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

Shelf lives: Does size matter?

Does a donation have to be large and impressive to be important? The answer is most emphatically “No”! One of our star items is a single sheet of paper measuring no more than 18 x 22.7 cm. It is a modest piece of nineteenth-century writing paper with no “bling” about it – but it still has the wow factor because it is a letter from Charles Dickens!

This small piece of pale blue Victorian writing paper, covered with Dickens’s distinctive handwriting in dark blue ink, was given to us by the author’s great-great-grandson and Trinity Hall alumnus Christopher Charles Dickens. In it the famous author gives advice to his son, Henry Fielding Dickens, “My Dear Harry”, at the start of his time as an undergraduate at Trinity Hall in October 1868. This parental advice has a timeless quality that still rings true today and the letter always catches the imagination of our visitors!

“Farewell Tour”

The letter is written on Dickens’s headed paper with the address of Gad’s Hill Place embossed at the top. Dickens bought this beloved home in February 1857 and it was the only house that he ever owned (all the others had been rented). But at the time of writing on Thursday 15th October 1868, Dickens was away from home, staying at the Adelphi Hotel, the best hotel in Liverpool.

Dickens was one of the first “celebrities” in the sense that we use the word today. He was a public figure in much demand – a real “superstar”! In May 1868 Dickens had returned exhausted from his long and demanding tour of America. However, by October 1868 he had started a new tour, a series of performances in London and the provinces, which he called his “Farewell tour”. He stayed at the Adelphi Hotel for a week from 10 October, giving readings at Manchester Free Trade Hall and in Liverpool. Of his reading in Liverpool on 12 October, Dickens writes to Georgina Hogarth “We had a fine house here last night, and a large turnaway. Marigold and Trial went immensely. I doubt if Marigold were ever more enthusiastically received.”

These public readings of dramatised extracts from his novels lasted at least two hours. They placed a heavy strain on Dickens’s voice and were so emotionally draining that he suffered from extreme exhaustion when they were over. But these performances were important to Dickens, not just for pleasing his public but also for the money they brought in. In fact the expense and financial practicalities of Harry’s life as an undergraduate take up a large part of the letter of advice he received from his father.

“Your past expensive education”

So what of Harry himself? Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933) was the author’s eighth child and the only one to go to university. The eldest son, Charles, was actually sent to the most expensive school, Eton,  in January 1851, but his school fees were sponsored by Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of the richest women in England at that time and a great friend of the author’s.

Harry as a boy (image from “Katey” by Lucinda Hawksley)

The schooling of the other Dickens boys was by no means cheap! All of the sons were sent to private school, whereas the daughters were educated at home. When Harry was nine years old (in 1858) he was sent to a boarding school for English boys in Boulogne. The intention was that he should learn French, but it was not a happy experience. According to Harry in his “Recollections“, “I was very young then and although two of my brothers were at the school I felt very sad and forlorn.” It must have been a relief when in 1861 he was sent to Wimbledon School, “which was kept by Messrs. Brackenbury and Wynne; a very well known private school then at the height of its reputation.” Harry did well there and was fortunate to have an excellent maths master who prepared him for entrance to Trinity Hall.

It was common in those days for sons to follow their fathers in their choice of college at Cambridge. The entry for Harry in the Trinity Hall register shows that, as the first of the Dickens family to attend the College, he came on the recommendation of J. Brackenbury, Master of Wimbledon School.

From the Trinity Hall Archives

“Handsome for all your wants”

A few weeks previously, aware of his own lack of university experience, Dickens had written to his friend Sir Joseph Chitty asking for advice.  He doubtless turned to Chitty because of the latter’s brilliant career at Balliol College, Oxford.  “My dear Chitty, One of my sons, just 20, is going up to Trinity Hall, next October. He has been highly educated – is possessed of considerable mathematical qualifications – and goes to College to work, and to achieve distinction. He perfectly understands that if he fail to set to in earnest, I shall take him away… Will you tell me what the allowance of such a youth should be, at Cambridge – to be enough, and not by any means too much – and whether there is any express precaution I can take or enjoin upon him?”

