/1352: foundation statutes, 1352

Daily life for the medieval students and fellows was very different than it is today. Members were to say the De Trinitate on rising and going to bed, were always to speak Latin, were to dispute 3 times a week on some point of canon or civil law (Mon, Wed, Fri), and were to listen to scripture being read to them during meals. All members of College were to be in Holy Orders or intending to proceed to Orders (and thus all took a vow of celibacy), but only canonists had to proceed all the way through to priesthood. Because of its focus on law, students of Trinity Hall were being trained to go into positions in the Church or the State.  

Books were extremely expensive, so students were not allowed to borrow books, unless they needed to take them to their lectures. As stipulated in the foundation statutes, books were never to be taken out of Cambridge and never allowed out at night (except for repairs). The original library, probably built in 1374, was located over the passage between what is now Avery Court and Front Court. The Old Library, as we know it, wasn’t built until the end of the 16th century. 

There were originally only five servants (staff): a steward, a baker, a baker’s assistant, a cook, and a cook’s assistant. Fellows and students were expected to take over their own housekeeping responsibilities, but if they had the means, they could hire private servants. According to the statutes of 1354, private servants of fellows must be ‘pacificus, castus, humilis et quiestus.’ (peaceful, chaste, humble, and quiet). 

Loggan’s plan of Trinity Hall, 1690

The medieval hall, before it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1740s, had a fire pit in the middle of the room and a hole in the ceiling with a cupulo to let out the smoke.  There were no doors in the screens between the hall and the kitchen, so it would have been a very cold place. In 1596, an alumnus left money in his will to cover the costs of having a fire burnt in the hall every day for the months of November, December, and January and for doors to be added to the screens. The fellows table was located where it is today, and behind it hung a tapestry that was gifted to the College by Dr Eden. 

By the 14th century, Cambridge was a mid-sized market town. Its position on the Cam and multiple crossroads made it particularly well situated for trade. It had several large fairs, including the Stourbridge fair which at its height was the largest in Europe. However even by medieval standards, it was a fairly unpleasant place to be. The streets were unpaved and heaps of dung from farm animals and other refuse was allowed to accumulate. The ditches that allowed for drainage into the river were stagnant and seldom cleared. There were many complaints about the unpleasantness of the town and concerns about the dangers it posed to health. Several royal charters ordered the townspeople to keep the streets and watercourses clean, but the cleanliness of the town remained a problem until 1575.  

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is estimated that half of the population of Cambridge was wiped out by the Black Death. The social and economic impact of the plague was profound and most likely deepened the already great animosity between the townspeople and the University. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the violence in Cambridge was so severe that it was one of six towns whose rebels were not pardoned. Many of the University’s and colleges’ earliest records were destroyed during this revolt. Continual outbreaks of plague, and other epidemics, would ravage England for 300 more years.  

670 years on I think it is safe to say that life in Cambridge is much better than it was then, even with Covid-19. No matter how tough things are now, it is some comfort to know that people have survived much worse and the College has weathered many storms.  


A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, 2-15. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

Crawley, Charles. Trinity Hall: The History of a Cambridge College, 1350-1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Malden, Henry Elliot. Trinity Hall Or, the College of Scholars of the Holy Trinity of Norwich in the University of Cambridge. London: F.E. Robinson, 1902

Warren, William. Warren’s Book, edited by Alfred Dale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911.

Williamson, R. “The plague in Cambridge.” Medical history vol. 1,1 (1957): 51-64. doi:10.1017/s0025727300020767

Josephus goes online

Trinity Hall, MS4 fol 36r

The latest medieval manuscript at Trinity Hall to be digitised is a twelfth century copy of Josephus’ Historiae Antiquitatis Judaice (The Antiquities of the Jews). The Latin translations of Josephus were incredibly popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Antiquities is claimed to have been ‘the single most often copied historical work of the Middle Ages’ [1]. Despite this, an ongoing project by the University of Bern [2] has identified just over 300 manuscripts containing the Latin translations of the works of Josephus. Many of these are incomplete copies since the text is comprised of twenty books, which because of its length, were usually split into two parts.

The author, Flavius Josephus (AD 37/38-AD 100) was born in Jerusalem into a Jewish family. He became a general at the start of the First Jewish-Roman war (66–73 CE), but was captured by the enemy Roman general Vespasian, and then threw in his lot with the Romans who had occupied his homeland, and advocated Jewish surrender. He moved to Rome where he became the official historian of the imperial family.

