Being nosey at the Parker Library

Last week I had the total pleasure of spending four days in the gorgeous surroundings of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, and in the company of its unremittingly and uncommonly awesome staff, Gill and Suzanne, the sub-librarians, and the protean Shiralee.  Having never been to the Parker Library before, and being only a rare books ‘shambrarian‘ myself (as the cool kids would say, so I’m told), this was SUCH a treat.  Probably akin to Italian chocolates.  Which, incidentally, the Parker Library staff also have.

Getting down to business, the library is actually nothing to do with Spiderman, but is named after Matthew Parker (1504-1570), one time Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and even more prestigiously, former Master of Corpus.  Among other things, Parker was a prolific collector of ancient manuscripts and fortunately, a generous one.  He was a great benefactor of Corpus, as well as Gonville and Caius and our fair Trinity Hall.  His munificent benefaction to Corpus included his books and manuscripts, and it’s an incredibly fine collection.  Parker also seemed to understand its value–so his benefaction reveals a sense of his fondness for the college.  And he also understood how precious this collection was, which led him to draw up some practical and, dare I say, stringent conditions for their protection.  An annual inspection was to be conducted, led alternately by the Librarian at Caius and at Trinity Hall, and should twelve (12) items be missing, the entire collection would pass to the ownership of Caius with immediate effect.  Should any carelessness emerge at Caius, then Trinity Hall would become the lucky recipient of this astonishing gift.  It’s quite a relief then, for all concerned I’m sure, that the clause was never evoked.  Parker’s stipulations are now merely ceremonial, and a good excuse for a big posh dinner.  That’s my kind of library rule.

Not Spiderman

The collection at the Parker is nothing short of extraordinary. Really. I mean it. In normal circumstances I’d be telling you to go and see for yourself, but I don’t need to–because it’s all ONLINE.  You can, from the comfort of your ergonomic desk chair, or comfy armchair, go to the Parker Library on the Web site.  This is the result of a digitisation project based at the Parker which took place from 2005 to 2009.  The aim of the project was to produce a high-resolution copy of almost every page of almost every manuscript in the Parker Library.  The result, the website, it astonishingly comprehensive, the images are of a brilliant quality, there’s lots of detail about each item, bibliographies, foliation detail, all sorts.  Just go and have a look (once you’ve finished reading my blog post, of course).  You can even look with a cup of tea in one hand and a chocolate biccie in the other (mind your computer though). It’s quite simply a fabulous resource and the result of some really serious teamwork.

Random old book 1

One of the highlights of my week was a morning spent at the Cambridge Conservation Consortium, which is based at Corpus.  The conservators, Elizabeth, Edward, Jo (who’s in training) and Melvin (in absentia) spent some time showing their very high-tech conservation equipment.  My favourite piece was the guillotine which is approximately the size of a small country.  They chatted to me about some of the things they do, what they enjoy doing the most, they let me watch them repair things and showed me some finished conservation, and spoke to me about some of the decisions they have to make concerning how they choose to conserve an item.  I learned, most of all, that the work of a conservator requires an amazing variety of skills and talents, and the conservators were all, without exception, staggeringly clever and proficient.  I left completely in awe of them, and having been beaten over the head with a big dose of mediocrity.

Random old books 2 (and skull)

So, while at the Parker Library I learned: about the ‘vault’, high-security and high-tech, where the manuscripts are kept and protected; how damage to the early printed books is prevented through regular, thorough cleaning; how conservation projects are prioritised; exhibitions, and how to make them good; readers, and how to make them behave (thanks in particular to a kind and willing engineer who pretended to be a medievalist for the day for my sake); the good, the bad and the ugly of enquiries–and how the digitisation project has affected them; … and loads of stuff more.  There are practices that they’ve got at the Parker–such as an image database of the ex libris bookplates in their collection–which are so self-evidently good and useful I really hope we might be able to implement them here.

See, I actually did do SOME work…

I really enjoyed my four useful and brilliant days at the Parker Library and I’m so grateful to all the staff (including Liam at the Taylor Library) for all the tea and chocolates (crucial), for the good lunches (surprising), for their time and patience and for making me feel so incredibly welcome.  I of course extended an invitation to them to visit us here at Trinity Hall–and that invitation still stands–as long as they don’t suggest too many improvements…

Home sweet home

PS The Parker Library also have a blog which is highly recommended!!


