History Lesson

Collecting with Strings Attached

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Comb through the libraries of enough dissolved monasteries, and you’re bound to stumble upon a hidden gem or two. Think of it like medieval thrift shopping, only instead of rummaging through boxes of worn out t-shirts, you’re flipping through 6th century bibles. And that 1500s-style thriftiness of one man was the birth of what’s become the most famous book collection in existence today. 

Enter Parker Library, home of these vaunted volumes and crown jewel of Cambridge University’s College of Corpus Christi. If you will, take a moment to appreciate what it means to be the prized possession of a place that was founded just a few years before the Magna Carta was signed. Even in the third-oldest university in the world, some artifacts will still blow your mind…

So what did the father of these vintage volumes find in the bargain bin, anyway? By the time Matthew Parker, Master of the college in the mid-1550s, bestowed his collection on the library, he brought with him more than a few diamonds in the rough. 

Take the Bury Bible, a giant illustrated bible from the 1100s and one of the best examples of the Romanesque illumination style. Or consider the very earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a priceless 9th century collection of the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Or harken back to AD 597, when the oldest bound book in existence was created in Italy and sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the people of Britain with the one and only Latin St. Augustine Gospels. 

They’re all there, sitting safely under the same roof — a big, happy family of some of the most precious literature in human history. And this is not a case of cheap wine getting better with age. In fact, Parker was well aware of the importance of his collection while he was building it. When he bestowed his books upon the university in 1574, he did so with a few strings attached.

Parker firmly believed his collection should remain fully intact

So, he devised a plan that has assured over the centuries that his wish would be granted. Within the terms of his gift, he stipulated that if a certain number of books were lost, the rest of the collection would be taken away and given to Gonville and Caius College, just down the road.

Parker also placed a similar restriction on the silver collection he bestowed on the college, which has ensured that Corpus Christi College has remained in possession of the entirety of the library and the silver. Parker knew then that they’d never be able to sell off any of the less valuable pieces of either collection without losing both. Clever guy, that Parker.

To this day, representatives from both colleges gather every few years to ceremonially inspect the collection for any losses. The Parker Library, now temperature-controlled and fireproofed, remains unsurprisingly intact nearly a half-millennium after its founding. And for those of you lucky enough to take a spin through its halls, keep an eye out for any hidden surprises, still waiting to be discovered — just don’t expect to find them in the sale rack. 

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