The Bodleian Book Coffer: A Kindle Of The Middle Ages
The Bodleian Book Coffer is a rare artifact from the Middle Ages which is believed to have been used for the transport of important books. The Bodleian Book Coffer was purchased by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries in 2018, hence its name. The precious object was the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Bodleian’ Weston Library, Thinking Inside the Box, which ran from the 19 th of January to the 17 th of February 2019.
The Bodleian Book Coffer For The Transport Of Books
The Bodleian Book Coffer is essentially a wooden box covered in leather. The coffer is reinforced with iron fittings, hinges, and a lock. The inside of the book coffer has a lining of red canvas, which served as a protection for the contents of the chest. This lining has survived largely intact. On the inside of the lid is a woodcut print depicting “God the Father in Majesty.” Under the vividly colored depiction of god is a prayer, in Latin, which would have been chanted on special feast days.
From this woodcut print, some clues can be derived regarding the origin of the Bodleian Book Coffer itself. According to scholars, the woodblock print is derived from a liturgical book by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany. This book was printed in Paris around 1491. Hence, it is believed that the Bodleian Book Coffer was probably made in Paris at the end of the 15 th century. Incidentally, only four impressions of this particular woodcut print are known to have survived, and they date to the early days of printing in Europe.
The inside of the lid of the Bodleian Book Coffer and its rare woodcut print depicting “God the Father in Majesty.” Under the vividly colored depiction of god is a prayer, in Latin, which would have been chanted on special feast days. (Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford)
It has been postulated that the image of god on the lid of the book coffer may have been intended as a means of providing “spiritual protection” to the contents of the box. When the book coffer was purchased by the Bodleian Libraries, it was, unsurprisingly, empty. The original contents of the box must have been removed a long time ago, leading to speculations about what might it have contained.
It has been speculated, for example, that the book coffer could have once held a Book of Hours, a popular Christian devotional book in the Middle Ages that was normally richly illuminated. The book coffer might have also contained other devotional books, as well as religious objects, such as a rosary. Money and medicines are also possible objects that were kept in the book coffer.
Although this does not seem to be the case for the Bodleian Book Coffer, some of these boxes have hidden compartments, which were likely used to hold extra relics. Straps have also been found on some book coffers, suggesting that these boxes were meant to be carried around.
The front of The Bodleian Book Coffer. (Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford)
What Is Not Known Is The History Of The Bodleian Book Coffer
Whilst scholars are relatively certain about the place and date of the book coffer’s creation and can make some guesses as to its original contents, they seem to be clueless about the history of the object’s ownership. According to a report published in The Guardian, the book coffer was “acquired from a private dealer who had bought it at auction in 2007.”
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The Bodleian Libraries’ website states that the purchase of the book coffer was made “with support from Art Fund, the Bodleian's Kenneth Rose Fund and the Friends of the Bodleian.” Unfortunately, nothing else is mentioned; for instance, how the book coffer ended up in that auction in the first place. There is no doubt, however, that this book coffer is a rare item indeed, as only about 100 of them are known to be in existence. By comparison, thousands of manuscripts, and printed books from Medieval Europe have survived.
Interestingly, the Bodleian Libraries, or at least its predecessor, is about as old as its book coffer. The library is named after Sir Thomas Bodley, who lived between the 16 th and 17 th centuries. He was a fellow at Merton College, and a diplomat at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Although Bodley made great contributions to the library, it would be more appropriate to see him as its restorer, as it had already been established during the 15 th century.
The oldest part of the Bodleian Libraries is the library known as “Duke Humfrey’s,” named after Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester, and younger brother of King Henry V. The duke donated his collection of over 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts, to the University of Oxford. Therefore, the university decided to build a new library to house this precious collection. Construction of the library began in 1478 and was completed 10 years later.
John Capgrave's Commentary on Exodus showing Capgrave presenting his manuscript to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. This is one of the original three volumes remaining from the original bequest of the Duke Humfrey Library in the University of Oxford. (unknown scribe / Public domain)
Unfortunately, the duke’s library only lasted about 60 years. In 1550, the dean of Christ Church removed all the library’s books, some were even burned, in an attempt to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism. Since the university at that time was not wealthy, the books were not replaced and six years later the building was taken over by the Faculty of Medicine.
It was Bodley who revived the library. In 1598, the library was refurbished and received a new collection, consisting of about 2500 books. Some of these books were donated by Bodley himself. A librarian was appointed, and in 1602, the new library was finally opened.
In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London. Under this agreement, a copy of every book published in England and registered in the Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in the library at Oxford. In the same year, Bodley planned and financed the first extension of the library, i.e., Arts End.
Although Bodley died in 1613, further extensions to the library, which he had planned shortly before his death, were made in the decades that followed. Interestingly, although the Bodleian Libraries opened to scholars from all over the world, its books are not to be lent to readers, a tradition that has been maintained and followed since Bodley’s time.
The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Libraries in the University of Oxford. (Diliff / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries: Home For Manuscripts And Books
Fast forward to the present day, the Bodleian Libraries, in addition to being the main research library of the University of Oxford, and a place where books can be read, also hosts temporary exhibitions, such as Thinking Inside the Box, which ran for a month, from the 19 th of January to till the 17 th of February 2019.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was, of course, the Bodleian Book Coffer. Apart from this object, several other artifacts were also on display, including:
“Qur’anic manuscripts with specially designed satchels, a palm-leaf manuscript from West Java inside a beautifully carved, lacquered and painted box, the Kennicott Bible with a lockable wooden carrying case, and a miniature artist’s book which springs from a faux matchbox to reveal an accordion-fold of thirteen wood-engravings.”
To conclude, one may think about the Bodleian Book Coffer and the other objects that were on display as an assemblage. Considered together, these artifacts suggests that “mobile reading” is not a phenomenon that is unique to our present age. The desire to carry books around, and perhaps to “read on the go,” can be observed as early as the Middle Ages, and was not restricted to Europe, but was felt by people in other parts of the world as well.
Moreover, since books were precious yet fragile objects, boxes of fine craftsmanship were created to store them. Some of these, like the Bodleian Book Coffer, have survived till this day, to be admired by a generation for whom, thanks to technology, “mobile reading” is a feature of everyday life, and hence, taken for granted.
Top image: The Bodleian Book Coffer. Source: Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford.
By Wu Mingren
Bodleian Libraries, 2019. Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest, now featuring in a new display. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2019/jan-22
Bodleian Libraries, 2021. History of the Bodleian. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about-us/history
Capon, A., 2019. Oxford’s Bodleian Library buys 500-year-old book-box from Paris dealer. [Online]
Available at: https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2019/oxford-s-bodleian-library-buys-500-year-old-book-box-from-paris-dealer/
Flood, A., 2019. Medieval book coffer shows appetite for mobile reading 'is nothing new'. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/24/medieval-book-coffer-shows-appetite-for-mobile-reading-is-nothing-new
Moss, R., 2019. The Bodleian’s incredibly rare medieval book coffer. [Online]
Available at: https://museumcrush.org/the-bodleians-incredibly-rare-medieval-book-coffer/
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Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bodleian-Library