Experiencing Balliol Library, 1

Doing work experience at Balliol College Library has been hugely interesting and valuable. I have really enjoyed learning more about how a college’s library and archives function, and the different tasks and roles involved in being a librarian. Throughout this week, I have done a wide variety of things both in the library and in Balliol’s historic collections centre.

On Monday, I learned about the classification in libraries and helped to shelve books, and with an ongoing project to tidy the shelves in the library. I also saw the library’s blog and Facebook page and put together a display in the library of some summer reading for students. I then created a Facebook post to inform people about the display. I really enjoyed this creative aspect of the job, and it was fun picking and arranging the books.

On Tuesday, I helped to decide which books could been withdrawn from the library, a task I have continued throughout the week. I also collected books for withdrawal and helped with the process of withdrawing them. I learnt more about cataloguing books and helped to order, process and catalogue some new books for the library.

On Wednesday, I went to the historic collections centre, where I learnt about the archives and how they are stored. I also attended a workshop about handling historic collections properly in order to reduce damage to them. It was interesting to learn about the ways very old and rare books need to be handled differently to protect them. One of my favourite parts of the work experience was looking at the medieval manuscripts and the rare books kept in the historic collections centre. I got to see manuscripts made in the 11th to 15th centuries, and I found it fascinating to see the beautifully illustrated pages, especially the illuminated ones. I also really enjoyed seeing the early printed books, and finding about more about how they were made, and I found it interesting to see how they still looked very similar to the manuscripts.

On Thursday, I helped with some filing in the archives. In the afternoon, I helped to clean some of the rare books in the library. I enjoyed seeing what techniques were used to protect the books and seeing some of the techniques I saw in the class earlier in the week being used in the library.

On Friday, I learnt more about the upcoming exhibition happening at the historic collections centre, and the work that goes into putting together an exhibition. I found out about how books can be displayed in different ways and saw some of the artefacts going into the exhibition.

Overall, I have really enjoyed my week and I think I have learnt a huge amount about the job of being a librarian, and about the books and artefacts Balliol has, which has been fascinating. I am hugely grateful for the experience, and the opportunity to discover a career that I might want to pursue in the future.

Hester Perry (work experience placement from Oxford High School, 4th-8th July 2022)

Slavery in the Age of Revolution film released

This 50-minute film has been produced to coincide with the Slavery in the Age of Revolution exhibition and to serve as a discussion tool for the associated teachers’ project. The film narrates the story of the transatlantic slave trade through interviews with the exhibition’s co-curators alongside some of the exhibits. It also includes interviews with the Master and a member of Balliol’s Black and Minority Ethnic Society about what the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and the racial injustices associated with it mean for members of the College today. The exhibition and film are part of the ongoing Balliol and Empire project.

New exhibition: Slavery in the Age of Revolution

Paper art featured in the exhibition:
Revolution by DobrowolskiDesigns©per stellas Ltd.
Image ©ClickSka Photographer, Laura Hinski.

We are pleased to announce our Michaelmas 2021 exhibition and catalogue, Slavery in the Age of Revolution.

This exhibition examines the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the turbulent end of the 18th century through the lens of Balliol College’s collections. Taking the long view from 15th-century encounters between established African societies and emerging European nation states to the legacies of Transatlantic slavery in our present, it foregrounds narratives of resistance to slavery and the voices of enslaved people, as well as exploring how slavery was viewed by those consuming its products in Europe.

The exhibition will be open to the public during Oxford Open Doors on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 September 2021. The Library’s Exhibition and Outreach page has further details and more opening times.

The exhibition catalogue is available as a PDF or in hard copy (£5 plus postage and packing, contact the Library to order).

Ghost Stories from the Library

On the 30th of October the Library held its annual ghost story readings, an on-line event this year for obvious reasons, although compered from the environs of the Library itself. The following is a true relation of proceedings.

This year, to encourage imaginings amongst the College community, stories from current College members and staff were solicited, and two of these were read during the event.

Our winner of the competition was Ungodly Things by Krystalia Karamichou.

Another story entitled A Runner by a member of staff was also read.

There were also readings of poetry, Abiku by Wole Soyinka, and Windigo by Louise Erdrich.

This was followed by a presentation of some of the Historic Collections relating to demons, possession and witchcraft held in Balliol’s Library and Archives.

The oldest of these was our first printing of the Formicarius by Johannes Nider dating to 1473 (although written some 40 years earlier). This instructional work in the form of a teacher-pupil dialogue, uses an ant colony as a model of a well-structured Christian society. Within it, book 5 (the opening of which is shown here), discusses witches. This is the second book ever printed to discuss witchcraft and the one in which the modern idea of a witch as an uneducated female in thrall to the Devil appeared. In earlier centuries the chief focus of discussions of witchcraft was of an educated male wizard indulging in ornate esoteric ritual. Our copy still has its original 15th-century binding (pictured).

George Giffard’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Deuilles by Witches and Sorcerers of 1587 was written by a Puritan and although considered moderate in its assessment of cases of alleged witchcraft, still accepted its reality. Indeed it was written to argue against the first edition of the following work, published in 1584.

Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft was an encyclopedic book on the topic which aimed to disprove the existence of its subject matter. This angered James I, who believed there had been an attempt on his life by witches, and there is an apocryphal tale that he had all copies of the first edition burned. To some degree its very encyclopaedic nature worked against its case and it was often cited by those who believed in witchcraft to demonstrate their case, and indeed, also, by those who used the formulae and spells listed to tell fortunes and concoct potions. It became a source-book for magic (see the above diagram showing the layout for a ritual to trap a spirit in a crystal), and also conjuring, as its final section discusses stage magic. This section was later published  separately with additions as The Art of Jugling or Legerdemain, and then as Hocus Pocus Junior. Illustrated above is a trick called the ‘decollation of John the Baptist’ in which the conjurer appears to have his head cut off and put on a plate. Our copy is the second edition of 1651.

Sebastian Michaelis published his Histoire Admirable de la Possession et Conversion d’une Penitente in 1612, and here we have an English translation of the following year. Michaelis was Dominican Prior and Inquistor at Aix en Provence and had already served as Vice-Inquisitor at Avignon, being involved in witch trials there in the 1580s that led to the burning of 14 women. In 1610 a case of possession at the Ursuline convent at Aix was handed to him. One of the nuns accused her confessor, a priest, Louis Gaufridi, of being a witch. Other nuns began to show symptoms of possession too. One would talk in a deep voice, another scream obscenities. Despite protesting his innocence Gaufridi was tortured, strangled and his body burned. Note the addition on the title page of our copy from a sceptical reader.

In 1659 Meric Casaubon was pressed into translating and publishing a manuscript belonging to his patron Sir John Cotton, when a guest at his house. This was a handwritten account of the adventures across Europe of Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, John Dee, and one Edward Kelly. Together they visited the courts of Europe, and looked into the ball-shaped glass Dee is shown holding above. There they would transact with spirits, and the results of their conversations are recorded almost in the form of a play script, together with a representation of a holy table, also used to communicate with the beyond. The traditional view is that Dee’s reputation was being exploited by the conman Edward Kelly, who is pictured middle left in the selection of esoteric thinkers above, along with Dee who is bottom right.

The final item displayed was this tale of possession and manifestation from a 17th century Dartmoor village. When the spirit of a Gentleman appears to a servant in a field and badmouths his dead wife, be sure no good can come of it. Laces will writhe like snakes, fire-breathing dogs will appear, horses will fly through windows, flitches of bacon will unhook themselves from the chimney, and terror will reign. Again Scot and other sceptics come in for a good deal of abuse as the anonymous author uses the tale to demonstrate the existence of demonic possession. A slightly abridged version (mainly cutting out a page or two of the aforementioned abuse) of the entire pamphlet was read during the event.

Household Words for our hard times

As Halloween approaches and we look around for tales of the uncanny to send shivers down spines, we might turn to Charles Dickens. There are supernatural happenings aplenty in the complete run of Household Words that Balliol has acquired through the generosity of alumnus, Michael Rhodes (matriculated 1958). Harry Daniels, studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol, reflects on the significance for our times of Dickens’ journal, both homely and unheimlich:

Balliol College Library has recently been gifted a complete run of Household Words, the weekly magazine edited and jointly owned by Charles Dickens from 1850 to 1859, which published works by Dickens himself, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leigh Hunt, George Meredith, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Harriet Martineau, amongst others. Though we must regret we cannot yet see the volumes in person, the sentiments behind Dickens’s venture might still afford us pause for reflection on our new life in ‘households’ within College.    

In recent weeks and months, the word ‘household’ has become a more familiar acquaintance of our lips, ears, and eyes than ever before. In the works of Shakespeare as much as Dickens (both authors being, of course, two of the most obvious examples of household names), the word stands for the most familiar. In Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V exclaims to his troops outside Agincourt that their ‘names’ will become ‘familiar in [the] mouth as household words’ after they succeed in France. But now, like the face of a childhood friend long forgotten when encountered by chance upon a street corner, the word ‘household’ has taken on a strange, uncanny guise as it now greets us out of the televised mouths of government. In Oxford, as in many places elsewhere, the necessary restrictions to deal with the coronavirus pandemic have grouped and divided us into corridor and staircase ‘households’. Perhaps like Pip at the end of Great Expectations, we find ourselves in a quasi-familial position to persons we had not quite expected to earlier in the year. 

Detail from the front page of Household Words, October 27 1855
Detail from the front page of Household Words from October 27 1855, published exactly 165 years ago.

But we might turn to the pages of Dickens, and in particular the sentiments behind Household Words, to work through the harder times of the period we’re now living through. While many of us have been barred from extensive travel (with many conferences cancelled and far-flung holidays forgone), Dickens teaches us to find pleasure and interest in the everyday, in what is already familiar to us. Dickens hoped that the magazine would ‘show to all, that in all familiar things, even in those which are repellent on the surface, there is Romance enough [sic], if we will find it out’, as he wrote in his ‘Preliminary Word’ to the publication.

Ghost-Music, a poem by Edmund Ollier, published in Household Words, September 29 1855.
Ghost-Music, a poem by Edmund Ollier, published in Household Words, September 29 1855.

Interest in all aspects of the everyday, as embodied by Dickens’ journal, is also reflected in the breadth of study and research that occupies members of the College. This set of books will be with the College community, to inspire and inform us, long after the current crisis is history. Just as Harry sees relevance today in Dickens’ nineteenth-century endeavour, future members of the College ‘household’ may find consolation, interest and amusement in these words and those of the other books kept in the Library for posterity.

‘Messing About with Manuscripts’: R.A.B. Mynors and Balliol’s Medieval Library

We are excited to present our new virtual exhibition: ‘Messing about with Manuscripts: R.A.B. Mynors and Balliol’s Medieval Library‘.