Chitty obliged Dickens by sending him a letter of advice which the author enclosed (“I therefore send you Joe Chitty’s letter bodily”) along with his own letter to Harry. Thanks to Chitty, Dickens was able to state confidently “It seems to me that an allowance of £250 a year will be handsome for all your wants, if I send you your wine.” Undergraduates were expected to entertain their contemporaries, providing wine and brandy for drop-in guests and to accompany the occasional dinner party held in their own rooms!

In those days, undergraduates generally came from well-off families who could afford to pay for their son’s living costs and tuition fees. Thus Dickens also encloses a cheque for £5 and ten shillings for tuition fees made out to the Reverend Frank Lawrence Hopkins, who was a Fellow at Trinity Hall and Harry’s Tutor.

Whatever you do, above all other things keep out of debt

Charles Dickens had suffered a childhood of extreme poverty and his own education had been cut short because his father’s indebtedness. This trauma cast a shadow over Dickens’s life and he was constantly preoccupied by money matters. In the letter he emphasises to his son “We must have no shadow of debt” and seeks to guide him as to how to manage his money – especially what not to spend it on, “I strongly recommend you to buy nothing in Cambridge”!

Perhaps it was the fear of falling back into poverty that drove Dickens to work so hard, starting his tour of the provinces before he had fully recovered from the tour of America. He says to Harry “You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child.”

Dickens finishes the letter by reminding Harry about the value of the Christian life and the importance of prayer. “These things have stood by me all through my life, and you remember I tried to render the New Testament intelligible to you and lovable by you when you were a mere baby.” Dickens had written “The life of our Lord” especially for his children in 1846.


While Harry was at Trinity Hall, Dickens continued his performances for another seventeen months. However, his health was so badly affected that he finally followed his doctor’s orders and gave his last performance on 16 March 1870.

At this time Dickens also started writing his last and unfinished novel, The mystery of Edwin Drood. As research for his books, the author often took lengthy walks at night to the seedier parts of London accompanied by a policeman for safety. In his “Recollections” Harry tells us, “I just once missed a great opportunity. It had been arranged that I was to accompany him on one of these excursions, but unfortunately I was detained at Cambridge on the appointed day and I was unable to go. That night he visited the opium den which is described in the first chapter of Edwin Drood.” That would have been an exciting prospect for a young undergraduate and Harry was obviously disappointed to miss it!

“In the court” – illustration of the opium den by Luke Fildes from “The mystery of Edwin Drood”

Dickens lived long enough to complete only six numbers of the novel, passing away in the early hours of 9 June 1870 at the age of fifty-eight. Harry took his father’s advice to heart and studied hard at Trinity Hall. He gained his B.A. in mathematics in 1872, with the respectable distinction of being the 29th Wrangler. It is sad that his father was not there to celebrate his son’s success.

Subsequent career

Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, K.C.

Harry was called to the Bar in 1873 and subsequently had a distinguished career as a barrister and judge. He became a K.C. in 1892 and was knighted in 1922. Sir Henry Fielding Dickens is described by Venn as “A capable and conscientious advocate, who had a large practice in the Common Law Courts, and proved an admirable Judge. For many years he delighted thousands with readings from his father’s works. During the War he raised large sums by this means for the wounded, and later for the Charles Dickens Home for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors.” Harry was very much his father’s son – both the love of performing and a social conscience were in his genes!

The Dickens connection

Harry was the first of the Dickens family to attend Trinity Hall but he was by no means the last! Crawley tells us that three of Harry’s sons went to Trinity Hall: Henry (1892), Philip (1906) and Cedric (who was killed on the Somme in 1916). Philip’s son, also called Cedric, matriculated at the College in 1935.

The entry for Christopher Charles Dickens (Trinity Hall Archive)

The donor of the letter, Christopher Charles Dickens (1937-1999) was Harry’s great-grandson and the grandson of Henry (1892). Christopher Charles Dickens came up to Trinity Hall in 1957, where he read English for part I and then changed to Archaeology and Anthropology. In 1965 he married the Hungarian countess Jeanne-Marie Wenckheim Teleki who is described by the Charles Dickens Heritage Foundation as being “a hurricane of a countess. Handsome, forceful and humorous.” They settled at Spofforth in north Yorkshire and raised a family of two daughters. Jeanne-Marie became involved in charitable works, and in 1991 with the help of her husband she set up the Charles Dickens Heritage Foundation in order to help the disadvantaged.


