Open Cambridge: A journey through the old library at Trinity College

Continuing with the Open Cambridge series, 3 GEM students on the Downing College Transcontinental Track share their discoveries of the old library at Trinity College.

trinity-collegeThe Old Library, built in 1590, is one of the first purpose-built college libraries and the oldest library still in its original setting in Cambridge. It is housed in the red brick Tudor building opposite to Master’s Lodge. It is on the 1st floor in order to avoid being flooded since Trinity Hall is close to the River Cam.


Master’s private

However, students of Trinity Hall no longer use this place as a library although some researchers do.

It houses over 6,000 printed books, 90 manuscripts (post-medieval, Persian), globes, atlases and maps. The collection also contains rare books on the classics, literature, religion and sciences. Star items include the Shoeffer Bible (1472), the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and a first edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedia (1751-72). Historically, this collection of books were arranged on shelves in the opposite direction because the book titles were inscribed on the pages. Unfortunately, there are only two original manuscripts in the library from the original selection.

The oldest manuscript in this place was printed in 1050. This is Life of St Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. This book includes his life and the miracles associated with him. This manuscript, in excellent condition, is written in a very fine and clear late Carolingian script. old-manuscript

Inside the Library


The shelves and tables inside the library

The room looks just as it did when it was opened and most of the furniture is contemporary with the building (shelves, wooden floor…). In fact, the library contains some of the oldest surviving library furniture in Cambridge such as bookcases and benches. The library was made to be able to read between the shelves: there are tables integrated in the shelves to put and read the books. The bookcases also retain the locks and chains used since medieval times to secure the precious contents of the library against thieves.

Library Security


The chained books inside Trinity Library

Indeed, the Old Library was built to accommodate chained books: each bookcase is fitted with metal rods and complicated double locks to secure the chains which are riveted to the covers of the books. So, two people with two different keys were needed to open the locks and borrow the books: the Master and fellow in charge of the Library.

As soon as we arrived in the room, we saw the Exemplar Statutorum (1352) which is the charter of college statutes and lists the bequests of books to the Library. It was granted by its founder, Bishop Bateman of Norwich under the authority of Simon, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of all England. William Bateman (1298-1355) was a church lawyer that is why one of the specialties taught in Trinity Hall is Law. Below this charter, there is three big seals: one of Bateman, one of Simon of Canterbury and one of the Cambridge University.

Then, there is the colorful charter that Queen Elizabeth I presented to Trinity Hall in 1559, during the first year of her reign. This impressive document represents the return of academic life to something approaching normality after the upheavals of the Reformation and the reign of Queen Mary when Colleges had been closed and amalgamated and new Colleges founded. This charter established the legal basis upon which Trinity Hall owned land and held its privileges and responsibilities. Queen Elizabeth can be seen enthroned in the large capital E.

Finally, we can find the Charles Dickens’ Letter to his son Henry Fielding written in 1868. In this letter, Dickens gives advice to his son at the start of his time as an undergraduate at Trinity Hall. The advice covers the avoidance of debt and encouragement to lead Christian life, sweetened by a generous allowance for port (the letter included also a parcel of 6 bottles of brandy).


(By Malou Taton, Marine de Blauwe and Charlotte Fernel)


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