Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Rare Books Collection

Maria Cipollone is the volunteer caring for our rare books collection. As well as cleaning the books and ensuring that they are being stored in a way that will protect them, Maria is researching the background to the books and the collection to build a clear picture of what the Diocese holds. Below you will find Maria's account of the collection and her work.

Among the many treasures of the Archives, there is a small collection of manuscripts and rare books.

They were collected by Catholic scholars and historians (such as Mark Aloysius Tierney and Daniel Rock) during the course of the 19th century; since they were also at some point Canons of St. George’s Cathedral, they left their collections to the then Bishop, and today the collections are in the care of the current Archbishop of Southwark.

The most precious items, illuminated manuscripts such as Books of Hours dating from the 14th and 15th century, are now on permanent loan to the British Library. Some items belonging to Canon Tierney were sold during his lifetime; others were sold in more recent years. But what still remains in the collection provides a valuable insight into the criteria and the interests of these scholarly collectors.

In fact, the items now left in the collection might not have an impressive commercial value, but they certainly have a historical one: they shed light on the kind of interests Catholic historians might have had at a time when the Catholic community, only relatively recently “accepted” by law (with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829), was still tracing its roots and re-building its identity. Of course some items might have been acquired just out of bibliophile passion, but some were certainly collected to find out more about the religious history of England, especially from the Reformation onward.

Title page of first edition of a treatise by St. Thomas More (1529)

The present collection covers, in addition to some antiquarian studies, liturgy, autobiography, theology, apologetics, clerical controversies, general history and historical studies focusing on individual religious orders and institutions (some overseas) founded by English Catholics, such as the English College, Rome.

Title page of a liturgical book printed in Paris in 1555
The collection includes both manuscripts and printed books, and dates from the early 16th to the end of the 19th century. It even includes a few manuscript versions of books that were subsequently printed, and manuscript notes written by historians who were collecting materials in preparation for their books.

One of the most fascinating items in the collection: the manuscript of a philosophical treatise written in Portugal in 1635

We are working to provide the collection with good preservation conditions, patiently and carefully cleaning every item and doing what is possible to guarantee their conservation for present and future generations of scholars and historians. And above all we are trying to catalogue all the items in order to have a more precise idea of what exactly forms the present collection as previously there has not existed a comprehensive list of the books in the collection. We are also trying to get an idea of how rare the printed books are, and if they are available also in libraries open to students and scholars.

When this cleaning and cataloguing work is complete, it will be easier to make sense of how and why this small but interesting collection was put together, even if accrued by different scholars. Hopefully, it will also be possible to allow historians and scholars (or even bibliophiles) to make use of it.

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