The name of Christopher Charles Dickens was posthumously in the news in 2008 on the occasion of the sale of Charles Dickens’s writing desk and chair at Christie’s. The desk and chair had passed down through the family to Christopher Charles Dickens and were donated for sale by his widow Jeanne-Marie in order to raise funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital.  They sold for £433,250! At the time Jeanne-Marie commented, “Charles Dickens was a champion of the poor and needy and an enthusiastic patron of Great Ormond Street Hospital in its early days.  My husband Charles shared his ancestor’s desire to help the disadvantaged and when I became aware of the fundraising needs of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, I knew that I had to give the desk and chair to them.  I felt that it was Charles’ wish, and it is an honour for me to fulfil this wish, it is fitting that their sale will provide care and support for the patients of Great Ormond Street hospital 150 years after Dickens himself spoke at their first fundraising dinner.”


The recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. (London: Heinemann, 1934)

The letters of Charles Dickens, volune 12: 1868-1870 / edited by Graham Storey ( Oxford: Claredndon Press, 2002)

Alumni Cantabrigienses. Part II, from 1752 to 1900 / compiled by J. A. Venn (Cambridge: University Press, 1944)

Trinity Hall: the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1992 / by Charles Crawley; 2nd ed. enlarged by Graham Storey (Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1992)

Katey: the life and loves of Dickens’s artist daughter / by Lucinda Hawksley (London: Doubleday, 2006)

The mystery of Edwin Drood / by Charles Dickens (London: Chapman and Hall, 1870)

Thomas Morgan of Minety

We are VERY grateful to our guest blogger, Dunstan Roberts, who has written this post for the Old Library blog. Dunstan is a graduate student at Trinity Hall. He has recently submitted a doctoral thesis on readers’ annotations in sixteenth-century religious books.

“A Detection of the Deuils Sophistrie”, a little-known work of sixteenth-century religious controversy, was published in 1546. The colourfully-named polemic was written by the then Master of Trinity Hall and Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner (c.1495-1555), whose scholarly prowess and political nous placed him at the forefront of the conservative faction during much of the English Reformation.

What makes the College’s copy interesting is that one of its early readers has filled its margins with annotations—about three-thousand words of them, to be precise. Early modern readers often annotated books in order to improve comprehension and recollection, sometimes adding concise paraphrases and non-verbal notes.

But the annotations in the college’s copy of A Detection are not like this. They are far more pugnacious: a full-blown assault on Stephen Gardiner’s text, denouncing its theology, challenging its arguments, and refuting its patristic sources with rival interpretations and occasionally with rival sources.

Stephen Gardiner, A Detection of the Deuils Sophistrie (1546). Trinity Hall, TH.G.I.1, sigs E3V-E4R.

In more detail:

Sigs E3V-E4R: “In this prayer ys heresye where he said christe moth[er] brought forth god wiche hath no begy[n]ninge note also his treason for images”.

An analysis of the theological viewpoint of the annotations reveals a reader opposed to Gardiner’s Catholicism, but without any suggestion of religious radicalism: in short, a moderate Protestant.

So who was responsible for these unusual annotations? We are fortunate in this instance that the annotator has made his identity explicit through an ownership inscription at the rear of the book: ‘Tho[mas] morgan[us] Ap[u]d Myntie Diocaes[is]. Sa[rum]’. This gives us both a person and a location. The village of Minety (to give it its modern spelling) lies on the border between Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, about 7 miles north-west of Swindon, and falls within the diocese of Salisbury (known in Latin as Sarum). As for Thomas Morgan, he was vicar of Minety from 1582 to 1627, an impressive innings, especially by early-modern standards. We can find two students of his name at Oxford (none at Cambridge) during the decade prior to his installation at Minety: one at Jesus College and one at New Inn Hall (a medieval institution later subsumed into Balliol College). One of these men is very likely our man.

