November 15, 2007
Transatlantic partnership puts major British library online, spotlighting books rescued from the medieval world
One of the biggest cultural earthquakes of the 16th century was the dissolution of the English monasteries under King Henry VIII. His motive was simple: He wanted the land and assets. The effects were long lasting and complicated: The Protestant Reformation was irreversibly launched in England, and so was a period of bitter religious strife.
Books were among the first casualties. In the quest for quick cash, the great monastic libraries perished. Their charms were perhaps too subtle for the new men. (The former abbeys and priories that were not left to ruin were sold at a pittance or given outright to royal favorites.)
Said the aptly named John Bale, notorious for his anti-clericalism: "A great number of them which purchased those superstitious mansions, rescued of those library books, some to use in their jakes [i.e., their toilets], some to scour their candlesticks, and some to rub their boots. Some they sold to the grocers and soap-sellers."
These lost books and manuscripts contained much of English history. (Only six of Worcester Priory's 600 books survived intact to the present; only three of 646 volumes from the Augustinian Friars of York.) Many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts vanished.
Many, but not all. Some of the monastic treasures are now available to the world, thanks to a partnership between Corpus Christi College (Cambridge), the University of Cambridge and Stanford.
A new website, http://parkerweb.stanford.edu, will eventually include high-resolution images of every page of Corpus Christi's Parker Library. The remarkable collection includes 538 manuscripts spanning the sixth to the 16th centuries. The project is supported by $5.6 million in grants from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The beta version currently online includes about a sixth of the total content that eventually will be available. The project is scheduled for completion in late 2009.
Scholars and students in the pertinent subjectsmedieval, Renaissance and early modern studies; art history; paleography; church history; the history of the English language; Anglo-Saxon studiesare invited to use the test site and provide criticism and suggestions to guide revisions and enhancements. Help is available for instructors or institutions using the site for coursework or research. Material will be added to the site periodically.
The library is named for Cambridge-educated Matthew Parker (1504-75), a bibliophile and a shrewd mover-and-shaker of his day. He was a defender of the "New Religion," a master at Corpus Christi and confessor to Anne Boleyn, the siren who fascinated the king so much he was willing to break with Rome for her. Parker lay low during the brief, violent Catholic reign of Mary Tudor, but when Boleyn's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, assumed power, his star was shining. Elizabeth was famously kind to those who had been good to her ill-fated mother, beheaded in 1536. Parker became Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held until his death.
He kept busy, supervising the revisions that established the doctrine of the Anglican Church. He organized the translation of the Bible into English, personally translating Genesis, Matthew and some of the Epistles.
He was so busy, in fact, that he became a household word. His supervision of the minutiae of the church became so intrusive, exhausting and tiresome to the clergy that he inspired the sobriquet "Nosy Parker."
Elizabeth mandated her trusted archbishop to rationalize and defend her church. Parker was to build the case that the Protestant Reformation in England was no reformation, but rather a restoration of an English church that had existed from the remote past, separate from Rome. In other words, he was to justify the fait accompli.
And he was in an excellent position to do so. "Parker was more or less the first serious collector of the Reformation, buying and commandeering books with virtually unlimited money and power," said Christopher de Hamel, chief librarian at Corpus Christi.
For Parker, it was a working collection; he used these books himself, copiously annotating them, and did not collect them only for their elegant calligraphy and bindings.
His library, consisting mostly of manuscripts from monastic libraries, includes about a quarter of all surviving manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon. The Parker Library is one of three major library foundations of early England. Sir Thomas Bodley's collection became Oxford's famous Bodleian Library. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's library, including the renowned Lindisfarne Gospels, became the equally famous British Library.
But, de Hamel said, Parker antedates Bodley and Cotton by a generation: "Parker had the first pickings, acquiring many of the earliest books in English history."
The Parker Library survived the destruction of the Protestant Reformation, but paper and parchment are vulnerable to other kinds of destruction. For example, a 1731 fire destroyed a quarter of the Cotton Library and sent the librarian fleeing the inferno with the Codex Alexandrinus under his arm.
The Parker Library also needed to survive its own inaccessibility. It remained entirely intact but largely untouched in one room at Corpus Christi. To gain entry, according to Andrew Herkovic, director of communications and development for Stanford University Libraries, you had to "be nice, be important, and write in advance."
"The who's who of people denied access is incredible in itselfincluding Christopher de Hamel," Herkovic added.
Having the Parker Library online means it is universally accessible and virtually indestructible. In 2001, Stanford and Corpus Christi began negotiations for a cyberspace Parker Library. "It may seem an unlikely marriage, but it had an underpinning of logic to it," said John Haeger, the Stanford Libraries' special projects director.
Corpus Christi hired a staff of scholars to do bibliographic work and update and expand the catalog. The University of Cambridge provides "image capture." Stanford provides website development and the post-processing of archival TIFF images.
Beyond that, said Herkovic, "What we brought to the table was a comprehension of what it takes to make a project succeedfrom concept to being fundable by a grant agency. We knew about digitization and processhow to roll up our sleeves and get it done."
Advisers to the project include George Hardin Brown, professor emeritus of English and a specialist on the work of the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century English monk and polymath; Suzanne Lewis, professor emerita of art and art history; and Jennifer Summit, associate professor of English, who is a member of the current Parker Consultative Group.
The beta site will be fully and freely accessible at least through 2008. But once the site's development and content are complete, full access will be available through institutional subscriptions only. Until then, the record of a lost world, including manuscripts from the time of Cadmon and Beowulf, is open to all. Just like the Parker Library never was.
For additional information, or to communicate about the project, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
High-resolution images can be downloaded at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu (slug: "parker").