The Antiquities was completed in around AD 93 and was originally written in Greek. It is intended to give an account of Jewish history and culture from the creation to the revolt against Rome of AD 66-70. It is written for a Roman (gentile) audience, to demonstrate that the Jews are an ancient people with great traditions and a great culture, although his narrative supports the Romans’ side of things.

The reception and use of the Antiquities is interesting. Josephus was for a long time one of the most popular authors of Christian Europe. Christian scholars embraced him for providing impartial evidence of the accounts in the gospels and the existence of Jesus. A passage found in Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 (Testimonium flavianum) of the Antiquities, for example, describes the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Roman authorities.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

This passage in the Testimonium is probably the most discussed in Josephus because it contains references to Jesus. However it is much disputed whether it is a later addition and it is considered to be a forgery by most modern scholars.

Reception of the Antiquities among Jewish people was more ambivalent. It was only widely read in the renaissance, and considered by some as the work of a traitor because Josephus had swapped sides. It was only from the 19th century that it began to be considered an important source of Jewish history.

Josephus’ works were originally written in Greek, but the Latin translations became extremely popular and influential during the Middle Ages. The first Latin translation was printed as early as 1470. This popularity continued when William Whiston (1667-1752), professor of mathematics in Cambridge, translated Antiquities into English in 1737 [3]. From the 18th century Josephus’ works were almost as widespread in Britain as the Bible.

The inscription at the front says that this manuscript belonged to Brother William of Monkland in Herefordshire, which was a small cell of the Benedictine Abbey of Conches in Normandy, France. He was confessor to his relative, Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford (1309- 1361). The manuscript’s later provenance before its arrival at Trinity Hall is unknown.

The decoration (including the decorative use of small circles) is typical of Herefordshire production in the second quarter of the 12th century. It includes some striking initials featuring dragons.

The full manuscript is available on Cambridge Digital Library.


[1] O’Donnell, James J., Cassiodorus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 246.

[2] Josephus Latinus, University of Bern:

[3] Whiston, Wiliam, The Works of Flavius Josephus. London, 1737. Online at:

Other Digitised Manuscripts of the Latin Josephus

The Affable Society of Bears

The Affable Society of Bears

Affable bears 1

Today we will be looking at a very intriguing set of documents found in College by a member of staff in 2017. The documents in question are a set of cartoons from the late 1920s depicting a society referred to as the Affable Bears. The Affable Bears were not an official society of the College; instead the cartoons appear to chronicle the activities of a group of friends. The members are depicted as bears and chose pseudonyms upon joining the society, so it is impossible to discover the identities of the members.

Fortunately, a couple of the drawings provide crucial information about the society. Members were selected to join the society through invitation. Once someone accepted the invitation, they chose a name and were formally inducted into the society. The members drew their names and inspiration from popular culture. The five named members were Algernon, Baloo, Sylvie, Bruno, and Mr. Edward. Algernon was most likely named after the character from The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895; Baloo from The Jungle Book, published in 1894; Sylvie and Bruno from the story by the same name by Lewis Carroll, published in 1889, and Mr Edward Bear from the 1924 poem “Teddy Bear” by A.A. Milne. Mr Edward Bear from “Teddy Bear” is the first appearance of Winnie the Pooh, before he was renamed by 1926. Baloo was the resident artist of the group, producing most or all of the drawings, although, rather perplexingly, he is never listed as a formal member of the group. 

The Whim 1

It is stated that the purpose of the society was for the “promotion of Whimming and Roman Roadsing.” Their motto “a bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise,” is lifted directly from the first line of “Teddy Bear” by A.A. Milne. Their activities included regular trips to the Whim pub (a restaurant on the corner of Green Street that closed in the 1980s) and Matthew’s Café, dining together, dancing along the Roman Road (a 12 mile Site of Special Scientific Interest stretching from south-east Cambridge to Linton), swimming at Jesus Green Lido, and ice skating. The drawings are silly and light-hearted, in keeping with the exuberance of the roaring ‘20s.

Bears at home

It appears some of the bears lived together somewhere on Storey’s Way. Trinity Hall did own land on Storey’s Way at the time, but they must have been living in private accommodation. The college’s land on Storey’s Way only contained the cricket ground, pavilion, and groundsman’s house. Wychfield house and its grounds weren’t purchased until 1948.

