Nov 082013

Bodleian Library, Oxford

On this date in 1602 the Bodleian Library, Oxford University’s main library, opened for use.  It has been in continuous service ever since, growing considerably over the years (now holding an estimated 11 million books).  It was where I studied and did research as an undergraduate, and I still occasionally visit when I need to see rare books and old documents. All members of the university are eligible to use the library, and that privilege extends for life. In my day to be admitted for the first time you were required to wear an academic gown and recite the following:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

The oath is rather archaic but quaint.  The point of the “fire or flame” rule, for example, refers to the fact that in former centuries when fires were the only source of heat, the library was unheated because of the risk of fire. No one wears a gown any more (except on special occasions), and the oral oath has been replaced by signing a written version. Oh well.

The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester. This small collection of chained books was situated above the north side of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. This collection continued to grow steadily, but when, between 1435 and 1437 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (brother of Henry V), donated a great collection of manuscripts, the space was deemed insufficient and a larger building was required. A suitable room was finally built above the Divinity School, and completed in 1488. This room continues to be known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.  It is still there and serves as the Bodleian’s repository of rare books and manuscripts. It is a gorgeous space to work in and I have spent countless hours there.


The late sixteenth century saw the library go through a period of decline (to the extent that the library’s furniture was sold, and only three of the original books belonging to Duke Humfrey remained in the collection). It was not until 1598 that the library began to thrive once more, when Thomas Bodley (a former fellow of Merton College) wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the library: “where there hath bin hertofore a publike library in Oxford: which you know is apparent by the rome it self remayning, and by your statute records I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to his former use.” Duke Humfrey’s Library was refitted, and Bodley donated a number of his own books to furnish it. The library was formally re-opened on 8 November 1602 under the name “Bodleian Library” (officially Bodley’s Library).  Oxford students call it “The Bod.”

Sir Thomas Bodley

Bodley’s collecting interests were varied; according to the library’s historian Ian Philip, as early as June 1603 he was attempting to source manuscripts from Turkey, and it was during “the same year that the first Chinese book was acquired.” In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company in London to put a copy of every book registered with them in the library. The Bodleian collection grew so fast that the building was expanded between 1610–1612, (known as the Arts End) and again in 1634–1637. When John Selden died in 1654, he left the Bodleian his large collection of books and manuscripts. The later addition to Duke Humfrey’s Library continues to be known as the “Selden End”.

By the time of Bodley’s death in 1612, further expansion to the library was being planned. The Schools Quadrangle (sometimes referred to as the “Old Schools Quadrangle”, or the “Old Library”) was built between 1613 and 1619 by adding three wings to the Proscholium and Arts End. Its tower forms the main entrance to the library, and is known as the Tower of the Five Orders. The Tower is so named because it is ornamented, in ascending order, with the columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.


You might wonder why the Oxford libraries went into decline several times.  It’s not because the students were slackers (although no doubt some were). It is because in those centuries the subjects were limited to Latin, Greek, and Divinity, and the courses of study were rigidly fixed.  Students bought their own books and so had no need for a library for their studies.  Only scholars doing research needed the resources of a library (mostly for manuscripts and rare texts). In those days it was a public library, but now members of the university are the only people who have the right of membership. Outsiders may be granted use but they must send a letter of application explaining why the Bodleian is the only library they can use (usually for rare books), and they are granted temporary membership.

There are unique copies of three 17th century cookbooks in the Bodleian but they are not republished, and since I cannot pop around to see them I am going to improvise and talk about a lesser known aspect of Tudor cuisine: salads. We tend to think of the Tudors as big meat eaters, and they were.  But Tudor cookbooks are also filled with dozens of salad recipes as well, and many are quite imaginative.  There were two basic kinds: raw and boiled.

Raw salads could be made from a huge variety of ingredients such as the ones we are familiar with – lettuce, roquette, and cucumber. But they also used rosebuds, candied orange peel, marigold leaves and a host of others, as you shall see.  They also used a wide variety of herbs and spices directly in the salad which they dressed only with oil and vinegar (as we still do in Argentina). Flavored dressings were unknown. As in Tudor cooking in general salads usually had a sweet component. Here’s a pretty wild salad from John Murrell’s Second Booke of Cookery and Carving (1638):