Sig. T4R (detail): “Tho[mas] morgan[us] Ap[u]d Myntie Diocaes[is] Sa[rum]” (Thomas Morgan of Minety, Salisbury Diocese).

Thomas Morgan received his intellectual training at a time when university-educated clergy were seen as critical to the consolidation of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement and were highly sought after. Several colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (including Jesus College, Oxford, Morgan’s possible alma mater) were founded specifically to satisfy this demand. The theological education which the universities provided was conducted along explicitly disputatious lines; prospective clergy were taught how to debate and persuade, which sources to cite and what arguments to employ. Morgan’s patristic sources continued to be taught, even once their purely theological significance to Protestants had started to wane because they were useful for debating with Catholics. The members of this ‘new model clergy’ were not retained within centres of scholarship, but were dispatched into the provinces, where they could have a real impact.

It is within these historical circumstances which we should view this volume and its unusual contents. Whilst it is difficult to fathom the exact purpose of the annotations, there are several likely explanations. Combative annotations like this were sometimes used in the preparation of published rejoinders to controversial texts, although there is no specific evidence to suggest that Morgan was planning anything along these lines. He might, however, have been planning something slightly lower key, such as a sermon in which the former Bishop of Winchester was to be attacked. Or his motives might have been more private, attacking the text as an intellectual exercise, training himself for the larger fight against Catholicism.

There are many questions which remain unanswered and which will merit investigation in the future. We do not know what happened to the book during the centuries before the college acquired it in the latter half of the twentieth century. Nor, significantly, do we know how and why this volume survived when so many other sixteenth-century books perished. These details would be valuable in drawing together the complicated events to which this volume suggestively alludes. But we are, in the meantime, blessed with a remarkably vivid picture of the disputatious religious reading practices which came to the fore during the protracted years of religious turmoil in sixteenth century England.

Images by Dunstan Roberts.

Open Sesame

The Old Library is participating in Open Cambridge, a weekend of (mostly) free events from Friday 9th – Sunday 11th September 2011. Open Cambridge is the city’s celebration of history, architecture, art and gardens and of course libraries! It has a fabulous programme which gives people a chance to see behind the scenes of the city and the University.

Our beautiful Old Library

If you would like to see inside Trinity Hall’s unique Elizabethan Old Library, our chained books and some of our treasures, you can book to join one of four free tours we are offering on the afternoon of Friday 9th September 2011.

Moses receiving a scroll from God – a treasure of our Old Library

Why not make a weekend of it and visit some of the other fabulous libraries on show? Some highlights for rare book lovers are St John’s Old Library, the amazing Parker Library and an exhibition of special collections at Sidney Sussex Library. For those who are fascinated by libraries there are tours of Cambridge Central Library and a look inside the University Library one of the great copyright libraries of Britain (it receives one free copy of all books published in Britian directly from the publishers).

Penguins at the Scot Polar

In addition several of the University’s faculty and departmental libraries and lots of college libraries are opening their doors. Or how about an exhibition of WWI in Christ’s College library or a tour of the Scot Polar Library? There are so many treats on offer – it’s a bibliophile’s dream!

Ptolemy's atlas

Curious! The island of Brazil in our Ptolemy’s atlas of 1513

Last year the tours of Trinity Hall’s Old Library were tremendously popular and were all fully booked. So if you want to come along, please book EARLY to bag a place! Booking is via Open Cambridge only and opens on Monday 18th July 2011.

A cataloguer’s progress, or, Subscription à la mode

How long does it take to catalogue a rare book? Well, it all depends on what lies between the covers (and sometimes on the covers too). More importantly, it also depends on the cataloguer … what kind of day they are having or if they become fascinated by the book in hand.

The latter happened to me, dear Reader, a few days ago when I was cataloguing a three-part work (bound in two volumes) by Samuel Butler. No, not the iconoclastic Samuel Butler (1835-1903), alumnus of St John’s College Cambridge, who wrote ‘The Way of All Flesh’ (coincidentally a really great read) … but the seventeenth-century one. This Samuel Butler (1612-1680) was also a satirist (what is it with these Samuel Butlers?) and the book I had in hand was his bestseller ‘Hudibras’, which lampoons the Puritans and was originally published 1663-1678.

