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The Wycliffite Bible (CCCC MS 147)

Language can be exclusive. When a text is unavailable in one’s own language, one feels barred from understanding its meaning. This concern allows us insight into the thinking behind the production of this highly controversial manuscript from the Parker Library collection: the Wycliffite Bible (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 147). The Wycliffites, followers of the divisive church reformer John Wycliffe, were the first to translate the Bible from Latin—which the clergy read—into the vernacular, the language of the people: English. This particular manuscript is of the later version of the Wycliffite Bible, and was likely produced between 1410 and 1430. In its prologue is the pronouncement that ‘no simple man of wit be aferd vnmesurabli to studie in the text of holy writ, for whi tho ben wordis of euerlastyng lif’[1] [no man simple in wit should be unreasonably afraid to study in the text of holy writ, because those are words of everlasting life]. While researching the fiery Late Medieval debate surrounding this manuscript and others like it, I discovered that era’s contention regarding textual, and especially biblical, translation and interpretation.

I began by looking at the language the Wycliffites themselves used to describe their project of producing the first ever English Bible. I found that one particular phrase—‘the naked text’—was ‘intimately linked with the Wycliffite project of Bible translation’.[2] This phrase originated from medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, in which Chaucer summarises his intention to translate his classical sources in order to declare ‘[t]he naked text in English’.[3]

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The prologue to the later version of the Wycliffite Bible

But what is a ‘naked text’? Chaucerian scholars can help to shine a light on this obscure phrase. Sheila Delany reads Chaucer as describing ‘a text bare of rhetoric, a text faithfully translated, a text devoid of gloss, or a text completely transparent to meaning’.[4] D. S. Brewer similarly contends that ‘[t]he plain or naked text, without the ‘glose’ – without, that is, the interpretation that came to signify falsification or flattery or deceit – appealed to Chaucer, and he always uses the word ‘glosing’ unfavourably’.[5] The Chaucerian idea of ‘the naked text’, therefore, refers to a text that requires no interpretation; one can read its meaning directly. The compelling idea of a Bible ‘completely transparent to meaning’—and whether this could be a reality—lies at the heart of the Wycliffite Bible controversy.

The bizarre imagery of textual nakedness is worth analysing. Sheila Delany offers both positive and negative connotations in her analysis of this Chaucerian phrase. She notes that, because ‘naked’ is ‘the past participle of a transitive verb: to naken or to nake an object, meaning to make bare, to expose, to strip someone or something of covering or protection’, the ‘naked text’ can be seen as something ‘impoverished, stripped of what had properly covered or adorned it’.[6] On the other hand, she writes: ‘nakedness is a natural condition: the pristine condition, after all, of the human race and the human individual’.[7] This duality of connotation made the ‘naked text’ phrase fruitful for both the proponents and critics of the English Bible. For the anti-Wycliffites, the phrase could be used unfavourably, as nakedness does not usually suggest something meant to be public and widely accessible, but rather something that should remain private (in this case, ‘the naked text’ of the Bible should remain in the hands of the clergy). Meanwhile, for the Wycliffites themselves, ‘the naked text’ of the English Bible symbolised freeing God’s Word from its stifling and elitist Latin clothing.

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Marginal criticism of the translation of ‘erodius’ as ‘gefauken’

The direction reception of an English Bible by ordinary people certainly seems to involve less interpretative work than the reception of the Latin Bible by the clergy—highly trained in biblical interpretation—who then pass on their interpretations to their congregations. The English masses, having had no interpretative training, certainly would not feel as if they were interpreting, but simply reading. However, the possible naivety of Wycliffite optimism starts to show through here. Even the untrained common man could not help interpreting as he read; even the illusive ‘naked text’ would be quickly clothed in his own interpretation. Moreover, the unavoidable interpretive work involved in all translation—including that of the Latin Bible by the Wycliffites—cannot be ignored. The Wycliffite Bible in the Parker Library bears witness to the supposed dangers of translating into the vernacular, as this very manuscript contains the earliest comment on the inaccuracy of the Wycliffite translation; in the margins of Psalm 103, Wycliffe’s competence in Latin is criticised when he translates the Latin word ‘erodius’, meaning stork, into the Middle English word ‘gefaukun’, referring to a type of falcon.[8] Modern critic Mary Dove deems this comment to be ‘finicky’ and ‘clutching at anti-Wycliffite straws’,[9] yet the comment’s triviality demonstrates the immensity of underlying tensions regarding biblical translation.

