Libraries and Manuscripts

Last week brought some invaluable moments in three Cambridge College libraries and the University Library. It was a week away from Oxford, where Diana and I are based this term (permanently in her case, intermittently in mine) – making my acquaintance with these two iconic institutions within the space of three weeks. In Magdalene College’s Pepys Library I worked seated at a small table near the window, in the beautiful room that houses Pepys’s bookcases and his books in the order in which he kept them. I walked through the entrance of the public library to the manuscript library at St John’s, studying the manuscript that, uncharacteristically, only has The Chastising of God’s Children, and that turned out more interesting than I had expected.

I approached the Wren Library at Trinity College from the back of the college – I only managed to locate the Porter’s Lodge later, when I had walked to the front of the college through the courts, catching a glimpse of the Henry VIII portrait copied from Hans Holbein’s Whitehall mural in the dining hall when walking past it – and was escorted to the library doors by a security guard in a bowler hat and long coat. The Wren Library is grand, marbled, with bays full of books, and a research table with six seats at the very end, all of which were filled. The gentleman sitting opposite me was having fun with the documents he was looking at, laughing silently but heartily at some funny tidbit he seemed to be finding in them. All of us under the eyes of marble busts and statues.

The University Library’s manuscript room is housed at the very back and top of the impressive building from the 1930s. A larger library, different rules: lockers, no clear plastic bags allowed, and … the most comfortable book rests and weights I ever used – cushions, so they really couch the books and take their shape, which is what a hard mousse never does.

Four libraries, four individuals. But even more so: six manuscripts, six individuals. After I had researched all six manuscripts, I found myself unable to picture the third. What was it like again? What was its script like? Its decorations? Just as you can strain your memory to recover the face of someone you have just met at a dinner party, and can’t, because someone else’s face comes up to replace the lesser known face, I was straining to bring to mind Trinity College, MS B.14.19. It took a while, but I recovered them, the look and feel of this Chastising manuscript, and I was as happy about it as I would have been if I had remembered the face of an interesting new acquaintance.