Ours is a later edition, printed in Cambridge in 1744 by J. Bentham, printer to the University and what first caught my eye were the 42 pages of subscribers. The publication was obviously the ‘latest thing’, not just amongst Cambridge academics, but also Oxford men, the aristocracy and the gentry. Soon I was absorbed by this roll of the great and the good of 1744.


The book in hand – or rather, the first volume.

I counted no fewer than twenty-nine members of Trinity Hall, starting with the Master, Dr Edward Sympson (or Simpson), and President, Dr William Warren (who was also Librarian) to a list of other Trinity Hall men: Thomas Ansell, Thomas Beaumont, Richard Bull, Dennis Clarke, Dr. Dale, Ambrose Dickins, Dr. Francis Dickins, George Etherington, John Meres Fagge, John Hagar, John Hill, William Hinxman, Oliver Marton, William Maurice, Edward Milles, Dr. Henry Monson, Humphrey Morice, Buckley Macworth Pried, Matthew Robinson, Dr Salisbury, William Strahan, Thomas Thoroton, John Trenchard, Fines Trotman, Lyonel Vane, Thomas Wallis and Jonathan White. What a marvellous snapshot of Trinity Hall at that time!

List of subscribers

First page of the list of subscribers. The poet Thomas Ansell is here.

Some of these Trinity Hall men are familiar to me through their manuscripts which we hold in the Old Library, for instance, the manuscript volumes of Thomas Ansell’s poems. Perhaps more significantly we have fifteen manuscript volumes of the works of Dr Dickins (see our list of post-medieval manuscripts). Francis Dickins (or Dickens), who died in 1755, was a lawyer, author and Fellow of Trinity Hall from 1705. His donation of manuscripts came with strict instructions: ‘I do desire yt the few manuscript books I shall leave behind me on ye subject of matrimony, guardianship, dominion or property may find a place in some remote corner of the College Library never to be taken out thence on any account whatever.’

Dickins inscription

Take note and obey!

These instructions have been followed faithfully! Preserved for over 250 years, these works are now of great interest to legal historians.

Two other entries in the list of subscribers are of interest to us. The fact that the ‘Library of Trinity Hall’ is listed indicates that by the mid eighteenth-century we had broadened our acquisitions policy to include works of English literature (to add to our core holding in law and the ancients).

Library subscribers

Here we are in print!

The second entry of interest is ‘Merril’, the bookseller at No. 2 Trinity Street, who took 6 copies. Merril recognised that this was a ‘must-have’ book which he could sell, even though a vast number of University people had already subscribed.



Trinity Hall had a strong link with Merril: this was the bookseller with whom we had a subscription for Diderot’s great Encyclopédie. This magnum opus was printed in Paris from 1751 and Merril arranged for the fascicules to be sent as they became available, to be bound into volumes in Cambridge. This complete first edition of the Encyclopédie is now one of the great treasures of the Old Library.

Encyclopedie plate

Preparation of parchment – from the Encyclopédie

But why, you may ask, have I made reference to Hogarth in the title of this piece? The reason is that this edition of ‘Hudibras’ has wonderful engravings of illustrations by Hogarth. But that’s for next time!

Catch 22? No thanks, I’ll pass.

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog lately, so here’s an attempt to rectify that! Unfortunately, for both you and me, what I’ve been working on for the past few months hasn’t exactly been the most stimulating thing in the world.  More paint-drying than paint-balling, if I’m honest.  But as it’s now done, the final challenge is to transform it into something worthy of a blog post.  This might be tough.  Mission Impossible? Perhaps, but hopefully without Tom Cruise. Every cloud … etc.

It’s been almost three months, then, and I’ll admit it, cards on the table, in the confessional, time to come clean: I’ve only catalogued one thing.  In two-and-a-half months.  Sort of.  But, as a disclaimer, it isn’t the case that I’ve just been being slow.  I haven’t been trying to master the art of cataloguing in the style of a tortoise.  Rather, in my defence, m’lord, the item I’ve been cataloguing was a bound-with with 22 (yes, you read that right, TWENTY TWO) individual items contained within the same binding.  I’m led to believe that this was a pretty common practice until the nineteenth century; books weren’t sold as units as they are today, and it was often the responsibility of the purchaser to get things bound.  So presumably binding all these little individual items together would have been more economical than binding them all separately.

