The British Library’s Pursuit of Books

I’ve spent time this year looking at hundreds of medieval manuscript books at the British Library. In some cases I’ve noted characteristics that are shared by books with similar shelf marks, and in other cases I’ve been baffled by the variety within the collections. So, I decided to write a blog post about the British Library’s manuscript collection…

From where did they come, and why?

7th June 1753 was an important date for Great Britain, for it was on that date that an act of parliament granted us a British Museum. Amongst it’s founding collections, the museum brought together manuscript books from three private libraries. Two of the owners of these libraries had recently died: Robert Harley (d. 1724) and Sir Hans Sloane (d. 1753). The third owner, Robert Cotton, had seen much of his collection destroyed or damaged by a huge fire in 1731. Harley’s books were sold to the library by his daughter for £10,000 and became the BM Harley MS collection. Sloane’s collection was purchased from the executors of his will by the Museum and so were the BM Sloane MSS. Cotton’s manuscripts, some in a very sorry state, were given by him to the library to be the BM Cotton MS class. Cotton’s donation made him the first benefactor of the museum. These books, as well as the ones that were acquired subsequently, went on to become the collection of the British Library (BL).

Montagu house, the first home of the British Museum (demolished 1840s)

Montagu house, the first home of the British Museum (demolished 1840s)

The Harley Collection

The Harley Library was founded in 1704 when the politician Robert Harley, bought more than 600 manuscripts from an antiquarian named Sir Simonds d’Ewes.  From that point onwards, Harley avidly collected books, buying many of them from London booksellers, until the collection numbered over 7,000 books. The diary of Harley’s library keeper, Humfrey Wanley, survives, which is an important record of the growth of an eighteenth-century book collection (BL Lansdowne 771). The diary contains a wealth of information about the day-to-day activities of a librarian at the time. We know that he gave solid advice to Robert Harley about what books he should buy and that he engaged in rigorous discussions with other scholars. Clearly, behind every great book collector was a brilliant librarian! For a good overview of Wanley’s life and work, see here.

A librarian at work: Humfrey Wanley

A librarian at work: Humfrey Wanley

Upon the establishment of the British Museum, the books of Robert Harley, who was by then deceased, formed an impressive subsection of its manuscript collection. Out of about 7,660 manuscripts, around 2,000 contain significant decoration, making them of great interest to codicologists and art historians alike. In terms of Middle English verse, which is my current research interest, the Harleian collection is a treasure trove. It includes 231 manuscripts containing poetry in Middle English! For example, there’s BL Harley 978, a thirteenth-century miscellany that contains the only surviving copy of the poem ‘Sumer is icomen in’ (f.11v). Due to the powers of digitisation, you can see each and every folio of it here.

The Cotton Collection

Cotton Tiberius E VI

BL, Cotton Tiberius E VI

As the awful fire of 1731 ripped through Robert Cotton’s library at Ashburnham House, the librarian Dr.Bentley, fled the flames with the fifth-century Codex Alexandrius tucked under his arm. Other books were not so lucky, being badly damaged by flames or water. As the ashes smouldered, the boys of Westminster school picked up fragments of the manuscripts as souvenirs, as we read in this excellent article by Andrew Prescott. This blog post on the British Library Medieval Manuscript Blog gives an overview of how the fire damage actually occurred, shrinking the vellum and making it ‘crisp as a poppadom’. In the centuries after Robert Cotton donated his books to the British Museum, attempts were made to repair the vellum, with varying results. One very early method included soaking the vellum with water to make it more flexible, in order to stretch the curled-up folios. Some of the repair methods were more damaging than the fire itself, as the blog post above explains.

