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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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A guest post by Dr Lucy Hughes, the College’s Modern Archivist:

At a time when Tate Britain is running an exhibition on Picasso and Modern British Art (until July 15), it is interesting to be reminded that a piece of work by one of Britain’s foremost surrealists, Sir Roland Penrose, survives as a mural in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The image of mythical beasts in combat is preserved behind perspex in a room in I staircase, where it was discovered during redecoration work in 1976. In the Modern Archive, a few steps from the mural itself, are preserved letters between Penrose and A. C. Clark-Kennedy, then Domestic Bursar, which shed light on how the mural came to be there in the first place. Penrose recalls that the architect T. H. Lyon, who was responsible for adding rooms to New Court in the 1920s, encouraged the young Penrose in his love of painting and invited him to decorate one of the new rooms. The mural is dated 1921. Penrose was an undergraduate at Queens’ College, where he studied architecture, and amused himself by creating similar murals in friends’ rooms, mostly in King’s College, during his student years. In his letter to Clark-Kennedy, Penrose writes that he thinks it unlikely that any of the other murals he created have survived, and that he is touched to be reminded of his youthful efforts, which he had all but forgotten.

Roland Penrose Mural in Corpus Christi College

Roland Penrose Mural in Corpus Christi College

Penrose’s archive of papers and books is now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but correspondence between Clive Bell and members of Penrose’s circle (including Picasso) form part of the ‘Charleston Papers’ at King’s College, Cambridge. Farley Farm House, Chiddingly, East Sussex – the home that Penrose made with his second wife, the photographer Lee Miller – is the subject of an article published in Country Life, June 13 2012. Farley Farm House, which is preserved as a museum, contains many artworks collected by Penrose, and became a centre for creativity, visited by numerous artists and writers over the years. The mural in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is an interesting example of an artist’s imagination awakening.

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This is a guest post by Lucy Hughes, Modern Archivist at Corpus.

This one-day conference held at Clare College, Cambridge, on 6 March 2012 was timed to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the birth of J. C. T. Oates, author of the landmark catalogue of incunabula in Cambridge University Library. It was organised by Satoko Tokunaga, who was a visiting Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College between 2010 and 2011, and was supported by the EIRI Project of Keio University, Tokyo, and the Cambridge University Library Incunabula Cataloguing Project.

The theme – ‘Incunabula on the Move’ – stimulated reflections on how books have been traded and exchanged in a physical sense, changing geographical and institutional locations over time, as well as how they have sometimes been recontextualised in a more abstract sense. The exchange of ideas between bibliographers like Oates, Bradshaw and their associates, was shown to be as dynamic as many of the books themselves are well-travelled. Satoko’s own paper showed us how patterns of rubrication can yield clues to the history of book production, whilst Paul Needham’s paper on Ulrich Zel – whose productions were often printed without dates – showed how the study of paper stocks can help with establishing possible chronologies. Eric White, of Bridwell Library at the Southern Methodist University, reminded us how valuable auction catalogues can be as a source for tracing the histories of individual copies and their owners, whilst John Goldfinch’s paper gave intriguing insights into the custodianship of incunabula at the British Library historically, and the exchange of books between it and Cambridge University Library. After lunch we were treated to reflections by Toshiyuki Takamiya and Lotte Hellinga, who both drew on their personal memories of Oates as scholar and mentor. This brought the day to a fitting conclusion, although for those able to stay longer there was an opportunity to view a selection of incunabula at the University Library. It was a very inspiring occasion, attended by a range of participants from across the book history, book-dealing and library worlds, and also by many young scholars.

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Dr Lucy Hughes, the College’s Modern Archivist writes:

The Modern Archive recently received an exciting donation of personal correspondence which casts light on the day-to-day life of a Corpus undergraduate in the 1930s. The letters by Eric Cooper (written on letterheaded College notepaper and in envelopes bearing the College crest) came with some photographs and also some embroidery from a sporting blazer, and were given by Cooper’s niece, who has been transcribing and studying the letters as part of a family history project. This donation is very good news for the College.

Writing to his fiancée, Patience, Cooper gives a vivid picture of the academic, cultural and social environment in which he lived and worked. It is interesting to note the many references to attending the cinema (called ‘flicking’) in the letters, with comments on the films seen. Eric had something of a background in the world of cinema as his father, Frederick Holmes Cooper, had set up a chain of the earliest cinemas in East Anglia in the days of silent film, and built a fortune in this way. There is a chapter about him and his achievement in a book called The Picture House in East Anglia by Stephen Peart (1980).

Eric attended Norwich School and thus followed in a tradition of Corpus men from that background. Until the nineteenth century, there was a rule that four of the College Fellowship elected were to be from Norfolk, and although this rule had been abandoned by the twentieth century, the Norfolk and Norwich connection lingered. Eric’s letters refer to meetings of ‘old boys’ of Norwich School, who considered themselves something of an élite club. Two of the current Fellowship – the eminent ecologist and landscape historian Oliver Rackham and the official historian of MI5 Christopher Andrew – were pupils of Norwich School, and so the tradition continues.

