Cambridge University Library is home to over 2,000 handwritten books made across western Europe between the 5th and the 15th centuries. The origins of the collection date back to at least 1416, with several manuscripts acquired during the 15th century remaining on the shelves to this day. Throughout its existence, the Library has benefitted from the gifts and generosity of benefactors, both great and small, who furnished it either with books or the means to acquire them.
During the latter part of the 16th century, Andrew Perne, Vice-Chancellor of the University, played an instrumental role in rehabilitating the Library and soliciting donations from important ecclesiastical and political figures of the day. In the 17th century, the Library received the manuscripts (as well as printed books) of Richard Holdsworth (1590-1649), which bequest laid the foundations of its modern collection of Middle English manuscripts. In 1715, it received the entire library of John Moore, bishop of Ely (1646-1714), via the gift of George I, a benefaction so substantial it was subsequently described as the ‘Royal Library’. Notable among benefactors of the modern era are Samuel Sandars (1837-1894), for his outstanding collection of illuminated manuscripts, and Geoffrey Keynes (1887-1982), for his collection of 13 manuscripts. From the late 18th-century onwards, the Library has also actively acquired manuscripts by purchase, through dealers or auctions, with many of those in the Additional sequence arriving at the Library in this way.
The majority of the manuscripts at Cambridge University Library contain texts written in Latin, but all of the major European vernacular languages are represented, with particular strengths in Old and Middle English. Many are also richly illuminated and illustrated. These books bear witness to many aspects of the medieval world and its cultural and intellectual life. There are copies of texts – such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the ‘books of beasts’ known as bestiaries – which remain well-known among modern audiences.
Magnificent bibles and liturgical manuscripts illustrate the vibrancy and variety of medieval religious life, while devotional texts and Books of Hours reveal practices of religious observance and spirituality at a personal level. There are also chronicles and histories, semi-fictional accounts of travel to far-flung places, and romances, poetry and other works of literature. For the sciences, alongside compendia of medical recipes and surgical guides, there are physicians’ own handbooks, as well as works of mathematics and astronomy complete with calculation tables and complex diagrams about the movement of the planets or the occurrence of eclipses.
The collection also includes books used for advanced study in monasteries and the universities: glossed books of the Bible or canon and civil law, and works of theology and philosophy. There is also a wide selection of classical authors, including Ovid, Horace, Pliny and Aristotle. The ownership of these books is particularly varied: books belonging to famous kings such as Henry VII and Edward VI of England, or Francis I of France; some from the great libraries of medieval England at Durham Cathedral Priory or the abbey of St Augustine in Canterbury; and others from individual scholars, monks and priests, for whom a certain manuscript may have been the only book they ever possessed.
Particular highlights from the collection include:
Codex Bezae, a late 4th/early 5th-century copy of the New Testament and Acts.
the Moore Bede: the earliest extant copy of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow within a few years of Bede’s death.
the Book of Deer: a compilation of extracts from the Gospels, copied in the 10th century and perhaps the oldest surviving book made in Scotland.
a collection of some 25 manuscripts donated in 1574 by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (1504-1575), including copies of the Gospels, two sets of homilies, as well as texts by Bede and Gregory the Great in Old English, as well as chronicles and other texts in Latin or Greek.
several copies of Geoffrey Chaucer’s writings, including the earliest anthology of his poetic works as well a glossed copy of his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (which has been in the collection since at least c. 1424).
The collection of manuscripts is divided into two classmark sequences:
the ‘Two Letter’ sequence, comprising classmarks beginning ‘Dd.’ to ‘Oo.’ (e.g. ‘Dd.1.1’), in use until the mid-nineteenth century.
the ‘Additional’ sequence, comprising classmarks beginning ‘Add. ‘ (e.g. ‘Add. 43’), in use from the mid-nineteenth century until the present.