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

§ 6. Thomas Bodley

Although a regard for learning, and, especially, theological learning, was a marked characteristic of James I, he was by no means distinguished as a book collector; and, whatever was done during his reign towards carrying out the designs of his predecessors, in this direction, was chiefly owing to the shortlived influence of his son, prince Henry, and the mature energy of scholars like Sir Thomas Bodley and Sir Robert Cotton, whose names are associated with the great collections at Oxford, and in the British Museum. It was owing to the prince that the royal library was saved from spoliation, and to Bodley that the “Old library,” in the university of Oxford, which had been completely dispersed, was re-established to such an extent as to lead convocation, in 1617, to greet the latter as Publicae Bibliothecae Fundator. His father, John Bodley, had been one of the exiles who fled from England during the Marian persecution. In Geneva, Thomas, the eldest son, read Homer with Constantine (author of the Lexicon graecolatinum), and attended the lectures of Chevallier in Hebrew, of Phil. Beroaldus in Greek and of Calvin and Beza in divinity. On his return to England, he was entered by his father at Magdalen college, Oxford, where Laurence Humphry, a scholar of repute, was president. Before long, Bodley was appointed to lecture on Greek in the college, and, subsequently, on natural philosophy in the schools. In 1576, he left Oxford to travel for four years on the continent, visiting, in turn, Italy, France and Germany, and, also, acquiring a good knowledge of Italian, French and Spanish. His autobiography leaves it doubtful how far he succeeded in gaining access to the libraries of these countries: but it may be well to recall that the Vatican library in Rome had not, as yet, been rebuilt by Sixtus V, nor the Ambrosian founded by cardinal Borromeo in Milan; that the Laurentian library in Florence had only recently been made accessible to the scholar, and had long before been despoiled of some of its greatest treasures; that Petrarch’s choice collection at Arqua lay scattered far and wide, in Naples, in Pavia, or in Paris; that, in France, the royal library at Fontainebleau had not, as yet, acquired the valuable collection of Greek MSS. included in the library of Catherine de’ Medici, and had only recently begun to profit by the enactment whereby all publishers were required to forward a copy of every work printed cum privilegio; that, in Germany, the library formed by the Jesuits at Trier had but just been opened, while that at Bamberg was not yet in existence. The great Fugger collection, on the other hand, had just been added to the ducal library at Munich, and made accessible, in the new buildings, to scholars; while, in the north, the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel, although jealously fenced in by special restrictions, was beginning to attract numerous visitors, and, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, numbered some five thousand volumes. But, generally speaking, the library at this period was an institution either guarded with a vigilance which made it difficult of access, or with a negligence that foreshadowed its ultimate dispersion.

After his return to England, Bodley, from 1588 to 1596, filled the post of English resident at the Hague. But, on coming back to England in the latter year, although repeatedly solicited to fill more than one important office under government, he decided to retire altogether from political life, and his remaining years may be said to have been almost exclusively devoted to the foundation of his great library at Oxford.

  • “I concluded,” he said, “at the last, to set up my staff at the Library Door at Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded that in my solitude and surcease from publick affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the publick use of students.”
  • The ancient chamber—originally assigned as the keeping-place of a lending library, for the use of poor students allowed to borrow volumes on giving pledges for their safe return—had been a room to the north of the chancel of St. Mary’s church, built from moneys bequeathed by Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester, himself the donor of sundry books; but, in 1488, this chamber was discarded for the building erected by Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, over the noble divinity school, and the library named after him, pointing east and west, and accessible probably by only one staircase, was formally opened. The duke, at the same time, presented numerous books—chiefly Latin classics and versions of Plato and Aristotle, the chief Italian poets and also a Greek vocabulary—the library, at his death, numbering, it is said, some 600 volumes.

  • Only 62 years passed, and then the books so carefully and lovingly gathered together were destroyed or dispersed. In 1550, the Commissioners for the Reformation of the University appointed by Edward VI laid waste its contents.… So complete was the destruction that in 1556 the very bookshelves and desks were sold as things for which there was no longer any use.
  • In the prosecution of his labours, Bodley himself tells us, he was encouraged by the consciousness that he possessed “four kinds of necessary aids—some knowledge of the learned and modern tongues and of the scholastical literature, ability and money, friends to further the design, and leisure to pursue it.” As regards the second “aid,” however, his generosity somewhat exceeded his resources, for we learn that, in 1611, he was fain to borrow upon bond and to pawn and sell his plate for a few hundred pounds, in order to complete his last building of the library, which cost him, in all, £1200. On 8 November, 1602, that library, which now numbers fully three-quarters of a million volumes, had been formally opened with about 2,500. One of his earliest measures had been to cause a massive folio register to be prepared for entering the benefactions which he was able to place on the shelves in 1604, a record subsequently kept by John Hales of Eton; and, as time went on, some of the volumes of the original library were restored either as a donation or by purchase. The year 1605 saw the publication of the first catalogue, with a dedication to prince Henry, and a preface containing memoranda on the origin and growth of the whole collection. In 1609, Bodley executed conveyances of land in Berkshire and houses in London for the endowment; and, in 1610, the Stationers’ company undertook to present to the library a copy of every book that they published. This latter measure induced Godfrey Goodman, of Trinity college, Cambridge (afterwards bishop of Gloucester), to come forward in 1616 to urge upon the vice-chancellor of his own university the desirability of procuring “the like privilege” for that body. “It might,” he said, “be some occasion hereafter to move some good benefactors towards the building of a publick librarie.” In 1611, the statutes for the regulation of the library were approved in convocation. And now it was that Bodley’s first librarian, Thomas James, could venture to affirm that “upon consideration of the number of volumes, their languages, subjects, condition, and their use for six hours daily (Sundays and Holy days excepted), we shall find that the like Librarie is no where to be found.”

  • “He reckons up,” continues the Pietas, “thirty foreign languages (including ‘High-dutch, Lowe-dutch, Un-dutch,’ and ‘Scotish’) in which books are to be found, and gives a list of the nations from which readers had frequented the place, ‘French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danes, Bohemians, Polonians, Jewes, Ethiopians, and others’ Germans, of course, being here included in ‘Dutch.’”
  • In the course of the generation succeeding Bodley’s death, a series of gifts further enriched the collection over which he had untiringly watched and in behalf of which he had disinterestedly laboured. Foremost among these were the Greek MSS. of Giacomo Barocci, in 242 volumes, presented, in 1629, by William Herbert, earl of Pembroke and chancellor of the university, whose munificence was largely owing to the good offices of Laud, his successor in that office. The archbishop himself gave some 1300 MSS. in eighteen different languages and also his fine collection of coins, carefully arranged with a view to their use in the study of history. Other donors were Sir Kenelm Digby, who gave 240 MSS., and Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, who, dying in 1640, bequeathed a large miscellaneous collection of books. Oliver Cromwell, while chancellor of the university, sent 22 Greek and two Russian MSS., and the executors of John Selden presented the greater part of that distinguished scholar’s library, numbering about 8000 volumes, and 350 MSS., chiefly Greek and Oriental.