The Bodleian Library: A Protestant Arsenal against Catholicism

Bodleian LibraryThe other day I began reading the introduction to Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (2009). This work is a collection of essays, originally published between 1983 and 2008, on the nature of scholarship. Grafton covers a wide-ranging set of topics, from The Republic of Letters to Google’s digitizing empire and the future of reading. Amidst such topics are concise, but erudite, discussions on Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Casaubon, Mark Pattison, Leon Battista Alberti, Johannes Trithemius, Tommaso Campanella, his own postgraduate supervisor Arnaldo Momigliano, and the Warburg Institute of the University of London. Grafton also discusses John O’Malley and his work on the Jesuits, in addition to the relationship between Christian and Jewish learning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What particularly struck me in the introduction was his reference to Paul Nelles’ essay on the Bodleian library of Oxford, “The Uses of Orthodoxy and Jacobean Erudition: Thomas James and the Bodleian Library” (2007). Citing Nelles, Grafton writes: “The Bodlien was created…to serve as an arsenal of erudition for the Protestant side in the great intellectual war that raged over the Christian past.” He goes on to say that Bodleian’s first librarian, Thomas James (1573-1629), “believed that Catholic scholars had deliberately corrupted the texts of the church fathers to make them support their theological positions.”

I immediately found Nelles’ piece with a quick Google search. Nelles begins his essay with a thought-provoking question: What was the Bodleian library for when it opened its doors in 1602? Whatever the intentions of its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), as its first librarian, Thomas James set its early program. According to Nelles, James was a “rabid anti-papist,” and thus something of an embarrassment to historians of the library. Nevertheless, “the scholarly work James carried out as Bodley’s librarian affords a rare glimpse of the interaction of libraries, manuscripts, printed books, and the readers who used them.”

For three decades James labored at collecting the textual tradition of the Latin Church Fathers and Medieval English authors. According to Nelles, James’ scholarship became a “store-house of Protestant learning and a bulwark against Roman Catholicism or, in the language of the period, ‘popery.'”

Of course, James was not alone in this initiative. Indeed, Bodley supported his goals, and shared much of the same religious orientation. They were sons of Marian exiles, and both were strict Calvinists. While attending New College at Oxford from 1593-1602, James was surrounded by anti-Roman sentiment and theology. James eventually became a “profound student of manuscripts, an able textual scholar, and an acute reader of the church Fathers,” marshaling “library resources at Oxford and elsewhere in order to engage Roman Catholic theologians and church historians on their own ground.” He was convinced that the “historical roots of the modern English church were to be found in a pure Saxon ecclesiastical community which had conformed to the primitive church as described in the writings of the Fathers and the early councils.” His near contemporary, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), likewise used the writings of the Church Fathers in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) in sketching out the history of the English church. Others included John Jewel (1522-1571), Thomas Bilson (1547-1616), and Andrew Willet (1562-1621). In short, “by the early seventeenth century the use of the Fathers had emerged as a pivotal, though not uncontroversial, element within Anglican theology as the conformity of the contemporary reformed church with the primitive church.”

Another element in James’ scholarship was his emphasis on the historical continuity between ancient Christianity and the contemporary English church. According to Nelles, this view goes as far back as John Foxe’s (1517-1587) Book of Martyrs (1563), where he allegedly “documents the trials and tribulations of the ‘true church’ which had survived underground and invisible through centuries of papal corruptions and outright persecution.” James contributed to this tradition with his Apologie for John Wickliffe (1608).

And of course the final element of James’ scholarship is his obvious anti-popery. According to Nelles, “almost all of James’s published writings—particularly those devoted to textual scholarship—are directed against papist corruption and deception.” Nelles aptly summarizes this commonplace:

According to this view, attempts by the Bishop of Rome to control and corrupt Christian religion had been adroitly seen off within the early church: the church of the Fathers had not been subject to papal jurisdiction and at times could be seen to have been aggressively anti-Roman. Yet through deceit and treachery the pope had usurped Christ’s rightful place at the centre of  the  church  over  the  course  of  the  middle  ages.  The  pope  (now Antichrist) used all means possible to increase his power: he withheld the  true  teachings  of  Scripture;  he  appealed  to  popular  superstition through  liturgical  hocus-pocus  and  abuse  of  the  sacraments;  and  he invented traditions founded neither in Scripture nor the writings of the Fathers.  From  this  perspective  it  was  at  the  Council  of Trent  that  the views of the popish minority came to dominate the church as a whole. Thus, while early Protestants had merely broken with Rome, the contemporary reformed church was engaged in a pitched battle with a united Roman  Catholic  church  supported  by  foreign  Catholic  princes  and receiving instructions directly from the pope.