Due to the damage to many of the Cotton manuscripts, access can be an issue for scholars today. There are 89 manuscripts in the Cotton collection that contain Middle English poetry. However, some of them are classified as restricted manuscripts due to the damage, and thus I have had to view their microfilm surrogates, or else acquire special permission to see them. Microfilm copies of manuscripts can be difficult to transcribe at the best of times, but microfilms of damaged manuscripts can be almost indecipherable. Fortunately, many of the Cotton manuscripts were untouched by the fire. To give two very prestigious examples, Cotton MS Nero D.IV: The Lindisfarne Gospels and Cotton Nero A.X, article 3: the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight/Pearl manuscript.

The Cotton manuscripts have subcategories that refer to where they were originally shelved in Cotton’s library. Each book shelf had a bust of one of the Roman Caesars placed above it (Nero, Vitellius, Vespasian etc). So, the name of the book first refers to which emperor the book sat below. The letter after the name refers to the level of shelf that the book was placed upon (shelf A, shelf B, shelf C…), and the final Roman numeral refers to its position on the shelf in relation to the bust (first book along, second book, third book…) So, for Cotton MS Nero D.IV referred to above, it was originally on the shelf under the bust of Emperor Nero, on shelf D, the fourth book away from Nero’s bust). Cotton’s library also housed the Old Royal Library, which were the books collected by the sovereigns of England. Fortunately, that section of the library escaped relatively unscathed. The manuscripts that were there are now named ‘BL Royal MS’, rather than being classified as Cotton manuscripts.

The Sloane Collection

Sir Hans Sloane was a medical practitioner and physician to George II. One of his legacies was being a founding governor of London’s Foundling Hospital, an institution that cared for abandoned children. He was also a hero of chocoholics everywhere, being responsible for devising a delicious recipe for drinking chocolate, which the Cadbury brothers marketed in the nineteenth century as ‘Sloane’s Drinking Chocolate’ He kept a library, and a cabinet of curiosities, and the books came into the possession of the newly-founded British Museum upon his death in 1753. Much of the rest of his collection became part of the Natural History Museum.

A drawer from Hans Sloane's collection, dating to before 1753 (Natural History Museum)

A drawer from Hans Sloane’s collection, dating to before 1753 (Natural History Museum)

As a result of Sloane’s academic interests, a great number of the manuscripts that once belonged to him concern medicine or alchemy.  The collection includes a number of books that belonged to some of his famous scientific contemporaries, such as Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Ninety Sloane manuscripts contain Middle English Verse. A relatively small number of these manuscripts are classified as high-grade material, perhaps because many of them are workaday medical recipes or tracts (though, of course, very valuable for textual study!) However, some notable illuminated manuscripts do belong to the Sloane collection, and many of them have nothing to do with medicine, such as BL Sloane 2452, which is an ornately-illuminated text of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes.

BL Sloane MS 2452, f. 7

BL Sloane MS 2452, f. 7

There’s also Sloane 2593, a book containing seventy-one carols and other miscellaneous songs and ballads, many of them unique to this manuscript.

I will leave you with an ‘amourous ballade’ from Sloane 2593, which is unique to this manuscript. I will leave the interpretation to you:

I haue a newe gardyn
And newe is begunne;
Swych another gardyn
know I not vnder sunne.

In the myddis of my gardyn
Is a peryr set,
And it wele non per bern,
But a pere jenet.   [jenet = an early-ripening fruit tree]

The fayrest mayde of this toun
Preyid me
For to gryffyn here a gryf [‘gryffyn here a gryf’ = graft her a graft]
Of myn pery tre;

Quan I hadde hem gryffid
Alle at here wille,
The wyn and the ale
Che dede in fille.

And I gryffid here
Ry3t up in here home,
And be that day xx. wowkes
It was qwyk in here wombe.

That day twelfus monith
That mayde I mette,
Che seyd it was a pere robert,
But non pere jonet.     [‘jonet’ here means ‘John’]

(Transcription from Theodore Silverstein, English Lyrics Before 1500)

Many more manuscripts were collected by the British Museum between 1753 and today and formed sub-collections such as the Lansdowne, Additional and Stowe manuscripts. I hope to look at some of them in a future blog post. But for now, adieu!


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