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The Oxford of bygone eras

Hearing a glorious tale about the chained manuscripts and the heartbroken masons of Thomas Hardy from a faithful custodian

The Oxford of bygone eras
Merton College Library.

As a college student, I had read about a destitute mason in one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, Jude the Obscure. After failing to join Oxford University as a student, Jude the protagonist started working there as a construction labourer, undertaking restoration work on historic buildings. I was equally fascinated by the many disaster-prone love exploits of the scholar-turned-artisan, whose combined failure in matters of heart and scholarly learning had made him a tragic hero of sorts for me then.

As I sat inside “The Bear”, a thirteenth century tavern in Oxford city, I earnestly longed for someone who could talk to me about the surreal Oxford of the Hardy novels — the Oxford of bygone centuries with stoic college wardens, austere church priests and wretched lovers.

This was not an easy task if one had decided to join the hordes of selfie-stuck tourists aboard open-roof colourful buses, meant to give a whirlwind tour of the city. But inside “The Bear”, the chances of meeting my dream guide were fairly high, populated as it was by mostly gruff, sombre, whiskered middle-aged gentlemen. They all appeared to be senior academics in one of the many colleges of the University.

That starting a conversation with an Englishman has greater chances of success in pubs amongst all places was something I came to know rather too soon.

A unique historic feature about The Bear proved to be the starting point of discussion with my dream guide, Mr Douglas, a veteran bursar at Merton College, one of the oldest at Oxford dating back to 1264. Sitting in a thirteenth century pub with an academic nearing retirement also from a college which is as old and talking about forgotten college halls, libraries, churches —with a pinch of salt about Hardy’s love-struck mason — I could ask for nothing more.

Looking sarcastically at my lemonade glass, the bursar began talking about the unique features of the pub. Suddenly, I realised that all the walls and the roof of the pub were decorated with cut pieces of thousands — literally thousands — of neck ties of all colours and shapes.

The bursar explained that for centuries, anyone visiting this eight-centuries-old pub had to wear a tie of the club he belonged to and if the walls and the roof of The Bear were not already decorated by a tie from his club, he would cut a piece out of the tie and hand it to the management of the pub to put on display. Hence, the pub today boasts of the oldest and largest collection of cut pieces of ties from hundreds, nay thousands of clubs from across the globe.

Tie collection at The Bear.

Tie collection at The Bear.

But this is not the principal attraction for someone looking for the old Oxford, explained the bursar. The best way to relive the thirteenth century Oxford experience would be to visit the “chained library” at Merton College.

“Yes Sir!”

“I actually mean chained library as books, mostly about theology, pharmacy and history, in this library were kept chained and under three locks as per the orders of Robert Kilwardy —the then Archbishop of Canterbury”.

The archbishop in 1276 had passed orders that any books bought or acquired by the fellows at Merton College were to be kept chained and locked in the library; only to be issued to the Fellows against a pledge.

As I followed the Bursar through the zigzagging alleys over the moss-covered pavements beneath “singing Oxford spires”, the fascinating historic details about Merton College Library left me speechless. Merton Library in the thirteenth century had comprised two components — a chained portion or libraria dating back to 1284 and another one called circulating library. Volumes (primarily manuscripts) in the libraria were kept in a flat position, either on lecterns or on wooden desks. Metallic chains were attached to the bottom or to the right of the volume through a centrally placed metal clip, held by a few rivets. The bursar explained that it took centuries for the library volumes to be placed as per the then innovative practice of libraries in France.

Digesting these fascinating details, we reached the low arched, central door of the Merton College Library as the bursar opened the big, dangling lock with a large key, making weird, screeching sounds. With a loud crack, the huge, old doors opened and as if by a queer coincidence, coveys of blue pigeons took a hurried flight, making my heart miss a beat as the sound of fluttering wings resonated inside the dimly-lit libraria.

The pub from thirteenth century.

The pub from thirteenth century.

There were mixed feelings of reverence, awe and subjugation before history as I found myself standing in the midst of the old structure. Two long rectangular halls, done with dark brown woodwork with rows of wooden bookshelves, greeted us as I filled my lungs with the heavy, misty fragrance from centuries’ old manuscripts. A closer look revealed the chained manuscripts — all large in size and mostly handwritten in an exquisite script.

I looked back at the old bursar with the inevitable question in my eyes — if I could touch these priceless treasures.

The bursar smiled and nodded. Suddenly, I was transformed into Hardy’s mason from Jude. Just as he would touch the spires and domes that were being renovated, I touched the precious manuscripts which the distinguished scholars and men of knowledge from medieval times must have longed to open. The treasure included manuscripts from Latin fathers, Greek Classics, botanical and mathematical works, Latin dictionary — and as explained by the bursar — Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, claimed to be the last of the chained volumes, dating back to 1564.

Inside the chained library.

Inside the chained library.

He drew my attention to the furnishings and other antique artefacts that had been added to the library over centuries. There was the Terrestrial Globe and the Celestial Globe, dating back to 1740 with the former clearly showing India back then as seen by the avaricious East India Company. Celestial Globe showed the heavens and constellations as seen during those medieval times. I almost cried at the sight of the inscribed stone tablet in the southern window which, according to the bursar, had come from the temple of Nabul at Ninevah, recording the victorious spree of seventh-century king of Assyria.

A penultimate acquisition collection for me came in the shape of astrolabes dating back from 1350, reportedly associated with Chaucer who also had close connections with Merton. As a matter of fact, gleefully explained the bursar, the Doctor of Physic in the ‘Prologue to the Canterbury Tales’ was John of Gaddesden, himself a fellow at Merton.

The reference to Canterbury tales suddenly reminded me of something which I had been planning to ask, the moment we met at The Bear. I had heard from a veteran forester trained in British India (and who had been to Oxford twice) that two of the oldest mulberry trees ever to be found existed in Oxford.

As I put forth my request, the bursar looked at me with a sense of acknowledgement in his sparkling eyes. Taking me out of the dreamy libraria, he escorted me through the garden housing T. S. Eliot’s bust. Soon we reached the outer wall of Merton, next to the famous and fabled Christ Church of Oxford. To my left were undulating green meadows surrounding vast water bodies with a spectacle of rising mists and lazy nibbling English horses. As I looked to my right, I saw two of those oldest mulberry trees.

It was there that the professor explained that these had been planted by none other than King James I of England. And just as I was admiring the beauty of the early spring bloom of mulberry trees, the bells from an old, imposing Christ Church started tolling, transporting me back to the times of James I. I felt so grateful to Bursar Douglas, the faithful custodian of the glorious lore about the chained manuscripts and the heartbroken masons of Thomas Hardy.

 

Syed Rizwan Mahboob

Rizwan Mahboob copy
The writer is a public policy expert interested in issues of governance, environment and heritage.

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