This virtual exhibition is inspired by the work of Balliol Fellow Roger Mynors, whose 1963 catalogue listing and describing the College’s celebrated manuscript collection has provided a gateway to the medieval world for generations of scholars.

Most of Balliol’s medieval books have been together in the College, read and used by academics and thinkers at Balliol since the Middle Ages. This exhibition brings together for the first time the history of the collection with the processes and the people involved in uncovering it, and in doing so, hopes to build upon Mynors’ work in opening up the collection to an even wider audience.

We were due to host the exhibition at the Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church during the forthcoming Michaelmas Term, but since we are unable to do so at the moment, we thought we would give everyone a sneak peek into the world of our medieval manuscripts via the beautiful catalogue. We hope to put up the exhibition at a later date, and look forward to seeing everyone again soon!

Early printed books cataloguing project

Rare Books Cataloguer Sophie Floate introduces Balliol’s new project to make all of Balliol’s c.20,000 early printed books fully discoverable, and shares some of the highlights so far.

A new project to catalogue the early printed books collection at Balliol to a high standard began in January 2020. Over the years many books have been catalogued onto the University’s shared catalogue, SOLO, but very often these were lacking in the information now considered standard for early printed material, such as more detailed bibliographic information, provenance and binding descriptions. Following on from the Wellcome-funded project to catalogue the library of Nicholas Crouch, it is hoped that the cataloguing of the remainder of the extensive holdings at Balliol will bring new information to light on many aspects of the collection.

As with Crouch’s books, many of the historic bequests to the Library are now dispersed amongst the collection; while there are many sources relating to these bequests in the archives, such as the donations register, it will be much easier to bring this information together once the books are catalogued, allowing the collection to be researched more thoroughly.

Beginning with some of the smallest items in the library I have already encountered books which cover a wide variety of subjects, bindings and previous owners, the latter indicative of many of the discrete collections within the shelves. Books from the collections of Nathaniel Crynes (-1745), George Coningesby (1693-1766) and Henry Norris (whose son, also Henry, matriculated at Balliol in 1828 and who donated the collection) are much in evidence, as well as those given by Edwyn Birchenough (Balliol 1929) and his father, Charles (Balliol 1902) to name but a few. Interesting details are appearing relating to these previous owners: many of Coningesby’s books have manuscript notes and inscriptions by other members of his family, including his mother. He wrote extensive notes on the texts of many of his books, which is another useful way to identify them where they lack more obvious identification such as bookplates.

Tracing the ownership of a book prior to its donation to Balliol also throws up interesting connections, often linking now long-dispersed collections. For example, the Library has a volume (30 a 36) previously owned by Edward Gwynn, whose books have very distinctive bindings and have been reported by many other libraries across the world as detailed by the Folger Library.

The front of Edward Gwynn's distinctive binding with his name gold stamped on brown leather


Working along the shelf, book by book, can provide a fascinating glimpse into the wide range of subjects within the collection, since in many early printed collections the books have remained shelved by size, rather than by subject. You might find travel in Jerusalem in the 17th century next to a tract about Waldensian Protestants, or a curious collection of religious texts that purport to have been found inside a fish, John Frith’s Vox piscis:, or,, The book-fish : contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market, on Midsummer Eue last, anno Domini 1626. (London, 1627) [30 a 30].


Engraved title page of A Journey to Jerusalem
A Journey to Jerusalem: or, a relation of the travels of fourteen English-men, in the year, 1669. : From Scanderoon, to Tripoly, Joppa, Ramah, Jerusalem, Bethlem, Jericho, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea; and back again to Aleppo. (London, 1672) [30 a 22]
Even within the first hundred or so books catalogued, a wide variety of bindings is already apparent, from the plainer sheepskin or calfskin, to more ornately decorated goatskin. Or this example of gilt brocade paper with a design of birds and foliage:

Brocade paper binding with gold birds and leaves on a red ground faded to pink

Somewhat incongruously, inside these covers are two theological works by the controversial Scottish Archbishop Patrick Adamson, printed in the late 16th and early 17th century, but bound a little later and given to the College by Coningesby (30 a 62).

An important part of the cataloguing project is contributing to the ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) database. The ESTC is a union catalogue which aims to cover letterpress items printed before 1801, in British Isles, Colonial America, USA (1776-1800), Canada or territories governed by Britain in all languages. It also includes items printed in any other part of the world wholly or partly in English (or other British vernaculars) and items with false imprints claiming publication in Britain or its territories.

Any item catalogued which fits into any of the above categories is checked against the catalogue and any discrepancies reported. In the first few months of our project, six items were found not to have Balliol holdings reported, and one item not previously listed on the ESTC at all. This was the third part of the French writer and Protestant exile Pierre Bayles’ “Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jesus-Chrit [sic] contrain-les d’entrer; Troisiéme partie …” (30 a 16) printed a year after parts 1 and 2 in 1687. Although this part was not reported until now to the ESTC, there are a few other copies worldwide though apparently none in the UK. Its inclusion in the ESTC relates to the false imprint of “Cantorbery” which is probably why it has not appeared until now, as it is not an obviously “English” item. It has apparently long since been considered scarce, as the Balliol copy has a note in a 19th- or early 20th-century hand:
“Very rare 3rd part to go with my other 2 parts in one vol”.

The library also has parts 1 and 2, so is the only library in Oxford to hold a copy of this important work on religious toleration.