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A small marginal gloss

As mentioned above, Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ idea seems to reject the inclusion of glosses—that is, explanations and paraphrases that could guide textual interpretation. Similarly, for the Wycliffites, ‘the Bible had to be reclaimed from the discourse of glossing’.[10] While rejecting that academic and exclusive ‘discourse’, they believed that ‘the Christian life well and tenaciously lived […] is the highest and most authoritative form of biblical glossing’.[11] Consequently, the Parker manuscript, like other Wycliffite Bibles, only contains minor and infrequent glosses, such as ‘intertextual glosses’ which usually ‘appear in the margins, outlined in red’.[12] This scarcity of explanation led the clergy to worry about the spiritual endangerment that might arise from allowing ordinary people to read difficult parts of the Bible themselves. The Dominican friar Palmer, who argued against vernacular translation, supported circumlocution—the method by which priests gloss and interpret scripture in a roundabout way for the laity—and warned that the naked, uninterpreted text of the Bible had given rise to multiple heresies among untrained people in the early church.[13] For Palmer, ‘the naked text’ was an ominous danger, as the laity are incapable of properly understanding what they read; his opinion undercuts the Wycliffite hope for a Bible ‘transparent to meaning’ for ordinary people.

Even now, there is a diversity of views on the value or naivety of the Wycliffite project. There is a degree of irony in the Wycliffites’ adoption of Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ phrase, as critics such as Delany read the original phrase as ironic, suggesting that Chaucer himself knew ‘there is no such thing as true nakedness whether of texts or of people or of ideas’.[14] Moreover, Chaucer omitted the phrase from a later version of his own text, seemingly in ‘response to the increasingly controversial Wycliffite project of Bible translation in the late 1380s and 1390s, which claimed to be able to produce just such a “naked text”’.[15] A few years later, in 1409, the English Church introduced the following interdictions: ‘no vernacular scripture translated recently enough to be clearly understood […]; no vernacular theology; no lay access to clerical learning’.[16] What is intriguing here is the Church’s concern that a text might actually be ‘clearly understood’; this is a worry about clarity rather than the lack of it. Perhaps the Wycliffite idea of producing a truly ‘naked text’—with an accessible meaning outside of clerical interpretation—was too optimistic, but rather than laughing at its naivety, the Church in fact seemed desirous to prevent the Bible from becoming too ‘naked’. It seems that the Wycliffites had, at the very least, tapped into a latent anxiety about how the Bible was read and who read it.

—Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden (eds.), The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books, in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1850): 2.

[2] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 41.

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Good Women,’ in Chaucer’s Works, Volume 3, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Project Gutenberg, 2014): p.72, l.86.

[4] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 75.

[5] D. S. Brewer, A New Introduction to Chaucer (London and New York: Routledge, 1998): 249.

[6] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 118.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 175.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kantik Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and The Interpretation of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1.

[11] Michael P. Kuczynski, ‘Glossing and glosses,’ in The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016): 367.

[12] Ibid., 348.

[13] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 10.

[14] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 1.

[15] Michael N. Salda and Jean E. Jost (eds.), Chaucer Yearbook: A Journal of Late Medieval Studies, Volume 4 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1997): 99.

[16] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 37.


