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R.M. THOMSON The Fox and the Bees: The Early Library of Corpus Christi College Oxford: The Lowe Lectures 2017.


The Fox and the Bees: The Early Library of Corpus Christi College Oxford: The Lowe Lectures 2017.

Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer for Corpus Christi College, 2018. viii + 95 pp. 23 color plates.

Corpus Christi celebrated its half-millennium last year. For this occasion, the college commissioned a series of books celebrating its distinguished library: many hyperillustrated "coffee-table" volumes directed at old members rather than a scholarly audience (such as Pormann, reviewed in JEBS 19 [2016]). But scholarship did not always lag behind: the lecture series that memorializes Corpus's most distinguished paleographical member, E. A. Lowe, was dedicated to an accurate history of the college's distinctive early library.

Here Corpus was particularly fortunate in its presenter. Rod Thomson's credentials and his intimate knowledge of the college library are impeccable. In 2011, he produced a descriptive catalogue of the extensive manuscript holdings (mainly, as he points out here, donations of the seventeenth century). Thomson followed this up four years later by bringing to conclusion volume 16 of the long-running Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (reviewed in JEBS 20 [2017]). This covers all the libraries of Oxford's secular colleges and includes extensive documentation of Corpus's library, including its acquisition of printed books, down to an initial catalogue of 1589. The Lowe Lectures (and the present volume) relied upon this bibliographical background; here, Thomson offers a richly nuanced narrative that contextualizes and fruitfully extends these somewhat inert earlier published materials.

Thomson's account reproduces the three public lectures that formed the 2017 Lowe series. The first outlines the vision of the founder, Bishop Richard Fox, and his distinctly "revolutionary" vision for a college. This was to be devoted to "The New Learning," an emphasis upon the classical languages and literary study; this focus necessarily prioritized modern printed editions rather than manuscripts. This first lecture outlines the founder's book donations and the way in which they actuated his vision; Thomson makes a good case here for this "revolution."

The second lecture is devoted to the activities of Fox's protege, the college's first president, John Claymond (1468-1537). Here Thomson demonstrates the continuation of Fox's program, most especially in Claymond's extensive commentary on Pliny, and the addition of Hebrew, the third "great language," to college collections. In the third lecture, Thomson takes the narrative past mid-sixteenth century (when Corpus Christi, belatedly, one might think, began acquiring specifically Reformation printed materials). The volume is richly illustrated (particularly with images of original bindings, many produced by prominent members of the trade) and capped off with an extensive series of bibliographic appendixes: a listing of all surviving college books, print and manuscript, from the 1589 catalogue, arranged by donor; all entries in the college accounts pertaining to the library; and two letters associated with John Claymond (one heretofore unpublished). This is a very rich trove indeed.

To this account, I would add only a couple of grace notes, both concerning Claymond. Thomson laments the total loss of Claymond's "lighter writing" (22). While scarcely "light," at least one piece of this, surprisingly in the vernacular (and certainly predating his presidency), does survive. (In Thomson's defense, I would say it escaped even the indefatigable A. B. Emden, although not the authors of the Bodleian Summary Catalogue.) MS Wood F.34, folios 1-8, has an early-sixteenth-century copy of "Mr Claymondis treatise of repentance," with incipit "Conuertimini ad me in toto corde.... Hytt ys ye propurte and condycion off euery wyse man." Although Anthony Wood continues, "written with his owne hand," this is in fact a scribal copy (although it still retains vestiges of Claymond's native Lincolnshire dialect).

As his conclusion, Thomson offers an anecdotal account of the continuing usefulness of this sixteenth-century collection (52). In editing William of Malmesbury, he and Michael Winterbottom had to rely for their references on Corpus's 1524 printed Latin Josephus, unavailable in any modern edition. Here bibliographical nous may have slipped a bit; although the volume lacks any indication of the fact, this may represent a publisher's "comp copy," not a purchase, since the editor of the work was one of Claymond's sometime correspondents, one D. Erasmus.

But grace notes only: this is a richly rewarding account, with Thomson, as one of Fox's busy bees, carrying his activities into a new half-millennium.

Ralph Hanna, Keble College, Oxford
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Author:Hanna, Ralph
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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