Another rare item is a volume of three bound tracts by religious and political controversialist William Sedgwick. Sedgwick studied at Pembroke College in the 1620s and went on to become rector of Farnham, Essex during the civil war period. Although he had impressed Cromwell with his evangelical style, there were doubts relating to his sanity in the following years, leading to his nickname “Doomsday Sedgwick”. However, his tracts about the outbreak of war were fairly balanced in assigning blame to both sides, though some accused him of being a Royalist. The tracts in this volume record his reflections on the whole period of the Civil War and Protectorate but copies are fairly scarce now, with the second bound item “Inquisition for the blood of our late soveraign, in an humble addresse to His most sacred Majesty” (printed in 1660) being one of only three known copies listed in the ESTC.

As the project progresses, it will be fascinating to see what other discoveries lie on the shelves and what we can learn about the history of the collection.

A Load of Old Babel: The Languages and Scripts of Balliol College

This exhibition explores the languages and scripts of Balliol College’s historic collections. From Aleut to Welsh, the diverse languages of Balliol’s collections reflect the changing social, political and economic forces that have shaped the College and its collections over its 750 years.

At its foundation the language of Balliol was the Latin of the Church and scholarly communication. The Reformation ended this monopoly, as the vernaculars began their ascent, while the Scientific Revolution sought to create the perfect language. Balliol members  were instrumental in categorising and disseminating languages in the 19th and 20th centuries, while others worked hard to conceal them through cryptography.

Religious Languages

Unsurprisingly Latin features prominently in Balliol’s collections. The presence of the other languages that feature here is indicative of the College’s broad intellectual interests and expanding means of communication that provided access to an increasing range of cultures and languages.


Latin was one of three sacred languages in the medieval West, the other two being Greek and Hebrew. This section of the exhibition explores Latin as a language of religion, but also its wider context as the primary learned language and language of administration in medieval western Europe. The majority of surviving medieval manuscripts preserved at Balliol, and indeed in the world, are written in Latin. The Latin of the manuscripts and documents discussed here is medieval rather than the classical Latin of antiquity. It is still the same language—authors used classical grammar books—but people writing in the middle ages had variable training, and it was used alongside and sometimes mixed with vernacular languages.


Vulgate Bible. 13th century.


By far the most essential Latin text in the medieval world was the Bible itself, specifically the 4th-century version compiled by St Jerome, translating a variety of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts. This translation soon became the standard Latin Bible, its ubiquity giving rise to its name, versio vulgata (meaning ‘commonly used version’). This 13th-century volume, open to the beginning of the Book of Genesis, is one of several examples in Balliol’s collections.

Balliol College MS 1, folio 12r

Hrabanus Maurus, Commentary on scripture. 12th century.

Cropped image from Ms 168 showing decorated initial AJerome made extensive use of marginal annotations in the Vulgate, often to explain obsolete or foreign terms to readers. These notes are known as glossa or glosses, deriving from a Greek term meaning tongue or language. The Vulgate itself generated its own glosses, especially from the 9th century. By this point, these explanatory marginal notes had expanded to include critical commentary and scholarship. This new type of gloss became one of the most common types of medieval learned religious texts. This manuscript has grouped the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Judith and Esther. The author, Hrabanus Maurus, was a 9th-century Frankish scholar who was senior in the Church during the Carolingian Revival, when the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, encouraged a renewed interest in copying and studying important Latin and Greek texts. Maurus’s work was very important in spreading knowledge of the Church Fathers (influential early Christian theologians) in the medieval West. He knew Greek and Hebrew and even wrote about the origins of these languages and the runic alphabet in his treatise, The Invention of Languages. In fact, the Books of Chronicles are referred to by their Greek name, Paralipomenon, in the volume shown here.

This particular copy has a likely monastic origin (we know this because of a partially erased library mark). Until the rise of universities in the 13th century, most manuscripts were produced by monks working in scriptoria. It would have formed part of the monks’ working library, but a few centuries later was acquired by William Gray, Bishop of Ely, a Balliol Fellow and keen book collector who donated his library to the College by the time of his death in 1478.

Balliol College MS 168, folio 160v


The rise of universities in the 13th century led to greater demand for a wider variety of texts, covering secular as well as theological topics.

Albertus Magnus, De Vegetabilibus (Treatise on Plants). 14th century.

Initial letter from Ms 101 showing the author in an orchardAlbert the Great exemplified one of the most significant aspects of this surge in learning, the influence of the new Dominican Order, or Order of Preachers, on scholarship. A 13th-century scholar, philosopher and teacher active in Germany, Italy and France, his most famous student was another Dominican, St Thomas Aquinas. Albert was accomplished in many disciplines, from theology and logic to natural science. This volume represents one of Albert’s scientific studies. Combining his own observations with those of authoritative works, he made some scientific advances of his own. Here we see the author seated in an orchard.

Albert the Great is best known for prolifically paraphrasing and commenting in Latin on the works of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Arab scholars had done similar work, which Albert occasionally incorporated. In fact, many ancient Greek works ultimately reached the Latin West through the medium of Arabic.

Balliol College MS 101, folio 2r

Averroes. Early 14th century.

