The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIX. The Foundation of Libraries

§ 5. Oxford College libraries

At Oxford, college libraries had, in most instances, been unscrupulously plundered by the Edwardian commissioners, and little of value or importance remained at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At Balliol, the college of that great patron of learning, William Grey, bishop of Ely, the newly-built library possessed, in 1478, two hundred volumes (including a printed copy of Josephus), by virtue of his bequest; but, by Anthony à Wood’s time, most of the miniatures in the volumes that remained had disappeared. At Merton, the library retained every structural feature of bishop Rede’s original work, and continued, down to the year 1792, to afford, with its chained volumes, an excellent example of a medieval interior. Oriel still preserved its catalogue of 1375, comprising about 100 volumes arranged according to the traditional branches of study. Queens’ still gave shelter to its modest collection in the original building—the present fine library being an erection of the last decade of the seventeenth century. New college could still boast the possession of its MS. copy of the Nicomachean Ethics as, also, of the first printed edition (1495–8) of Aristotle’s collected works; but Lincoln had been plundered of the greater part of the valuable collections given by Thomas Gascoigne and Robert Fleming. Its catalogue of 1474 shows the college to have been, at that time, in possession of 135 manuscripts, arranged in seven presses. Faithful to the traditions derived from Linacre, the shelves of All Souls were largely laden with that medical literature which continued to increase throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It possessed, also, a few volumes of the collection (chiefly theological and of writers on civil and canon law) given, in 1440, by Henry VI; manuscripts and books given by cardinal Pole; and, a far more valuable gift, those bequeathed by his relative, David Pole.

Brasenose, where the library had twice changed its orientation, was not, as yet, in possession of the tenth century manuscript of Terence, which once belonged to cardinal Bembo. At Corpus Christi, the trilinguis bibliotheca, which Erasmus had prophesied would one day attract more scholars to Oxford than Rome, in his time, attracted to behold miracles, scarcely fulfilled his sanguine prediction, but it has been stated that the college possessed, at this period, the largest and best furnished college library then in Oxford. Christ Church, in the room which had formerly been the refectory of St. Frideswide’s convent, had stowed away some early MS. copies of Wyclif’s Bible, and was possessed of one of the original transcripts of the life of her great founder by Cavendish, together with a service book which Wolsey had been wont to use. St. John’s could already pride itself on a fine collection of rare books relating to English history and also on one of pre-reformation books of devotion, while its specimens of the Caxton press still outvie those possessed by any other college.