Eric went on to serve in the Royal Army Service Corps and, after the War, built a career with Telephone Rentals, eventually becoming Managing Director. He and Patience had a long and happy marriage. His letters from 1935-36 are full of youthful optimism and joie de vivre and thus make enjoyable, as well as interesting, reading. A sample quotation from 30 May 1935 will give a flavour:

I thought I deserved some recreation so decided to flick with Nigel. We went to the Rendez-Vous to see The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. I got out my bike and put Nigel on the back and went there like greased lightning – it’s some distance away – 2 miles. Six policemen yelled at us, but we took no notice (it’s illegal to take anyone on a step now, you know) and arrived there with a flourish. Well, we both fingered our old school ties, wept profusely, stood to attention for ‘God Save the King’ and decided to join up at the earliest possible moment!! We really did enjoy it, though, for it is an excellent film, the sort of film that affects one in a marked manner. To discuss the ethics of it now would be impossible and rather controversial, but this I will say ,the spirit which activated those officers is fine and right because they believed that what they were doing was right. We had an exhilarating ride back here along the backs. We made some tea and talked till 12 when we went to bed.

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Guest post by Dr Denis Casey, who worked on the Parker on the Web project.

It is unsurprising that the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has a long and proud association with the Parker Library and visits to the library are often among the most memorable moments in students’ entire undergraduate and graduate careers.  The Department was particularly fortunate this year that the Library hosted two manuscript training events for its graduate students, on the 9th and 10th of May.  These training sessions were intended to provide students with a foundation in manuscript handling, necessary to equip them with the skills to treat such materials with respect and care, whenever they gain access to them.

After a tour and introduction to the history of the Parker Library by Gill and Suzanne,students first explored a variety of manuscript surrogates, from a Nixon-era microfilm reader to the state-of-the-art Parker Library on the Web online resource

Melvin Jefferson’s expertly produced mock manuscripts then proved an invaluable tool for practising how to physically handle a manuscript in a real library situation.  Along the way we also explored many of the dangers manuscripts face, such as the attention of hungry mice (where is Pangur Bán when you need him? (see ASNAC Spoken Word website) and even spillages by alchemical potion mixers!


A huge debt of gratitude is owed by the Department to the members  of the Parker Library, who continually share their treasures and their  love of the medieval world with us.

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This is a guest post by Lucy Hughes, the College’s new Modern Archivist.

My first two months as Modern Archivist at Corpus Christi have been very enjoyable. Learning about the College’s traditions, its possessions and – most of all – its people has been fascinating, and I look forward to learning more. Getting to know some of the people who have worked and studied here, either through reading about them in the archive or meeting them face to face, has been one of the highlights of the job so far. In fact, there are probably enough anecdotes and reminiscences to be gleaned to make up a full-scale oral history project, if only there were time! Going round chatting to people and recording them as they reminisce would certainly be pleasant, although the necessary day-to-day work of accessioning and answering queries should probably remain the priority for the time being. Then there is the question of cataloguing. So it is a fairly busy life.

View from Modern Archives

View from Modern Archives Office

I have particularly enjoyed the view from my office, high up on I staircase. The ancient tower of St Benet’s sits square and sturdy straight in my line of vision, a bit like a beacon. It is wonderful, of course, to be surrounded by so much history; for example, finding a note (written by Robin Myers, my extremely friendly and helpful predecessor) on a chapel service sheet from 2010 recording that the Corpus Christi Day procession from St Benet’s took place that year for the first time since probably the sixteenth century, was intriguing. Finding a box labelled ‘Treasures; Ghost’ among the stacks also raised a smile. I haven’t looked inside it yet! As spring arrives, I’m looking forward to visiting  Leckhampton Gardens on Open Gardens Day (3 April) and to observing the College’s yearly cycle as we move through the calendar.

Lucy Hughes

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Happy Bird Singing Day!

This is a guest post by Dr Rebecca Rushforth, a former Fellow of Corpus and colleague on the Parker on the Web Digitisation Project:

In the Middle Ages the saints’ days were such a noticeable part of the daily year that people often used them instead of dates. Rents might be due at Candlemas or Martinmas, for example, and the Cambridge autumn term is still called Michaelmas after the feast of St Michael on 29th November. Autumn term doesn’t have anything much to do with St Michael, and the Purification of the Virgin and St Martin don’t have anything to do with rents as such, they were just easy dates to remember. Henry V did not fight the battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s day because St Crispin was a saint renowned for his hatred of the French. And the same is very probably true of St Valentine’s day. However much sentimental Victorians liked to make up stories about Valentine falling in love with his jailer’s daughter, that the annual commemoration of romantic love falls on his feast day is probably just a coincidence.

There’s something in one of the Parker Library’s manuscripts which corroborates this point of view, and is much earlier than any surviving Valentine’s Day messages. The Red Book of Darley is a mid-eleventh-century manuscript, and despite its name it was written in Dorset rather than in the Peak District. There is an English note in the calendar against the 11th February.


Calendar Entry for February 11 from the Red Book of Darley

Calendar Entry for February 11 from the Red Book of Darley (MS 422)

It reads “Her onginneth fugelas to singenne”. “Her” means here, that is today; “onginneth” means beginneth, begins; “fugelas” means birds — the g was pronounced like a y, and it’s essentially the word fowls, but back in Anglo-Saxon times this word just meant birds in general rather than specifically edible farmyard birds; “to singenne” means to sing. “Here the birds start to sing.” It’s the begining of spring, when the birds choose their mates, and things start growing again. Definitely cause for celebration! So happy bird singing day, everyone, and I hope the birds are singing where you are.

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