Detail of Averooes Manuscript Ms 112 showing marginalia and doodles

Ibn Rushd, perhaps better known by the Latinized form of his name, Averroes, was one of the most celebrated Arab scholars known to Albert the Great. A Muslim living in 12th-century Al-Andalus (modern Spain), he was a polymath, excelling at everything from philosophy and astronomy to law and linguistics. Ibn Rushd’s Aristotelian commentaries were translated from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew in the West to such an extent that he earned the nickname, ‘The Commentator’. This volume, a Latin translation of several of his treatises, including metaphysics and astronomy, demonstrates the university-driven demand for texts on philosophical and secular subjects. It was in Balliol’s library by the late 14th century. The doodles and marginal notes, also in Latin, give us a sense of how the book was used and received.

Balliol College MS 112, folio 13r


Detail of page showing manuscript the Latin Register of Balliol College for 1538

As we shall see, Latin continued to play a significant role in education and learning at Balliol and Oxford right up to the 20th century. It was also the language used for College record-keeping and administration, from College Statutes and meeting minutes to financial accounts. In fact, the early volumes of minutes of Balliol’s governing body are referred to as the ‘Latin Registers’. The entry above,  from 1538, records the establishment of the office of Notary or Secretary to the Master and Fellows, putting College administration on a more systematic footing.

Balliol College Archives. Latin Register 1. Folio 44


These Latin minutes were maintained up until 1916. However, from 1794, Balliol used a parallel series of detailed ‘English Registers’ of minutes to distinguish them from the Latin record. Just a few years after the College abandoned the Latin Register, the English minutes resolved that Latin was to be revived to record serious disciplinary matters . We don’t know the exact reason for this, but we think it might have been to protect the privacy of the subject while simultaneously underscoring the gravity of the offence. The minutes go on to record the temporary expulsion of a Blundell Scholar called Henry D. Bown for drunkenness (ebriatatis convicto).

Balliol College Archives. English Register of College Meeting minutes. 8 July 1921


Religion_Hebrew_01_scroll open

Book of Esther. 17th or 18th century.

Not merely a scroll, but ‘the Scroll’, the Book of Esther is the foundation for the Jewish festival of Purim. So key is the text that the generic term megillah (which means simply ‘book’ or ‘scroll’) is often used to refer to the Book of Esther specifically. It recounts the foiling of a genocidal plan against the Jews in Persia by Esther, the Persian King’s Jewish queen, and her guardian, Mordecai, who had previously rendered service by discovering a plan to assassinate the King. For such deliverance Purim is celebrated by the distribution of gifts of food, a celebratory meal and readings from the scroll.

This example is two or three centuries old and follows the tradition of the Book of Esther being kept on a single roller (most other Hebrew texts were kept on two). Although Jewish scholars began to use codexes (i.e. books with pages) in the Middle Ages, these were for study purposes. For religious and liturgical use, the scroll retained its sacred role. At the time that this example was produced Hebrew was chiefly a sacred and learned language, similar in status to Latin. It had disappeared as a spoken language over a thousand years earlier and wasn’t revived until the 19th century with the rise of Jewish nationalism.

Balliol College MS 377


‘To Know Wisdom and Instruction’: Armenian Psalter. 17th century?

Title page of Psalms of David in Armenian Arch.C.10
Title page of Psalms of David in Armenian

An early printing in another alphabet that, like Hebrew, held a nation together for over a millennium both under subjugation and in diaspora. With a homeland adjacent to a persistent political fissure, whether between the Roman and Persian Empires, the Byzantines and the Islamic Caliphate, or the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, Armenians often had to come to terms with periods of war and instability, and the rule of foreign overlords. Even so they managed to maintain a distinctive cultural identity based partly on their early adoption of Christianity, being the first nation to convert in the early 4th century. After a hundred years, a need for Gospel translations in their own language, rather than relying on Greek, Persian or Syriac versions, was recognised by those preaching to the people. One of these, Mesrop Mashtots, undertook the translation – inventing, and promoting, a novel alphabet which was sympathetic to the phonetics of the Armenian language. This work enabled the Armenian Church to hold its own against Zoroastrianism whose texts were in Persian, and later the Arabic of Islam and the Greek of the Orthodox Church.

In later centuries, particularly due to trans-Mediterranean trade from the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia on the Anatolian coast, many Armenians would settle in western Europe, taking their script with them. The numbers increased substantially after the fall of Cilicia to the Mamelukes at the end of the 14th century. A key destination for emigrés was Venice, and it was here in 1512 that the first book in Armenian was printed. By the end of the 17th century, 195 books had been printed in Armenian, of which this is one example. Many of these reflected the centrality of the church to Armenian identity, and this is no exception, being a translation of the Book of Psalms. Early Armenian printing often replicated in monochrome the head-pieces, border decorations and distinctive, often zoomorphic, initial letters to be found in its manuscript tradition.

Opening of book in Armenian, showing text and zoomorphic initials

Balliol College Library. Arch.c.10.10


Prayers to the Virgin Mary & Undescribed Manuscript. Dates unknown.

Manuscript 378 folio 1, showing Ge'ez text in red and black with yellow and red decorative edges
Manuscript 378, folio 1

Balliol’s collections include two manuscripts in Ge’ez, the language and script of the Ethiopic Christian Church. Manuscript 378 has the distinction of being Balliol’s smallest; at 2.5 x 3.5 inches, it’s not much bigger than a large matchbox. It is a collection of prayers to the Virgin Mary, its diminutive size indicating its use for personal contemplation. It belonged to Benjamin Jowett, Balliol Master from 1870-1893, the only manuscript in the College’s collection known to have come from him. We don’t know much about the larger of Balliol’s Ge’ez manuscripts beyond its provenance. It was purchased from Abyssinian Monks at Jerusalem, and presented to the College in 1880 by alumnus Reverend G. J. Chester along with 11 other manuscripts.

Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the 4th century, brought by merchants to the trading communities on the country’s coast. The Ethiopic Church became independent of Rome in 451, later withstanding the spread of Islam in North Africa. Cut off from the continent it became a place of wonder for European Christians, and once contact with Europe was reinitiated in the 15th century, some suspected Ethiopia to be the lost kingdom of the mythical Christian Patriarch, Prester John.

Cover of Ms 366 made from wooden board
Both MS 366, shown here, and 378 are covered with wooden boards, the typical binding of Ethiopic manuscripts

Renewed contact led to great interest among Europeans in the language of the ancient Ethiopic Church. In 1649 German scholar Hiob Ludolf impressed Ethiopian priest Abba Gorgoryos with his knowledge of Ge’ez when they met in Rome, leading the two to collaborate on the Historia Aethiopica, which described the history, language and geography of the Ethiopian Empire, and featured in our previous exhibition The Elephant in the Room. Ge’ez remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopic Church today, but died out as a spoken language in the 14th century.

Balliol College MS 366 and 378


Kamma-vācā. 19th century?

When his followers proposed spreading his teachings through Sanskrit, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, refused: Sanskrit was a learned language, while the path to Enlightenment was intended for all. Instead, Gautama encouraged his disciples to use local dialects known as Prakrits. This is how Pali, a literary Prakrit from North India and possibly similar to the Buddha’s own tongue, became the language of the Theravada Buddhist Canon called the Tripitaka.

Gilded and lacquered Pali Ms 385 with wooden boards
Wooden board covering and gilded and lacquered palm leaf of MS 385

Manuscript 385 in Balliol’s collection contains a portion of the Kammavaca, the part of the Tripitaka which describes aspects of monastic life such as ordination. It is in a Burmese script on gilded and lacquered palm leaves enclosed between painted wooden boards. Kammavaca were usually very ornate as they were commissioned as a gift for a monastery from the family of a novice.

As Buddhism swept through India and into China and South East Asia, Pali became the lingua franca of communities throughout the region. It died out as a literary language in the 14th century but remains a liturgical language in South East Asia to this day, although it bears no resemblance to local languages like Thai or Burmese. In China and Tibet, unlike South East Asia, Buddhist texts were translated into the local languages, on which they had a transformational influence; existing Chinese characters were combined to create thousands of new words that were based on Pali and Sanskrit concepts.

Balliol College MS 385



Aldus Manutinus. Aristophanis Comoediae novem. Venice, 1498.

Greek_01_AristophanesWhen Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, many Greek scholars fled the city, ending up in Venice, the centre of the book trade and home to a cosmopolitan community of scholars. They brought with them the works of classical Greek authors, mostly unknown to western Europeans at the time. It was a boon to humanist learning, but reproduction efforts were hampered by the difficulty of reproducing Greek script, whose accents and interwoven letters posed a problem for the new technology of the printing press.

Enter Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Unlike earlier printers who mostly came from a crafting background – Johann von Gutenberg was a goldsmith – Aldus was a humanist scholar, versed in Greek. In 1495 he produced his own Greek type, modelled on the handwriting of Venice-based calligrapher Immanuel Rhusostas, and which made use of famed Greek metallurgic skills to overcome the mechanical difficulties of producing the type. Aldus’ success created a European market for Greek texts, which became a regular part of the book trade.

Aldus produced four Greek types in total. This collected work of classical playwright Aristophanes, published in 1498 was the last use of the first. Containing nine of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving works (all 11 wouldn’t be published until 1532), it is the first collection of classical Greek plays ever published. The text of the plays is in the centre of the page, surrounded by the copious annotations of editor Marcus Musurus. These required a smaller type apparently designed specifically for use in the Aristophanes.

Balliol College Library 605 b 6


As we saw with Armenian, commitment to religious languages of the Church vied with the proselytising needs of Christianity. This came to a head with the Reformation, the Reformed churches emphasising direct communication with God, which necessitated vernacular translations of the Bible and revived interest in early vernacular works.


Testimonie of Antiquitie. London, 1566.

Reformation_300 b 6(1)_01_Testimonie of Antiquity

Antiquarianism becomes a weapon of religious war in this text. Published in Anglo-Saxon and contemporary English is the Sermo de Sacrificio in die Pascae of Aelfric of Eynsham, the pre-eminent scholar of the 10th century. This was the first attempt at printing Anglo-Saxon, and uses a specially designed type, incorporating characters like thorn (Þ) and eth (ð) which do not occur in the standard Roman alphabet. Such effort and money was put into the reproduction because it was both politically and religiously highly significant, as it allowed its editor, Archbishop Matthew Parker, to forge a precedent for the Anglican communion by citing ancient practice against the current, and therefore decadent, practice of the Catholic Church.

In this venture he was aided and abetted by his associate, John Day, a leading printer of Protestant leanings. Day was arrested during the reign of Queen Mary under suspicion of producing pseudonymous pamphlets critical of the Catholic regime. On the accession of Elizabeth his press sprang back into life again, publishing, amongst other things, the monumental bestseller known colloquially as the Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, which detailed the sufferings of Protestants for their cause.

Balliol College Library 300 b 6(1)


Great Bible. Paris and London, 1539.