Still, though, twenty two.  Did you catch that? Two little ducks. Twenty two.

…my new least favourite number…

In terms of the catalogue process of bound-withs, the rules are pretty simple.  Each individual item has to be catalogued separately (yes, all twenty two of them, and yes, I’ll shut up about that now), and then the bibliographical records of each item are linked together in the same holding and item record.  The way to do this is simultaneously: a) extremely straightforward; b) entirely unfathomable; c) strangely, and instantly, forgettable.  For me, anyway.  And this means that I’ve spent quite a long time in the past few months looking up how to do this, jotting down instructions, losing instructions, cursing lost instructions, looking up how to do this, and so on.  You get the picture.

And then, to continue my list of excuses for being to industriousness what The Wizard of Oz is to gritty realism, or what Catch 22 is to chick-lit, the subject matter of these items was hardly riveting.  In fact, ‘hardly riveting’ is a bit of a stretch.  They’re a series of doctoral dissertations, mostly from Lugduni Batavorum (now commonly known as Leiden) in the Netherlands, mostly on Roman law, and mostly in Latin.  So at the very least they make some sense as a ‘collection’, justifying the way in which they’ve been bound.  Not that I approve of the way they’ve been bound! Twenty two! Seriously. Oops, sorry.


This is one of them…

One thing that struck me was the way in which they’ve been printed: they don’t half put dissertations these days to shame.  I remember submitting mine a couple of years ago (don’t be silly, not a doctoral one), and it was a case of very last-minute rushing to a printing shop, with dissertation lovingly crafted and hurriedly converted to pdf and shoved on a usb stick, one eye on the clock while the shop assistant patiently exhorted the benefits of heat binding over everything else in existence, ever, and then filling out billions of forms, guessing my student number, exasperating the poor (yet brilliant) faculty secretaries, and all the while praying that the massive typo on page 18 would escape the notice of the markers.

Not so much in the Netherlands in the early eighteenth century.  These dissertations have engravings and woodcut vignettes on their title pages, and headpieces, and illustrated initials.  And the engravings weren’t just done by anyone, either, but by Francois van Bleyswyck, that famous and celebrated … well, I hadn’t heard of him, and he’s not on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean he’s not famous and celebrated, all right?  Plus the dissertations are written in Latin: ’nuff said.  I’m already impressed.  I could barely write mine in English (that typo on page 18 still haunting me…)


…and this…

The dissertations are mainly connected to the University of Leiden, founded by Prince William (no, not that one, this one) in 1574.  They date from the early eighteenth century, though their dates span about 40 years in total; and no, they’re not bound chronologically.  In fact, I can’t see any method as to the order in which they’ve been bound.  They do reveal a couple of interesting facts about the way dissertations were submitted, though.  For one thing, they all acknowledge the “Rector Magnificus” of the university, on whose authority (presumably) they’re awarded their degrees.  I thought that was a nice practice…not to mention an amazing job title! It’s also good to see that some of the writers of the earlier dissertations eventually became the “Rector Magnificus” themselves and were credited in later ones (or at least, they’ve got the same name); it shows, if nothing else, that their doctorates were valuable!  The information on the title-pages also reveal how widespread the printing trade was in Leiden at the time–remarkably few of them have been printed by the printing houses.


Don’t worry, I won’t use all of them… we’re almost at the end of the post.

As for how Trinity Hall came to be in possession of this interminable fascinating item, well, here’s a story for you! Or not, unfortunately.  The book was given to us by James William Geldart, though I’m not sure which one.  There were two: both lawyers here, father and son.  My money would be on Geldart Senior.  He was vice-Master at Trinity Hall from 1809-1821, as well as Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge from 1814-1847.  His son, also James William, took a law degree here as well, as did his other son, Henry Charles; and not forgetting arguably the most important Geldart, Thomas Charles, the elder James William’s brother (are you keeping up?), who was Master of Trinity Hall, from 1852-1877, and also a lawyer, and also Regius Professor of Civil Law.  Talk about keeping in the family.