HQ AW initial and tearEncountering a manuscript is a vastly different experience to reading a modern printed edition of the same text. I discovered this when I had the privilege of examining the Ancrene Wisse manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402) during my internship at the Parker Library. Ancrene Wisse—meaning ‘advice for anchoresses’—is an early thirteenth-century text intended to guide the devotional lives of female religious recluses. But, alongside its content, what struck me about the manuscript was its palpable materiality. I was confronted with an animal skin that had been skilfully made into a durable writing surface, and could see the flaws in the parchment that sometimes resulted from that process. The flaws, in particular, ensured that I saw the text not as an abstraction, such as critical editions present, but rather as an unavoidably physical instantiation.

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Flaws in the parchment: a hole and a stitched up tear

The production of medieval manuscripts was an arduous process. Skins, from livestock such as sheep and goats, were made into parchment through ‘the laborious processes of liming, curing, dehairing, scraping and smoothing’, as well as being ‘strategically cut to maximise the available surface area to produce as many leaves as possible’.[1] These processes, particularly that of scraping the skin, could result into small holes, which would grow larger when the skin was stretched out. The skin could also already be weak or damaged in places, and therefore prone to tearing. Medieval scribes consequently had to be creative in repairing parchment holes, which ‘could be stitched, glued with a patch or simply avoided by writing around them’.[2]  Parchment leaves were often folded in such a way that ‘any irregularity and damage appear at the edges’, so that the binder could potentially decide to cut off the damaged area.[3]

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A repaired tear within the body of text

MS 402 of Ancrene Wisse contains examples of several of these repair techniques. I saw tears stitched up with green thread, often at the edges of leaves; it is probable that these leaves were intentionally folded so that the imperfection would not interfere with the text. Holes also appear within the body of text itself, and are sometimes left open, sometimes stitched up. I could tell that these holes occurred prior to the scribe writing on the parchment because the scribe had cleverly navigated the text around them. It was striking to see how the scribe works with the physicality of text—almost as if in artistic collaboration. On one leaf, two colours of thread have been used, suggesting that the parchment was repaired on more than one occasion; perhaps some of the original stitching came loose and a different colour was used to replace it. Yet in other places, stitches have clearly come out without being replaced, as the parchment bears the puncture holes of a needle; this is likely because a modern conservator would not venture to replicate the original repair works. Furthermore, as the parchment has dried and hardened over the centuries, the original thread that restrained an old tear is no longer needed; the parchment can hold itself in place.

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Two colours of thread on the same leaf

Due to its abundance of flaws, the parchment used for Ancrene Wisse seems to be of relatively low quality. The quality of materials used in making a manuscript could give us clues about the societal value of the text and its readers. Orietta De Rold explains that ‘[m]odern research suggests that the qualitative differences in the process of making the parchment had an impact on the production of the medieval book. Little evidence of the quality of the parchment which was bought and sold is available in contemporary records […but…] it is possible to observe differences’.[4] One example she gives is that dark, easily creased parchment was often used for university books in the fourteenth century. Such low quality parchment corresponds to the fact that the text was not meant for ecclesiastical purposes; it was merely for use by students. While Ancrene Wisse is itself a religious text, its intended audience of the female religious could resign it to lesser parchment, at a time when women were undoubtedly considered lesser members of society.

To me, the flawed nature of the parchment seemed wonderfully juxtaposed with the visible care and precision that had gone into making the manuscript as neat as possible. After the leaves of parchment were made, they were ‘passed to others for the addition of pencilled margins and lines’.[5] The scribes’ precision is evidenced by the fact that the ‘relative dimensions of margins’ were often determined by ‘the golden mean or sectio divina’.[6] Scribal work was undertaken by monks, and was even viewed as an act of devotion, as Peter Stoicheff suggests:

Some scripts are as small as one-sixteenth of an inch high, too small to be easily read with the unaided eye, suggesting the devotion was not in the act of reading but the act of the inscription into the parchment surface itself – literally making the word flesh. Digital enlargements of such scripts reveal an astonishing accuracy in the straightness of line, the height of script, and the shape and detail of individual letters.[7]

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A tear that had once been stitched up

Given the scribes’ commitment, perhaps the additional task of repairing imperfections simply added to the profundity of their devotional act. Tears and holes could be imbued with theological significance due to the medieval trope of comparing manuscripts to bodies—in particular, the body of Christ—and thus seeing manuscript flaws as analogous to the wounds of Christ’s Passion. The scribes’ dedicated work in preserving a text of religious value such as Ancrene Wisse on flawed, animal material could even be seen as symbolically incarnational—‘literally making the word flesh,’ as Stoicheff writes. These parallels reinforced my sense that the parchment’s flaws add to the beauty of the manuscript, as they deepen its symbolic potential.