Cartoons proliferated in the 1890s due to the desire for easy reading material for the masses resulting from the democratisation of education brought on by the Education Reform Act of 1870. By the turn of the century, as literacy rates increased, comics were increasingly marketed to children. Adults no longer needed easy reading material and it became shameful for adults to purchase comics. Baloo was undoubtedly influenced by the comics he enjoyed during his childhood and adolescence. It is extremely fortunate that these cartoons survived, as they provide an amusing glimpse at pastimes of Cambridge students during the interwar period.



Examining an Elizabethan doodle

One day while idly looking through our copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) I chanced upon an interesting doodle in the back endpapers. To find inscriptions, notes and drawings in our early printed books is not unusual. And these can offer fascinating insights into the how a book was received and used by its former owners.

The previous owner of this book was Robert Hare, an antiquary who donated a number of incunabula and medieval manuscripts to Trinity Hall. Hare died in 1611, but he mainly donated his books to the College in the 1570s and 80s. It’s unlikely though, that he was behind the drawing at the back of this book. We can tell this, because it does not match samples of Hare’s handwriting in the front of his books. We can also tell that it was not by any of the books previous owners, because it depicts fashion from a much later period.

Dating the doodle

2DC9672C-3087-4F80-85E9-50415CAA8ECD 2020-07-02 09_17_24

The figures in the doodle are clad in slashed and embroidered doublets (close fitting jackets), puffed breeches, stockings and garters. They wear ruffs at their necks and have small beards. One carries a rapier – a type of thin, two-edged sword popular throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Their outfits therefore, indicate that the figures are two gentlemen from the late 1580s. The doodle can be most likely dated to this time, particularly as the book would have been moved from its original location in a medieval book chest, to the recently built College library (now the Old library!)

Philosophy is an impenetrable armour

In the drawing are two figures. The figure to the right is standing above a human skull and some long bones. From his mouth he says: “manes sunt fabulae” which is an allusion to the lyrical poet Horace (65-8 BC): ‘You yourself will be soon buried in eternal darkness, among the Manes (ghosts/spirits) so much talked of…’. [Horace’s Odes, 1.4.16]. The word ‘fabulae’ can have a literal and a metaphorical interpretation. Taken literally it means ‘the ghosts/spirits much talked of’. However, it is a Stoic who speaks the words as an Epicurean. Epicureans reject immortality and believe that the soul is mortal and material like the body, and so the same phrase can be translated as ‘the fictitious non-existing spirits”. But the former is more likely in this context given the presence of the bones!

Above the man is written ‘A Deo ne miserum est mori’, which can be translated as ‘By God, it is better to die’. This is an allusion to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC): “usque adeone mori miserum est?”, which can be translated as: ‘Is it then so very wretched a thing to die?’, or more simply: “Is death so hard to bear?” [1]. This refers to the Epicurean view that one need not fear death, because there is no prospect of punishment in the afterlife – the soul simply ceases to be.

The man on the left is engrossed in a book which contains the text: ‘Philosophia armatura impenetradilis’, which means ‘Philosophy is an impenetrable armour’. This is probably an allusion to Seneca (4 BC- 65 AD), a Roman Stoic philosopher who encouraged the reader to be “gird about with Philosophy,” which is essentially saying “put on the armour of philosophy.” Above the figure floats a disembodied head, which could be a spirit. The two figures therefore appear to illustrate the two sides of thought on the existence or non-existence of the afterlife.

A humanist education

The doodle shows that whoever drew it had a good grasp of Latin and knowledge of the Classic authors. This knowledge reflects a period of change at the University of Cambridge which saw a move away from its original purpose to train clerics in canon law, to providing the new humanist education to the sons of the nobility and gentry.

The humanist education of rhetoric, logic, and philosophy was conducted through studying the literary works of ancient authors such as Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Seneca. And the ability to quote from this classical wisdom to bolster arguments was a critical part of scholarly and political discourse. Books of quotations like Erasmus’ Adagia, originally printed in 1500, was among the most popular volumes of the 16th century. The Old library does in fact, contain a copy of the Adagia [3] and the doodle might have more naturally been located in this book!

Examining this doodle provides some interesting insights into the time, background and educational context of the doodler. Although we will never be able to identify them, it was most likely a student who was bored and tired in the library!

Jenni Lecky-Thompson, with thanks to Dr William O’Reilly for the Latin translations.


[1] Dryden, John, The Works of Virgil, 1697, Line 646

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 82.5

[3] Erasmus, Adagia. Basel: Johann Froben, 1523.

Further reading

Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington (1954) Handbook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber.