Parker Library on the Web (here)


Rebel, Rebel: from student layabout to pillar of society

Away from home for the first time, it did not take an Oxford fresher long to opt for the delights of city life over his studies. He was mesmerised by the theatre, spent all his money on clothes and all his time hanging out with friends. Sport was another great love and essays, well, forget it! Is this a student of today? No, our fresher is none other than Matthew Hale, born in 1609.

In the Old Library I came across “The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt.” by the Reverend Gilbert Burnett (London, 1682). More a hagiography than a biography, this book nonetheless contains fascinating insights into Hale’s life and turbulent times.

Matthew Hale was a survivor. He was born into an upwardly-mobile, middle-class Gloucestershire family (his grandfather had been a prosperous wool merchant and his father was a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn).  However, his troubles came early: by the age of three he had lost his mother and his father died two years later. He was taken into his mother’s family and brought up by Anthony Kingscot, a devout Puritan, who educated him for the Church. But when the seventeen year-old Hale went up to Magdalen Hall Oxford, his new-found freedom and the pleasures of that sophisticated city put paid to all thoughts of the Church!

“The Stage Players coming thither, he was so much corrupted by seeing many Playes, that he almost wholly forsook his studies,” Burnett tells us disapprovingly and continues, “The corruption of a Young Man’s mind in one particular, generally draws on a great many more after it, so he being now taken off from following his Studies … set himself to many of the vanities incident to Youth … He loved fine Clothes, and delighted much in Company: and being of a strong robust Body, he was a great Master at all those Exercises that required much strength.”

Youthful exuberance soon led Hale into trouble. “He also learned to Fence, and handle his weapons, in which he became so expert, that he worsted many of the Masters of those Arts: but as he was exercising of himself in them, an Instance appeared … One of his Masters told him he could teach him no more, for he was better at his own Trade than himself was. This Mr. Hale lookt on as flattery; so to make the Master discover himself, he promised him the House he lived in, for he was his Tenant, if he could hit him a blow on the Head: and bad him do his best, for he would be as good as his word: so after a little Engagement, his Master being really Superiour to him, hit him on the Head, and he performed his promise; for he gave him the House freely.” I wonder what his guardian thought of that?

Hale left Oxford after three years, with his mind fixed on becoming a soldier in the Prince of Orange’s army in the Netherlands (so much for a costly Oxford education!). But fate intervened: a family law case took him to London and he was persuaded to follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. At the tender age of twenty he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 8th November 1629 to study law. He still enjoyed nights out on the town with his mates … until one fateful evening of binge drinking when a friend collapsed and was believed dead. Deeply shocked, Hale rushed into another room “and shuting, the door fell on his Knees, and prayed earnestly to God … and he vowed to God, that he would never again keep Company in that manner, nor drink a health while he lived: His friend recovered, and he most religiously observed his vow, till his Dying day.” This was a turning point in Hale’s life. From then on he channelled his prodigious energies into his career and the study of law, mathematics, theology and the classics.

He was called to the Bar in 1636, during the period of turbulence leading to the Civil War. Hale had sympathies for both sides (he was a natural conservative with a Puritan upbringing) and his reputation for integrity enabled him to steer a safe course through these troubled times. He started off supporting the Royalists, however, subsequently Oliver Cromwell made him Justice of the Pleas and he served in both Oliver and Richard Cromwell’s Parliaments. His career prospered. He was noted for his incorruptibility and his willingness to make politically unpopular decisions which upheld the law. At the Restoration he was made Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer “managing the Court, and all Proceedings in it, with singular Justice.”

The next upheaval came in 1666. Hale again took a prominent role as “one of the principal Judges that sate in Cliffords-Inn, about setling the difference between Landlord and Tenant, after the Dreadful Fire of London.” According to his biographer, “the sudden and quiet Building of the City, which is justly to be reckoned one of the Wonders of the Age, is in no small Measure due to the great care, which he … used.” Among all the judges, it was the polymath Hale who first “contrived the Rules, upon which he and the rest proceeded afterwards; in which his readiness at Arithmetick, and his skill in Architecture were of great use to him.”

Hale continued to rise and was made Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1671. He retired due to ill health in February 1676 and died ten months later on Christmas day 1676. Always his own man, the student rebel had reached a position of high office. It had been a remarkable life.


Burnett, Gilbert: The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt. (London, 1682).

For details of Hale’s achievements and legal writings, take a look at the Wikipedia article.

All images (except the image of Burnett’s book) are from Google Images.