R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain write that ‘[c]ritical editions […] regard texts as abstractions, treating them as having an ideal form of which manuscript instantiations are imperfect representations’.[8] Yet my experience with the Ancrene Wisse manuscript at the Parker Library taught me that this supposedly ‘ideal form’ carries little of the immediacy of seeing an animal skin, complete with all its flaws, interacting with the text itself, in literal and symbolic ways.

–Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[2] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Materials,’ in The Production of Books in England 1350-1500, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, A History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013): 65.

As part of my work experience here at the Parker Library I was given the opportunity to do my own research and write it up on a blog post. This was an amazing chance to see what research means practically, and at first I was overwhelmed by the number of books available to look at and make the focus of my post. I spent a solid forty minutes trawling through the list of print books here at the Parker (twice!), and came upon a few I thought looked interesting based on the title. I took out four books which date between 1473 and 1631. Once I had stumbled through the one Latin book I decided to brave, and skimmed the three English ones, I decided to properly look at “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” by John Speed, published in 1631.


This book aims to teach people about the world, first by a brief overview of world history, then by continent, then by country or empire, including an entry on the English Civil War at the end. Every section, whether on the whole world, a continent or a country has a map to go with it, most of which are dated to 1626.  In the same volume, although a separate book is “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain”, by the same author, published in in 1632, which has entries on history and each county, starting in the south and moving up to the north.

“A Prospect of the most Famous Parts of the World” begins with descriptions of the continents, of which John Speed identifies four. He also, very helpfully, ranked them in how good he believes them to be. The first is Asia, which he gives first position to because the “greatest part of our divine history was there written and acted”, with the birth and death of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian Church. He acknowledges that Europe is the most famous for “the acts of men”, but Speed evidently places this of less importance than Biblical history.

P1020448Second place goes to Africa for similar reasons – it is where life came from and therefore God has shown his approval. Europe comes in third with an apology from the author, followed by America in last position because it is new and does not have much history or world power at this point. The map for America is partially incomplete, with the explanation that it is “those known parts of that unknown world”.

All the continents and countries have two full pages of description on its history, culture and people, and a double pages map with cityscapes and pictures of men and women wearing traditional dress. These images give us an insight into how different cultures were, and what people from England thought other places were like, or what they wanted to think they were like.

All in all, “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” was a fascinating and sometimes unintentionally funny read, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to look through some historical texts. I was interested by how different cultured viewed each other, and what interactions were like between them, especially at this point in history, as travel was becoming easier and European nations were starting to build their empires.

–Hannah Volland



I am a year 10 student at Parkside Community College, and my year group must complete a week of work experience as we move into our final year of secondary school, to give us a taste of the world of work. A wide range of companies and organisations provide work experience, but the Parker Library was my choice because I was curious about the world of libraries, manuscripts and books. I have always enjoyed both English and History lessons at school, and the Parker really seemed to bring these together, and I thought that it might show me the practical ways in which the things we learn about in school or see in exhibitions and documentaries are researched and rediscovered.

That pretty much covers what I wanted to get out of my placement here, and I wasn’t disappointed. I have been given many opportunities to see how the library worked. I’ve seen the processing, cataloguing and paperwork, as well as the handling of both manuscripts and print books. Also, I’ve been able to see other parts of the process old texts go through, such as conservation, where I was shown the ways people repair, restore and protect the manuscripts.