Konstan, David, “Epicurus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 edition), edited by E.N. Zalta. Accessed at:>

Wilson, Catherine (2015). Epicureanism: A Very Brief Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“The University of Cambridge: The sixteenth century.” A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Ed. J P C Roach. London: Victoria County History, 1959. 166-191. British History Online. Web. 05 July 2020.

“1550–1600 in Western European fashion”. Wikipedia.

Lessons in law from the 18th century to today

There is in the Old Library of Trinity Hall a manuscript (Trinity Hall, Ms. 48) dating from the eighteenth century which has advice about studying law.  Books about how to study law are a well-established feature of modern legal educational literature.  With Glanville Williams (whose landmark Learning the Law (1945) is due in 2020 to go into its 17th edition), Cambridge has played its part in this, as has Trinity Hall in the development of legal education over the centuries, not least by initiating nineteenth-century reforms to test the fruits of legal study which became the modern Law Tripos.  The presence of a manuscript at Trinity Hall on how to study law is, therefore, not surprising.  The directions in it were written by Sir Thomas Reeve [1], when he was Lord Chief Justice (1736-7), for his nephew, who is not named in the manuscript.


Sir Thomas Reeve, in a portrait by Jacopo Amigoni

The Reeve directions were valued by his near contemporaries – the great Sir William Blackstone acknowledged how he was inspired by them; they were used by Josiah Quincy, the celebrated American lawyer, in 1763; and English lawyer, Francis Hargrave printed an edition of them in 1792.  However, we do not know who transcribed them in Trinity Hall’s manuscript, nor precisely when this was done.  The nephew for whom Reeve wrote the directions was either Edward Place or Thomas Reeve, both of whom were admitted to the Middle Temple in 1730 and 1740 respectively.

The Reeve directions [2] are in the form of numerous principles, for example:

(1) Do not rely blindly on secondary literature as authority for legal propositions

(2) Observe the latitude or restrictions implicit in legal terms

(3) Draw on the experience of practitioners

(4) Use the latest editions of law books

(5) Be attentive to detail, ‘sentence by sentence’, reading a text more than once

(6) Use statutes and cases for the proof of an opinion which alone is not authority

(7) Ensure commentators ‘quote very fair’

(8) Learn the general reasons on which the law is founded

(9) Regulate your study; and

(10) Make notes ‘your own’ and render things noted easy for the memory.

Page from MS 48

MS 48 fol 25

Reeve also sets out recommended reading – the sixteen works he cites include, from his own lifetime, Matthew Hale, History of the Common Law (1713), William Salkeld, Reports of Cases in the Court of King’s Bench (1718), Thomas Wood, An Institute of the Laws of England (1720); and, from an earlier age, Thomas Littleton, Tenures (1481), Christopher St. German, Dialogue Between a Doctor of Divinity and a Student of the Common Law (1528-31), and Edward Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England (1628-1644).

The Reeve principles for the study of law are still worthy of consideration today.  Dr Rachel Clement Tolley, law Fellow at Trinity Hall, says: ‘Many of the Reeve directions echo the advice I give my undergraduate students today: provide authority for propositions of law, but make sure you reference cases and statutes, rather than the textbook…However, whilst I advise my students to be attentive to detail, the modern law student certainly does not have time to read everything “sentence by sentence” and “more than once”! Today’s students must learn which texts to read carefully and repeatedly, and which texts to skim read, picking out only one or two key points’. And: ‘The Reeve instructions are also notable for what they omit. I expect my students to adopt a critical distance from the law as it stands and evaluate those aspects of the law which might be described as deficient, in some way’.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales 2013-17, and a Trinity Hall alumnus, also recognises the value of Reeve’s advice, including ‘finding the time to read and read again important passages in seminal texts and cases’ and ‘never relying blindly on secondary sources’ – but he also recommends ‘a critical approach to established law and opinions on that law’, studying ‘other contemporary systems of law’, understanding ‘the digital revolution, its effect on the law and the way in which existing principles of black letter law can be developed to underpin it’, and having ‘a grounding in the application of ‘the rule of law and in ethics’.

A fuller study of the Trinity Hall manuscript, also placing it in its wider historical context, is to be printed for use in the Library in 2020.

This is a guest post by Professor Norman Doe, Cardiff University.


[1] Baker, J.H. ‘Reeve, Sir Thomas (1672/3–1737)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online:

[2] Trinity Hall,  MS 48 fols. 25-28.