So that’s that. Finished. Finito.  Caput.  It’s almost the end of a very short, and really rather boring, era.  Perhaps I’ll “never quite be the same again”, as Joseph Heller(‘s publisher) promised.  If nothing else, then I’m once again terribly pleased that I’m not a student having to read this stuff.  But here’s to the next three months of rare books cataloguing.  There’s hopefully not a single bound-with in sight.

Image credit:

Thanks to: Leo Reynolds on Flikr

William Blackstone: sour and accidentally successful, but definitely not succinct

The start of the new Michaelmas term got in the way of the Old Library cataloguing project, which had to take a bit of a back seat while we welcomed and explained and informed and clarified (we hope!) and inculcated all of our  lovely new undergraduates as to the arcane and mystical truths of the Jerwood Library (including what to do when the self-issue machine breaks down).  Now they’re all settled in and know how to renew their books (again, we hope!), my attention can wander back to a bit of rare books cataloguing.

Yesterday afternoon, I catalogued the four volumes of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  It’s apparently a remarkably influential work, not just in terms of its synthesis of English law, but it’s said to have played a key role in the development of United States jurisprudence.  It was described as ‘the most important legal treatise ever written in the English language’ by Professor Katz, who introduced the 1979 edition–yes, 1979! which is pretty steep praise, not even mentioning the fact that it was still being printed more than 200 years after it was first published.  (Amazon are advertising a Kindle edition of the first volume as well, for the extra keen).  The four volumes cover the rights of persons, of things, and private and public wrongs, so it’s fairly comprehensive.  Wondering a bit more about the author of these famous and esteemed works, I typed his name into Google, and was a bit surprised by what I found.  Not very much, if I’m honest, and little of it positive.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

William Blackstone, 1723-1780

Rumour has it (read: the Internet has it) that William Blackstone was born in Cheapside in July 1723.  Educated at Charterhouse, then Oxford, he entered Middle Temple in 1740, and would later return to Oxford as a Fellow of All Souls in 1744.  Not bad for a 21-year old!  In fact, it seems that Blackstone was no Rumpole of the Bailey, and his lack of success as a barrister led him back to Oxford to pursue an academic career.  A vaguely successful series of lectures in the 1750s earned him the position of Vinerian Professor of English Law at the Other Place.  I say ‘vaguely successful’—in fact, he made a couple of enemies during this time in his life, most notably Jeremy Bentham, who would later utterly and lastingly denounce the Commentaries, which was based on the lectures.

Jeremy Bentham: not a fan

In any case, Blackstone’s position at Oxford meant that he enjoyed some business as a barrister (if little success in this business), as well as positions including MP for Hindon, Principal of New Inn Hall (now St Peter’s College, Oxford), King’s Counsel, a knighthood, and Judge in the Court of the Common Pleas.  This all sounds very impressive, no doubt, and yet in 1782 an unnamed colleague wrote of him that ‘as a pleader, as a senator, and as a judge, Sir William Blackstone was certainly respectable, but not the greatest of his time’, and this lukewarm response to Blackstone seems to be the general consensus.  His biographer, Wilfrid Prest, puts a nice spin on it though: had he been in more demand, he argues, he may never have had the necessary leisure time or motivation to complete his Commentaries. Having said that, Blackstone married only four years before the volumes were printed, and had nine children, so I imagine Mrs Blackstone wishes he’d occasionally been a bit busier.  And it also seems that he wasn’t a hugely charming or inspiring man, described as ‘sour, morose and imperious’ by a solicitor, William Bray.

Title page of Vol. 2

What sets Blackstone apart, then, isn’t so much his tepidly glimmering/ glimmeringly tepid career as a lawyer, or even his proclivity to procreation, but this work I’ve got in front of me now.  Famed for its elegant writing style, its readability, its clarity, its comprehensiveness and Blackstone’s achievement of his goals to synthesise common law and make it succinct (succinct? Succinct? He must be having a laugh, it’s four volumes, for heaven’s sake).