The Wilkins Room of the Parker Library

The amount of work and care that goes into handling and maintaining these texts showed me how much history means to our culture and how important it is to preserve it for the future. I also realised how valuable they were to the people who made them. When I visited the conservation lab, I was shown how on some untrimmed vellum manuscripts and books it is possible to see the imprints of the spine, hips and shoulders of the animal that the skin once belonged to. This was amazing to see because it illustrates how much worth the very paper had for the people who wrote it. Dozens of sheep or cows were needed just to make the paper for one book, which was expensive and time-consuming, shedding a light on how important the author thought this particular piece of information was.

Something else I will do (I have not yet completed my placement) is visit Corpus Christi’s Taylor Library, which is for undergraduates. I think this will be a good experience, because it will show me how most libraries work. Even though term has broken up, so there are not any students to borrow books or study, I think it will be interesting to see how libraries are structured and the kind of work there is to do, as well as how this contrasts to other kinds of libraries like the Parker, which has a very different set up and purpose.

One of the things the Parker does is catalogue its books. So far, not all of them have been catalogued, because of the overwhelming number of them, and all the other things the Parker does. During my placement, there has been a cataloguer looking at books on botany, which was a great opportunity for me to see how new material is found and looked at. I was able to help find books and see if would be applicable to the subject.

Something that is really fascinating about a number of the books, especially herbals and similar books about plants are the numerous coloured illustrations (like those in SP.196 below), which are absolutely breath-taking, and to my mind a bit more engaging than the blocks of dense Latin or Middle English. Some of the books which have not been opened often since their creation have vivid colours and the patterns and diagrams are still bright. However others, especially illustrated Bible pages, which would have been left open, are worn or discoloured. It is incredible to see how much effort people put into the margins, edges, and single letters.

P1020455      P1020453

Overall, I have learnt a lot on my placement and feel really grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about books in history in a really hands-on way. Of course, I’ve only had a snippet of what the world of research and practical history is, but I’m definitely more fascinated by the work of archivists and librarians now.

–Hannah Volland

The Parker Library is pleased to invite you to a symposium celebrating the launch of its newly redesigned digital platform. The conference will be an occasion to reflect on the impact of the digital humanities on manuscript studies, bringing together graduate students, researchers, and library professionals who work with or on manuscript books.

Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, attendance at the conference is free of charge. The complete programme is available for download here. To register, please email us directly at parker-library@corpus.cam.ac.uk.

Parker 2.0 programme

We look forward to seeing you there!

19 December 2017—The oldest surviving illustrated Latin Gospel book, known as the Gospels of St. Augustine (MS 286) can soon be seen by anyone with an internet connection. On the 10th of January, 2018, this codex, along with a further 555 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from the Parker Library will no longer require an institutional site license to access Parker on the Web.

Portrait of St Luke (CCC MS 286, f. 129v)

Portrait of St Luke (CCCC MS 286, f. 129v)

Digital surrogates of this exquisite collection, housed at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, have been online since 2009 as the result of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Until now only member organizations, and their associated students and scholars, have had access to the full content.  Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University Library, and Stanford University Libraries have continued to work together since the grant to improve the site’s technical infrastructure and migrate it to a more cost-effective platform.

Cambridge University Library (CUL) were delighted to be a partner in the Parker on the Web project. “We learned a great deal about managing a large-scale digitisation project, not least the benefits of close collaboration with partners across the river and across the world.” said Dr Suzanne Paul, Keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at CUL. “The project has really been a game-changer in opening up the whole of a historic library to scholars and interested readers across the world.”

In addition to serving as Master of Corpus Christi College, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and Archbishop of Canterbury (1559-75), Parker was an avid book collector.  He salvaged medieval manuscripts scattered by the dissolution of the monasteries and was particularly keen to seek out materials relating to Anglo-Saxon England, motivated in part by his search for evidence of an ancient English-speaking Church independent of Rome to support the Protestant Reformation.

