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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.

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Every great hero of English history needs a zealous and over-enthusiastic biographer, and Matthew Parker is no exception. His champion was the English clergyman and historian John Strype (1643-1737), whose biography, The Life and Acts of Matthew Parker, published in 1711, represents the first proper, full length biographical study of Parker. [1] The work is not without its faults: Strype’s prose is, to say the least, colourful, his style is effusive, and his tone reverential, and yet there is something irresistible about the passion and sincerity that fills Strype’s near-hagiographical study of Matthew Parker (the Man, the Myth, the Legend).

Strype 1711_Title Page & Parker Portrait.jpg

Strype also offers invaluable insight into how Parker’s accomplishments and legacy had come to be viewed within the 150 years following his death:

“His Learning, though it were universal, yet it ran chiefly upon Antiquity, In so much that he was one of the greatest Antiquarians of the Age, And the World is for ever beholden to him for two things: Viz., for retrieving many antient Authors, Saxon and British, as well as Norman, and for restoring and enlightening a great deal of the antient History of this noble Island. … Indeed he was the chief Retriever of that our ancient Native Language, the Saxon I mean, and encouraged heartily the study of it.”                                                (Strype 1711: 528, 535).

Thus we find Parker’s many noteworthy accomplishments, as a conserver of History and a preserver of Learning, and as a retriever of ancient Language and an advocate for its study, celebrated as emanating from his merit and abilities as a historian and an antiquarian, the significance of whose legacy is neatly summarised in Strype’s memorably-phrased celebration of Parker as “A mighty Collector of Books, [who] preserved as much as could be, the antient Monuments of the learned, Men of our Nation from perishing.” (Strype 1711: 535).

In his quest for documentary evidence of the unbroken continuity of the English Church from the earliest times, Parker particularly sought out chronicles and histories, especially those concerned with the early Church in England. These were texts greatly valued by the Elizabethan antiquarians, alarmed that recorded knowledge of Britain’s past risked being swept away with the closure of the monasteries and the dispersal of their libraries. Parker gathered together a remarkably rich range of works by a number of the best-known historians and chroniclers of England from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.

Parker collected together many of the standard primary sources of early English history, including Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, in Latin (MS 264) and in Old English (MS 41), the earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS 173), Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (MS 139) and copies of the works of Eadmer (MSS 371, 452 and 457). His library included copies of the historical writings of Matthew Paris (his Chronica Maiora, in MSS 26 & 16, and a 16th-century transcript of his Historia Minor, MS 56), together with works by Henry of Huntingdon (MS 280), William of Malmesbury (MS 43), Geoffrey of Monmouth (MSS 281, 292 and 414), Simeon of Durham (MS 139), John of Tynemouth (MSS 56), Nicholas Trivet (MS 152), and Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, both in Latin (MSS 21, 164 and 259), and in Trevisa’s English translation (MS 354). Parker also assembled a remarkably rich range of works by minor premodern chroniclers and local antiquaries of England, including Florence of Worcester (MS 92), William of Newburgh (MS 262), Richard of Devizes (MS 129), Gervase of Tilbury (MS 414), Gervase of Canterbury (MS 438), Radulfus Niger (MS 343) and Roger of Wendover (MS 264).

Furthermore, Parker gathered books which emphasized the role of the English kings in promoting or protecting the Church. For this reason the library contains manuscripts owned by or associated with an impressive variety of English monarchs, including Alfred (MS 12), Aethelstan (MS 183), Edward II (MS 20), Richard I (MS 339), Richard II (MS 61), Henry V (MS 213), Henry VIII (MS 432) and Elizabeth I (MS 114A), not to mention Parker’s manuscript showing the wedding feast in 1114 of Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, and the German Emperor Henry V featuring one of, if not the earliest, known illustrations of a pretzel in Western art (MS 373).

Alexander Devine

Sub-Librarian

ad523@corpus.cam.ac.uk

 

Scala Mundi (MS 194)

early fourteenth century, England

The Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, is a diagrammatical chronicle of universal history from the Creation to the early fourteenth century, when this manuscript was made. It includes the earliest known depiction of Stonehenge, shown here, which is described as having been built by Merlin the magician who brought the huge stones magically from Ireland. This copy is part of an anthology of historical texts which belonged to the Hospital of St. Mary without Bishopsgate in London.

The Venerable Bede, Vita Cuthberti (MS 183)

c.934, England

This is one of the oldest English royal manuscripts, made for King Æthelstan (927-39), grandson of Alfred the Great. It is a copy of the life of Saint Cuthbert, bishop of the island community of Lindisfarne written by Bede. When the monastery was sacked by the Vikings in 875, the monks dug up the saint’s body and carried it with other sacred relics in a journey lasting several centuries to Chester-le-Street, Ripon, and eventually to Durham (1104), when Cuthbert was finally interred. Æthelstan probably presented the monks from Lindisfarne with this magnificent copy of the life of their patron saint in or soon after 934, when he stayed with the exiled community, then at Chester-le-Street between Durham and Newcastle, on his journey northwards to fight the Scots. Here, the dedicatory frontispiece shows Æthelstan standing in the presence of Saint Cuthbert.