Reformation_English Bible_01_Title Page

God is squashed against the top of the title page to the first royally authorised Bible translation into English. He pales into insignificance above the bulk of Henry VIII who passes the divine Word to his bishops on his right, and his secular advisors, fronted by Thomas Cromwell, on his left. These then disseminate it amongst the crowds of the populace, who celebrate with cries of ‘God save the King!’ Or at least they would do if they weren’t all speaking Latin (apart from a child near the bottom, and one other). There is a certain irony that this English text is represented in the woodcut by books labelled ‘Verbum Dei’. The linguistic ambivalence of the image perhaps echoes the need to walk a fine line between encouraging confidence in a newly founded English national church, and not alienating conservative sensibilities with signifiers of an overtly radical Protestantism.

The translation of the Bible into English was a rather chaotic affair. Much of the text here is based on William Tyndale’s translation. After being rebuffed in England Tyndale left for the continent to print his New Testament in Cologne. This was stopped, so he fled to Worms to complete the work in 1526. The book was condemned in England and copies were burned publicly. Tyndale moved to Antwerp before being betrayed to the Catholic authorities and burnt at the stake in 1536. Henry VIII’s disestablishment of the Catholic Church in England in 1534 did nothing to save him, and neither did the fact that another exile, Miles Coverdale, had printed a translation of the whole Bible in 1535, most probably in Antwerp itself.

Meanwhile in England the King was now desperate to generate an authoritative text after the rebellions against his reforms. Thomas Cranmer pressured several bishops to help but they were unenthusiastic and dragged their feet. In the meantime Cromwell funded a printing, in Paris, of Tyndale’s translation as an interim measure (the ‘Matthew Bible’ of 1537). The radical nature of the text required adulteration with translations of passages from the Latin Vulgate to be acceptable to conservative bishops, and so the ‘Great Bible’ was approved by the King two years later. Even then it was still printed in Paris, where those overseeing the work had to escape from agents of the Inquisition, selling quantities of finished pages as waste paper to a local haberdasher, before Cromwell had them repurchased and sent on to London where the edition was finished.


Lutheran Bible. Wittenberg, 1541.

coloured print showing God in Heaven looking down on Eden, within a gilt frame
Coloured print of Eden in the Lutheran Bible

A monument not simply to the Word, but also to words, as so many translations of the Bible are. And, of course, also to the Elector of Saxony to whom this 1541 edition was dedicated. Johan Frederick I, whose portrait appears on the verso of the title page, was a key supporter of Martin Luther from an early age, and the main Protestant prince to stand against the Catholicism of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. No wonder then that he should be immortalized here in one the luxury editions of Luther’s German Bible that were produced in the reformer’s base of Wittenberg from 1534 onwards by the printer Hans Lufft. The book is replete with woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the court painter to the Saxon Electors. This particular copy is enhanced and made even more magnificent by the fact that it is printed on vellum, with contemporary hand-painted and gilt illumination, probably indicating ownership by nobility.

Hand coloured frontispiece from Luther Bible showing Elector Johann Frederick I
Frontispiece showing Johan Frederick I

Although not the first Bible translation into German, Luther’s was the first comprehensive translation from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than from the intermediary of the Latin Vulgate. It was highly influential on the development of the modern German language. One reason for this was that the Saxon dialect he was using was intelligible to those speaking dialects from both the north and the south. Another was Luther’s ear for the vernacular, often spending time listening to those around him in everyday settings speak, and incorporating their turns of phrase into his text. Thirdly printing was beginning to find its feet commercially by this time, and Lufft was to print over 100,000 copies, which were disseminated to German speakers across the Holy Roman Empire. Consequently the Bible became a key factor in the development of a standardized, mutually comprehensible language. Due to the cultural centrality of the Bible a similar story could be told for several European languages.

Balliol College Library Luther 1


Early vernacular writing developed new forms of literature in areas that religious languages hadn’t explored, such as romantic love. Availability of literature in local languages helped to expand literacy beyond those versed in Latin and other languages confined to the learned. Vernaculars became an increasingly effective means of expressing, forming and consolidating national and regional identities.


Dante. La Commedia. Venice, 1544.

Romance_Italian_01_Satan detail

This image of Satan consuming sinners is one of 87 illustrations produced for a 16th-century edition of Dante’s Commedia. It might seem entertaining to us, but for contemporary audiences it was a stark reminder of the fate awaiting them if their souls were not saved.

Luckily Dante’s aim with his epic Commedia was to aid them in achieving this; by describing his journey from sin to Hell to Heaven he hoped to help readers transform their lives and attain salvation. Whether or not his work achieved such lofty aims we can only guess, but we do know that it had a transformational and lasting linguistic impact. At the time most literary works were in Latin, a language confined to the wealthy and educated. Dante wrote in a dialect of the Florentine upper classes, a language he expanded to make it capable of expressing most subjects, creating new terms in philosophy, science and astronomy along the way. The immediate popularity of the Commedia ensured that Florentine spread throughout the peninsula and became the standard form of Italian: 80% of most common Italian words used today appear in the Commedia.

Paget Toynbee's bookplate, in Latin and French

Dubbed ‘a new explanation’ when published, Alessandro Vetullio’s version of the Commedia set out to portray Dante’s narrative accurately through the impressive circular engravings and textual commentary, an effort at odds with the literary tendency of the time when texts were usually heavily interpreted. This copy of the Commedia is from the library of world-renowned Dante scholar and Balliol tutor Paget Jackson Toynbee (Balliol, 1874), which he bequeathed to the College in 1932.