To Make a Grand Sallet

Take the buds of al kind of good Hearbes and a handfull of French Capers, seven or eight Dates cut in long slices, a handfull of Raisins of the Sun, the stones being pickt out, a handfull of Almonds blancht, a handfull of Curans, five or six Figs sliced, a preserued orenge cut in slices; mingle al these together with a handfull of Sugar, then take faire Dish fit for a shoulder of Mutton, set a standard of paste in the midst of it, put your aforesaid sallet about this standard, set upon your salett foure half Lemmons, with the flat ends downward, right over against one another half ways betwixt your standard and the dishes side, prick in every one of these Lemmons a branch of Rosemary and hang upon the Rosemary preserued cherries, or cherries fresh from the tree; set foure halfe Egges being roasted hart, between your Lemons, the flat end downward, prick upon your Egges sliced Dates and Almonds: then you may lay another garnish betweene the brim of the Dish and the Sallet of quarters of hard Egges and round slices of Lemmons:  then you may garnish up the brim of the Dish with a preserued Orenge in long slices and betwixt every slice of orange a little heap of French Capers.

Just a few notes are needed to catch the drift. First, the salad is meant to be hill shaped, so the “standard of paste” is the starter. It is a small hill of pastry dough to get the shape started. “Hearbes” means leafy greens in general and also green herbs as we know them. “Preserued orange” means candied orange peel. You can tell the whole affair is a work of art with rosemary sprigs sprouting out of lemons and eggs studded with dates and almonds. It would certainly not have been eaten by itself, but as a side dish for a roast of beef or the like. In any case, it was common practice to serve all the courses at once.

[Incidentally I’ll take a small round of applause for transcribing this recipe – you can imagine how hard I had to fight auto-correct and spell check. Normally I can cut and paste old recipes from the internet but I had to use my notes for this one.]

We still have a few boiled salads, that is,vegetables that are boiled and then served cold with a dressing, such as potato or three bean, but the Tudors had a mountain of them.  In fact, judging from the number of them in Tudor cookbooks they were much more popular than raw ones.  This is because they believed that eating raw vegetables was unhealthy.  That is also why even their raw salads tended to be laden with fruits, nuts, pickled items, boiled eggs, and such.  Boiled salads much more commonly used green vegetables. Here is the recipe for boiled green salad from John Murrell’s A new booke of Cookerie (1615):

Diuers Sallets boyled.

Parboyle Spinage, and chop it fine, with the edges of two hard Trenchers vpon a boord, or the backe of two chopping Kniues: then set them on a Chafingdish of coales with Butter and
Uinegar. Season it with Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and a few parboyld Currins. Then cut hard Egges into quarters to garnish it withall, and serue it vpon sippets.

So may you serue Burrage, Buglosse, Endiffe, Suckory, Coleflowers, Sorrel, Marigold leaues, water-Cresses, Leekes boyled, Onions,Sparragus, Rocket, Alexanders. Parboyle them, and season them all alike: whether it be with Oyle and Uinegar, or Butter and Uinegar, Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and Butter: Egges are necessary, or at least very good for all boyld Sallets.

The basic idea is fairly easy to grasp, you chop whatever greens you choose and then poach them in butter and vinegar. Let them cool and season with cinnamon, ginger, sugar, and currants. Garnish with quartered hard boiled eggs, and serve on toast.  “Suckory” is chicory, “coleflowers” are cauliflowers, “alexanders” are an abundant wild flowering plant also called “horse parsley” that are not used in cooking these days – they have a flavor somewhat between celery and parsley.

  2 Responses to “Bodleian Library”

  1. I know this is an older post, and I don’t know if you’re still checking your blog. But I had to comment on two things:

    First, is it really true that as a member of Oxford University one has lifetime admission to the Bodleian? You’d think I would have known that, but . . . what credentials does one need to present? Next time I make it over to the UK I think I’ll make a point of going, just to exercise the privilege.

    Second, your transcription of the Grande Sallet gave me the best laugh I’ve had in days. I can just see the hill of greens and dried fruit with the little rosemary “trees” sprouting out of down-turned lemon halves and all hung with cherries. And the recipe got better and better after that. 😀

    Hope you see this. Thanks!

    • All comments get sent to my email address, even if the posts are old. Glad you found the blog.

      And . . . yes, if you matriculated at Oxford you have lifetime privileges at the Bod. They may be restricted for some old members — I don’t know, I am afraid. I have a doctorate and research credentials, so I have free and open access to MSS, rare books etc. To get a current library card you go to the member services office in the Old Bodleian, fill out a form, and get interviewed. Your time at Oxford will be in the computer system. They will look you up and issue the appropriate card. I don’t remember, but I think there is a fee for the card — small.

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