In the case of James, he believed that papist corruption went beyond doctrine, the sacraments, and church government, extending to “falsification, corruption, and destruction of ecclesiastical records and the textual heritage of the church.” According to Nelles, James’ “conception of the history of the church and his unique vision of the value of the insular textual legacy directly influenced his views on the nature and purposes of books and libraries.”

For instance, in 1600, James published a catalogue of manuscripts housed in Cambridge and Oxford colleges. Dedicated to King James I, the palaeographical Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis won much acclaim, the famous biblical chronographer James Ussher once told him that “you are in a manner the only man among us that make search for the furthering of God’s cause.” James saw himself in the tradition of “Elizabethan hunters of medieval manuscripts,” cataloging nearly 3,000 codices (1,325 in Oxford; 1,498 in Cambridge). But despite its scholarly character, according to Nelles, “James firmly positioned the Ecloga within the context of the paper war which raged between Catholic and Protestant scholars over the sources of church doctrine.” Indeed, the Ecloga was presented as a “gateway for Protestant scholars to an untainted manuscript tradition of patristic texts.” According to James, the Reformed church was supported and confirmed by authentic manuscripts, whereas the Catholics, “habitual liars and gross forgers,” were the true “heretics.” This was a well-known commonplace, from William Perkins to William Crashawe. As Nelles sums it up, “Armed with evidence of present-day Catholic suppression and altering of texts from the Index librorum prohibitorum and the Index expurgatorius and further justified by notorious medieval forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals, Protestant polemicists imagined centuries of papist textual meddling.”

A few years later, James turned to the Latin Church Fathers, and again complained that they had been “manifoldly corrupted” by the hands of “Popery and superstition.” In his proposal, Humble Supplication…for the reformation of the ancient Fathers Works, James set out with a team of students of Divinity to hunt down as many manuscript copies as possible. Once completed, James maintained that this new index would “show the corruptions of the printed copies of either Papists or Protestant editions, which have been very lamentably abused in this kind by too much trusting of the Papists.”

James never finished this project, the financial support drying up by 1612. Nelles turns to James’ program as Bodleian librarian. Interestingly enough, although he remorselessly attacked Catholic scholars, it is clear that James appropriated much of their findings. “On most technical issues of scholarship,” writes Nelles, “James and his Catholic opponents in fact had much in common.” This engagement with the Catholic world of scholarship is found in a large number of Bodleian indices of “prohibited and expurgated books published by Catholic authorities in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Germany.” But as Nelles is careful to mention, “Bodleian was by no means exceptional in the orientation of its holdings. On the contrary, the amassing of an abundance of Catholic scholarship in the Bodleian in its first decades reflected activities” in other libraries in Britain.

In the conclusion of the essay, Nelles considers the relationship between James’ Ecloga and the early collections of Bodleian. When James became its first librarian, he donated several volumes to the library, which were listed in his Ecloga. While some manuscripts were in fact ignored, others listed in the Ecloga were not even present in the library at the time. This suggests, Nelles tells us, that James not only “stole these volumes,” but that James “appropriated these manuscripts while preparing the Ecloga, later bringing them into the Bodleian.”

At any rate, studying Oxford’s first Bodleian librarian reveals a remarkable religious and cultural context. “From its inception,” Nelles writes, “the Bodleian was much more than an Oxford or even a university library. For James and others it played a central role upon both the English and continental religious and political stage. The contemporary observer who viewed the Bodliean Library…through lenses heavily tinted with anti-popery was surely not alone in his sentiments…the Bodleian, whose riches were considered to exceed those of even the Vatican library, served as ‘a very lively fruit of the true religion of Jesus Christ.'”

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