The collection of documents that resulted from his efforts consists of items spanning from the sixth-century Gospels of St. Augustine to sixteenth-century records relating to the English Reformation.

Dr Anne McLaughlin, Sub-Librarian at the Parker Library, sees the release of the new site as a continuation of Matthew Parker’s legacy, stating “When Matthew Parker bequeathed his collection of books to the library, he intended that they be used by scholars of Corpus Christi College in perpetuity. Now, with the launching of the new site, we’re opening the collection to the world at large, removing barriers to access and hoping to inspire the next generation of scholars – an aspiration that we as a college share with our library’s greatest benefactor”.

In addition to one of the most significant collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts anywhere in the world, including the earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 890),

MS 161, f. 1r (JPEG)

St Dunstan (CCCC MS 161, f. 1r)

the library also contains key Anglo-Norman and Middle English texts including the Ancrene Wisse and the Brut Chronicle and one of the finest copies of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Other subjects represented in the collection are music, including the earliest known example of polyphonic music produced in England, medieval travelogues and maps, apocalypses, bestiaries, and historical chronicles. The illuminated manuscripts held within the collection, notably an illustrated copy of Prudentius’s Psychomachia (c. 1000), two giant twelfth-century Bibles from the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Dover priory (each more than 50cm/20inches tall), as well as the two volumes of the Chronica Maiora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris, are also of unparalleled importance to the study of medieval art.

Stanford Libraries has partnered with Corpus Christi College, Cambridge since the inception of Parker on the Web, contributing technical expertise from its digital library team. “The Parker Library is an extraordinary collection; supporting Corpus Christi College in their efforts to make its contents more discoverable aligns with our information technology development efforts and philosophy,” said Michael Keller, university librarian for Stanford Libraries.

The most visible changes, according to Keller, will involve an entirely restyled website, optimized for mobile devices as well as fixed-location computing, and full compatibility with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), which will make the rare and vulnerable material in the Parker Library more broadly available for deeper investigation, image analysis and comparison, and annotation

“The application program interfaces (APIs) of IIIF will make the content of Parker on the Web compatible with content from partner institutions, such as e-codices, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the national libraries of France, Norway and the United Kingdom, and a growing number of universities, which vastly increases the opportunities for new discoveries,” confirmed Keller.

Both senior and early career researchers have utilised the Parker on the Web content since the inception of the site in 2009 and it has proven its value in both international collaborative projects and individual research. The NEH-funded Stanford Global Currents project — working in allegiance with McGill University, l’École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands — focuses on British manuscripts from the twelfth century in the Parker on the Web repository, “to determine how manuscript producers assisted audiences in finding their way around the folio.”

Elaine Treharne, Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of Humanities at Stanford University and one of the Principal Investigators on the Global Currents Project, emphasizes “To have the corpus now freely available to every student of manuscript studies is an exceptional gift: anyone in any place and at any time can now access one of the best collections of primary sources, but with the benefit, too, of innovative tools and functionalities that will potentially change the future of scholarship in the field. Parker on the Web will help create new knowledge from ancient manuscripts, bridging humanities and technology to enhance how we understand our cultural record.”

January image

The beginning of Isaiah (CCCC MS 3, f. 173v)

Dr Benjamin Pohl, Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Bristol, who has published widely on the production and use of monastic manuscripts across Europe, has drawn regularly on Parker on the Web for his research – particularly his work on autograph manuscripts and working copies of medieval chroniclers.

Dr Pohl believes that making the Parker Library’s unrivalled holdings available more widely through the open-access platform Parker 2.0 will be “transformative for both scholars and students working in the field of medieval palaeography and codicology. The website’s new intuitive interface, which features rich metadata and the open-source IIIF viewer Mirador, will allow colleagues around the world to access these resources freely and work collaboratively in real time. It will also facilitate work across different institutional collections by allowing a direct virtual comparison of manuscripts kept in the Parker Library with those in other libraries around the world”. Dr Pohl is currently preparing a new study on the autograph manuscripts of Eadmer of Canterbury, biographer of St Anselm, which will see him return frequently to the Parker Library and, of course, Parker 2.0.