Trinity Hall’s copies are in near pristine condition, with very few markings in the margin, few annotations, and the binding’s still almost perfect.  This strikes me as rather odd.  Other contemporaneous books I’ve looked at were patently well used, annotated, thumbed—and yet Blackstone’s Commentaries aren’t.  And this has led me to ruminate briefly on some of the possible reasons why.  Perhaps our Trinity Hall lawyers of old weren’t too thorough, and just didn’t bother with these volumes; or perhaps they held them in such astonishingly high regard that they didn’t dare read/touch/breathe in the vicinity of them.  I don’t know the books’ provenance, so perhaps they’re fairly recent acquisitions and were kept elsewhere where they were never used.  Perhaps the syllabus back then didn’t cover common law.  Or perhaps, and I’m leaning towards this one, I’ll admit, the Trinity Hall lawyers of the eighteenth century were so positively affronted by the notion that these volumes were perceived to be “succinct” that they refused to go anywhere near them!  Any other suggestions gratefully received!

Not my idea of succinct

Leaving all that aside, Blackstone’s Commentaries has a strong legacy, and I don’t just mean the way that his named is adorned all over plenty of current law textbooks.  Nor do I mean the way in which the Commentaries are mentioned in Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and most impressively of all, an early Perry Mason novel.  Rather it’s the legacy over the pond which is truly striking.  Blackstone wrote his Commentaries shortly before the American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, and its influence in the Declaration is patent—Blackstone is alleged to have coined the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’, for which Will Smith is probably grateful.  Many commentators assert that the groundwork for US jurisprudence lies with this text, and that is genuinely extraordinary, given the analyses of this man and his skills.

The success of the Commentaries has, perhaps fortunately, overshadowed this dour and irritated and bad-tempered chap who, according to James Boswell, ‘always had a bottle of port before him’.  But despite all of his unpleasantness, I quite like him.  Blackstone couldn’t turn his hand to anything.  He didn’t meet with success at every turn.  He failed at many of the things he tried.  He wasn’t one of those annoying people who are just good at stuff.  In many respects, he was postively mediocre.  Yet his legacy—and his name—lives on, which makes me think there’s hope for all of us yet.

For extra credit:

Prest, W. (2008). William Blackstone: Law and letters in the eighteenth century. Oxford: OUP.

Prest, W. (2010). Blackstone as a barrister. London: Selden Society.

Pannick, D. ‘William Blackstone: a sour, morose and imperious judge of the common law’. From The Times, October 15, 2008.

Wikipedia on Blackstone and the Commentaries.

The IEP on Jeremy Bentham.


Hello and welcome to our lovely new blog!

I’m the Deputy Librarian at Trinity Hall in Cambridge and I’m utterly delighted to say that we were recently lucky enough to receive some funding from the College to embark on a challenging but very cool project to catalogue online the eighteenth-century books housed in our Old Library.  It’s a bit of a mammoth task—I couldn’t even estimate how many books there will be—but it’s one I’m very excited about.  Undertaking this sort of project is important for so many reasons.  It’s about making the resources of the Old Library more widely available to current scholars, it’s about preserving our special collections, it’s about finding out what’s actually in there and learning more about the Old Library and maybe even about the College itself.

An exterior shot of the Old Library

We decided to write a blog about this project because we want to document some of the more interesting things we come across during the process of cataloguing.  One of my favourite things about the Old Library is that you never know quite what you’re going to find—there are so many secrets still to be discovered, and hopefully the work that will be carried out over the next year will bring some of these hidden gems of information to light.  Which, of course, we’ll be more than happy to share!

There’ll be lots more information to follow, not just about the things that the books reveal, but about the Old Library itself and the process of cataloguing the books.  Not too much of the last bit though, hopefully.  Maybe by the time the year is out I’ll have enough tacit knowledge about the secrets of these rare books to become the next Dan Brown.  For now, though, and just to emulate Blue Peter for a minute, here’s one I did earlier…

From this:

Baronia AnglicaTo this:

Back to work, then, these books won’t catalogue themselves!