The Parker Chronicle (MS 173)

ninth – twelfth centuries, Winchester & Christ Church, Canterbury

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of the most famous historical texts from Anglo-Saxon England. This copy, known as the ‘Parker’ Chronicle, is the oldest version of the text and one of the earliest manuscripts in the Old English language. It was probably mostly written at the court of King Alfred in Wessex, perhaps in Winchester, in the late ninth century. It describes historical events by the years in which they took place. The opening here shows the entry for 1066, recording the burning of Christ Church, a comet in the sky (as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry) and the Battle of Hastings: ‘In this year King Edward passed away, and Earl Harold came to the throne and ruled for 40 weeks and a day; in this year came William and conquered England; and in this year Christ Church was burned, and a comet appeared on 18 April’.

MATTHEW PARIS, CHRONICA MAIORA (MS 16.I) [fols. i v-ii r]

mid-thirteenth century (c.1250s, before 1259), England, St. Albans

The Chronica Maiora, or ‘Greater History’ is the two-volume history of the world compiled by Matthew Paris (c.1189-1259), artist monk of St. Albans. This is the author’s own copy, with corrections and beautiful illustrations throughout in his own hand. It is one of the major sources for the history of the Crusades. The opening here shows the earliest depiction of the first elephant in England, which was sent to King Henry III as a diplomatic present from King Louis IX of France in 1255. The illustration is remarkably accurate, and for good reason, for it was drawn from life. Upon learning of its arrival in London, the ever-curious Matthew Paris promptly dashed off to London to see and study this strange new animal at the Tower of London. Paris records detailed descriptions of particularly noteworthy features of its appearance and behaviour. He notes that the elephant was ten feet high, was grey-black in colour and had small eyes in the upper part of its head. He also notes that its hide was not furry but rather very hard and rough, and that it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. Paris also illustrated the elephant’s keeper, named “Henry de Flor’”, who is described as “magister bestie”, or ‘the master of the beast’, and whose figure offers the viewer a useful comparison of scale in illustrating the elephant’s size. Unfortunately this spectacular beast’s life on English shores was short and likely unhappy, since, unsurprisingly, its captors had neither the knowledge nor the skills to properly care for it. They fed it on meat and wine and thus the poor creature died in 1257 and was buried at the Tower.

 

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[1] John Strype, THE LIFE AND ACTS OF MATTHEW PARKER, The First Archbishop of CANTERBURY in the Reign of Queen ELIZABETH. Under whose Primacy and Influence the Reformation of Religion was happily Effected; And the Church of England Restored, and Established upon the PRINCIPLES whereon it stands to this Day (London: John Wyat, 1711).

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You can now see a 3D view of the Parker Library here:

https://www.google.com/maps/views/view/109505741265803115341/gphoto/6083737258043871170

 

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Image

CCC MS 180, f. 1r, detail

ADAM EASTON: MONK, SCHOLAR, THEOLOGIAN, DIPLOMAT AND CARDINAL

10- 11 April 2014

Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Following the success of last year’s Parker Library symposium and exhibition on Herbert of Bosham, it was decided to establish an annual event celebrating important but neglected figures in English medieval history.  Adam Easton (d.1397) is long overdue for serious scholarly attention.  The image shown here is from Easton’s copy of the De pauperie salvatoris of Richard FitzRalph, archbishop of Armagh (Parker Library MS 180).

The full conference programme and booking form are now available.

Please email the Parker Library staff if you have any questions.

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The Parker Library was turned into a party space last week when we held a book launch.  Dr Mara Kalnins, Life Fellow of the College, and formerly University Reader in Modern English Literature, is the author of The Ancient Amber Routes: Travels from Riga to Byzantium. It is part tourist guide, part travelogue, but mainly a cultural history of  the ancient amber routes and a catalogue of amber artefacts.

There is no British distributor, but the book can be purchased from The Baltic Shop for £40, inclusive of postage and packing.  Alternatively, please email Dr Kalnins, who will arrange to have a copy sent to you.

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One of the more unusual requests we have had at the Parker Library recently is for the Wilkins Room to be used as the backdrop for a photographic portrait.  Kate Peters and her photography team, Dave and Selina, arrived at Corpus with a vast array of lighting and equipment to capture a portrait of Professor Susan Rankin.  Professor Rankin has worked extensively on manuscripts in the Parker collection, and recently produced a beautiful facsimile of the Winchester Troper (CCCC MS 473). We were flattered and delighted that she chose to use the Parker as the setting for her portrait; part of a new commission celebrating the achievements of four female Fellows from Emmanuel College.  We are very much looking forward to seeing the final result!

Photography in action in the Parker Library

Kate Peters capturing Professor Rankin with the Winchester Troper

An unusal sight in the Library of a whole table set up by the make-up artist

An unusal sight in the Library of a whole table set up by the make-up artist

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Open Cambridge, an annual event, this year runs from Friday 13 – Sunday 15 September, and is an opportunity to visit places in Cambridge which are not normally accessible to the public.  The programme of events has now been published, and booking starts mid-August.

Taylor Library exterior

Taylor Library exterior

Both Taylor and Parker libraries will be taking part this year, and will be open on Friday afternoon and all day Saturday. There’s no need to book for these; just turn up!

Parker Library interior. Copyright Andrew Houston

Parker Library interior. Copyright Andrew Houston

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