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Christ Church buys back book donated in 1587

Christ Church has re-purchased a book that its students clubbed together to buy for the college in 1587. The 1570 edition of Euclid’s The Elements of Geometrie was the first English translation of the work. It was donated by a group of nine scholars after they received their Master of Arts degrees in the late 16th century. Christ Church Library then sold it in the 18th century because they already had a copy of the tome.

The names of the nine graduates who bought the book were written on the title page. Among them are James Calfhilll, later headmaster of Durham Grammar School, Edmund Gwyn, later Vicar of Market Lavington and grandfather of Nell Gwynn, actress and mistress to Charles II, and George Limiter, civil servant and solicitor to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

Christ Church was the first Oxford college to encourage recent graduates to donate money or books to the library. This system became more widespread in the 17th century. Often, wealthier colleges could afford to uniformly rebind some books with college binding, seen through the many uniform 18-19th-century re-bindings at the Queen’s College. Meanwhile, some colleges were more reliant on individual donations, in whatever bound form they came. This is evident from the rare books collection at Hertford College library, which exhibits the generous individual responses to a 17th-century call out for book donations.

Many of their bindings were quite personalised, such as the proud red leather label with gold tooling, spelling ‘Martha Moor 1700’, on the calfskin leather of an edition of Whole Duty of Man necessary for all families and the stamps of initials “R.C.” and then ‘R.H” on the possibly 16th-century binding of Libri Prophetarvm.

Other donors to college libraries sought to represent their book ownership through symbolic means, with Magdalen home to various armorial bindings. These include Magd. R.3.19, a fifteenth-century golden-brown leather calfskin-bound Psalmes of David in meetre, featuring gold-tooled double-fillet borders with floral and leafy stamps and the arms of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of James I. Sometimes the colleges themselves have left ownership marks on their books. A late-twentieth-century librarian at Lady Margaret Hall is responsible for all of the rare books having marker pen catalogue numbers on their spines and many heavily covered in black tape as repairs.

Gabriel Sewell, Christ Church College Librarian, said: “The purchase of the book sheds light on the early history of Christ Church Library and the study of material culture as well as supporting research into the history of mathematics at the college, in Oxford and further afield. 

“It was important for Christ Church to be able to bring the book ‘home’ as it is a rare example of a book donated by a group of students when the college was still a relatively new foundation. 

“The book is a link to the College’s history and to the students who gave funds to buy the book in 1587.

“The book has been catalogued and is ready to be accessed by members of the University and the wider community in our Special Collections reading room. 

“Christ Church is very keen to make its rare books and manuscript collections as accessible as possible and encourages anybody with an interest in using our collections for research, teaching or enjoyment to get in touch.”

Christ Church also suggests that the donation may shed light on maths teaching at the college, with the fact that they donated a vernacular version perhaps indicative that the donors felt that it was time the College started teaching mathematics in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. Having gone through various private collections and a spell in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, Christ Church has bought the book back using donations from the Friends of the National Libraries, Dr Fiona Hollands and Ethan Berman. The College intends for the book to be available for research and public engagement.

Image: Christ Church library in the early 19th century / public domain

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