Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robert Cotton's Library Catches Fire

Damn strait. As a History Fan, THC still does get upset about the loss of the library of Alexandria.  Its fabled collection of classical Greek and Roman literature and learning disappeared and today we only have the precious  scraps in which are embedded references to thousands of other works lost forever.  The loss of the library is variously attributed to fire, Christian riots, Arab conquest or just plain neglect over the centuries but whatever the cause the loss is irretrievable.

While not as grave a loss as the Alexandria library we suffered another blow to our historical heritage  when Sir Robert Cotton's library burned on October 23, 1731.  Its origins lie in Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries during 1536-41 in the midst of his struggle to disestablish the Catholic Church in England and establish the Anglican Church under his direction.  In this process the wealth of the monasteries, built up over centuries, was transferred to the state and favorites of the King.  Among these were copies of Greek and Latin books, religious documents and a treasure trove of Old English books, poetry, charters and documents from Anglo-Saxon times before the Norman conquest, the largest collection of Anglo Saxon manuscripts in the world. Robert Cotton, British Museum)
In the early 17th century, Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), advisor to King James I, and an enthusiast of antiquity and literature began tracking down, purchasing and preserving the manuscripts and assembling them into his personal library located in London, near the Houses of Parliament.   Sir Robert, followed by his son and grandson eventually collected 958 manuscripts.  In 1701, upon his grandson's death the entire collection was given to Great Britain, a donation that led to the establishment of the British Library.

By 1731 the collection was being temporarily housed at Asburnham House, part of St Peters College near Parliament, when the fire broke out.  Approximately 1/4 of the collection was destroyed or severely damaged but the remained saved thanks to heroic efforts by people such as the librarian, Dr Bentley, who fled carrying the Codex Alexandrinus, a 5th century Greek Bible, one of the three oldest full, or near full, Bible manuscripts.

Among the books totally or mostly lost were the Battle of Maldon, an Anglo-Saxon poem, Asser's Life of Alfred (a contemporary biography of the Anglo-Saxon King who, during his reign from 871-99, defeated the Viking invaders and initiated the unification of England, written by Bishop Asser who knew Alfred well) and the Cotton Genesis, a 4th century Greek illustrated copy of the Book of Genesis.  Fortunately while the originals were lost, at least some of them survive in transcripts made under the Cotton's direction before their destruction.
(Surviving fragment from badly damaged Cotton Genesis)
Even more fortunately many originals did survive including:
The Lindisfarne Gospels 
Virtual books: images only - Lindisfarne Gospels: St Matthew  ff.26v - 27
(go here to view this beautiful book)

Beowulf (charred along the edges)
one of the few copies of the Magna Carta
The Venerable Bede's History of the English Church & People
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Today most of the surviving manuscripts can be found at the British Museum.

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