A heavy oak chest in the Parker Library (Corpus Christi College) was used to store objects left as collateral for loans of money. Its ironwork features the outline of a plant – but no-one knew why. Now a visitor to the Library may have unravelled the meaning of this decorative motif.

A visitor to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College may have solved the puzzle of a curious decorative detail on a chest dating from the early 15th century. The massive oak chest is known as the Billingford Hutch and takes its name from Richard de Billingford, the fifth Master of Corpus Christi (1398-1432).

Jeremy Purseglove, environmentalist and Cambridge resident, visited the Library during Open Cambridge in September 2017. “It was a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of some of the Library’s medieval manuscripts,” he said.“We were given a fascinating talk by Alexander Devine, one of the librarians. He showed us a massive chest that had recently been moved to the Library from elsewhere in the College. My eye was drawn to the leaf shapes in the metal work.”The chest is made from oak planks and measures approximately 1.8m x 0.5m x 0.4m. It is reinforced by numerous iron bands and five iron hasps, secured in three locks, all operated by different keys. Each of the lock plates (the metal plates containing the locks, hasps and keyholes) is decorated with the outline of a plant punched into the metal.

No-one knew the significance of this decorative detail. Purseglove, who is passionate about plants, suspected the distinctive shape was likely to be that of moonwort, a fern much mentioned by 16th- century herbalists. He said: “I rushed home and looked it up. I found that it had been associated with the opening of locks and guarding of silver.”

According to the renowned herbalist Nicholas Culpepper, writing in the 17th century: “Moonwort is an herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and those no small fools neither; but country people, that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse.” Moonwort is also mentioned by dramatist Ben Jonson as an ingredient of witches’ broth.In both design and structure, the Billingford Hutch is similar to many surviving chests made for the storage of valuables in late medieval Europe, from strongboxes and trunks to coffers and caskets. However, what makes the Billingford Hutch remarkable is that it’s a loan chest, a rare example of late medieval ‘financial furniture’.

University loan chests operated a bit like pawn shops and afforded temporary financial assistance to struggling scholars. “Richard de Billingford gave the College a sum of £20 which was placed in the chest under the guardianship of three custodians,” said Devine.

“Masters and Fellows of Corpus Christi were able to obtain loans up to a value of 40 shillings, around £2, by pledging objects of greater value, most often manuscripts, which would be held in the chest. After a specified time, the pledge – if unredeemed – would be sold and the original loan repaid to the chest with any profit going to the borrower.”

Billingford created the loan fund in 1420 but the chest itself may be even older. Other Cambridge colleges also had loan chests during the late Middle Ages but precious few survive. Corpus has retained not only the chest itself but also its register, containing its administrative records for more than 300 years.

The register offers great insight into the role of the chest in late medieval academic life at Corpus. Every one of the College’s Fellows and its Masters is named in the register, and many were repeat borrowers, demonstrating that the chest fulfilled a genuine need. The most frequent objects pledged to the Hutch were books. Other valuables included sacred vessels and chalices, silver spoons and salt cellars.

Devine said: “The Billingford Hutch is probably the best surviving example of its kind in Europe. To have a possible answer to the puzzle of its decorative motif is fantastic. We’re immensely grateful to Jeremy for enriching our understanding of its history. His wonderful discovery is further proof that sharing your collections with the public is the key to unlocking their secrets.”

Alex Buxton
Communications Officer (Research)
Office of External Affairs and Communications
University of Cambridge

Inset images: decorative motif on the lock plate of the Billingford Hutch; the Hutch in its present position in the Parker Library; illustrations of ‘the lunaria plant’ from a 15th-century Catalan compilation of alchemical tracts (CCCC MS 395, fol. 50v).

This article was originally published on The University of Cambridge’s website on 10th December 2017 (here) and is reproduced here with all thanks to both author and publisher.