Balliol College Library 3 a 7


Miguel Cervantes. Historia del Famoso Cavallero, Don Quixote de la Mancha. London, 1781

Title page of Don Quixote Part 1

Towards the end of part 1 of Don Quixote, a naval officer imprisoned in Algiers recounts his escape and return to Spain with the help of the Moorish woman he loves. ‘The captive’s tale’ is based on the experience of Don Quixote author Miguel Cervantes. He was captured by North African pirates in 1585 while returning from fighting the Turks in the Mediterranean and spent the next five years in Algiers as their prisoner. While enslaved there he encountered different cultures, among them, Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity), renegades and picaros (rogues who lived by their wits). The expression of these marginalised peoples’ stories is one of many reasons Don Quixote is considered the first, and many would say greatest, modern novel. Its realistic portrayal of a variety of human experiences was a radical departure from earlier fictional writing like the popular chivalric romances which it spoofed.

Although hugely popular throughout Europe when first published, Don Quixote was not seen as a work of serious literary merit. At the time fiction was not considered worthy of the same level of scholarship as the classics and history. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that this perception changed, thanks largely to the work of John Bowle. He spent 10 years researching Cervates’ chivalric, Spanish, Italian and classical sources before producing the first scholarly edition of Don Quixote. Published in 1781, it comprises six volumes and includes over 300 pages of annotations and extensive indexes; an impressive feat for an Englishman with reputedly mediocre Spanish. English reviews were unfavourable, but the book was a success in Spain. The value of his work was acknowledged later, and it remains the starting point for editions published today.

Balliol College Library 193 g 14


Ferran Soldevila. Història de Catalunya, Vol. 1. Barcelona, 1934.


In his memoir ‘Making History’, the historian John Elliott recounts a meeting with Ferran Soldevila while in Barcelona in the 1950s. He asked the Catalan historian to sing a 17th-century peasant song that had become an anthem of the 19th-century Catalan revivalist movement. Soldevila agreed and as he sang tears fell down his cheeks. ‘As I listened to him as we walked’ Elliott writes, ‘I realized, I think, for the first time, what it was not to be free.’ Soldevila was a Catalan Nationalist who had seen his region gain and lose autonomy a number of times during his lifetime, an experience that mirrored the area’s millennium of history. His three volume Història de Catalunya, published in 1934, was one of the first comprehensive histories of the region written in Catalan, a language derived from Vulgar Latin that dates back to the 9th century.

In his review of the book, a young student named Jaume Vicens Vives accused the author of being more interested in creating a romantic image of Catalunya than presenting facts. He saw Soldevila’s work as a continuation of the nationalistic and romantic school of Catalan history that he had dominated the field since the late 19th century.
History came down on the side of Vives who dedicated his career to revising what he saw as the mythologised view of Catalan history produced by Soldevila and his contemporaries. Història de Catalunya, remains a well-regarded, if somewhat biased, account of the area’s history. As John Elliott, remarked, every incipient nation needs a story and Soldevila provided one for Catalunya.

Ferran Soldevila went into exile in France following the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War. He remained there until 1943, when he returned to take up the position of Professor of Catalan History which he held until 1952.

Balliol College Library P. L. 30 f 13


Kywyddeu Kymraec. An anthology of Welsh verse, ca. 1540-50.

Page of Welsh poem in 16th century manuscript with marginal annotationsA 16th-century collection of Welsh verse has overwhelmed this commonplace book (a type of intellectual scrapbook in which people copied excerpts of texts they found entertaining or inspiring as well as their thoughts, sketches, etc.). There are other entries (including an account of a circumcision ceremony in Rome) but poetry has been crammed around them to produce this striking collection. The script is all in the hand of Sir John Prise, originally of Brecon, but who ended up in the employ of Thomas Cromwell and became a visitor involved in the dissolution of the monasteries, as well as one of those who interrogated by John Fisher and Thomas More. His close connection with Cromwell extended to marrying the latter’s niece at his house in Islington. Prise managed to continue a public career after Cromwell’s fall, although reduced in influence, even after the accession of Mary Tudor.

Although he was active in ending monastic life in Wales he reined the more destructive tendencies of his fellow visitor in Wales, and preserved many of the contents of monastic libraries by his enthusiastic collecting from the very institutions he was dissolving. He even ended up living in one as his primary residence, at St Guthlac’s Priory in Hereford. He is generally credited with producing the first book printed in Welsh, a compilation of religious texts, in 1546, and was keen to use the burgeoning technology of printing to preserve his homeland’s vernacular. This manuscript shows he was also deeply interested in the collection of secular Welsh literature as well. Many of the poets Prise collected here were active in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, and were bards attached to Welsh noble families.

Manuscript 353 has been digitised in its entirety and can be viewed by following this link:  https://bit.ly/3cev3Sy

Balliol College MS 353

Gwyneth Lewis. Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill. Llandysul, 1990 & Cyfrif Un Ac Un Yn Dri. 1996.

It is a rare poet who has their verse appear in 6-foot-high letters on a building that has made guest appearances in Dr Who. The Welsh Millennium Centre is an arts venue in Cardiff fronted by windows that spell out two lines of verse, one in Welsh and one in English, by Gwyneth Lewis, first National Poet of Wales, and alumna of Balliol (1985). Lewis studied for a DPhil in English at Balliol examining the work of the Welsh medievalist and forger, Iolo Morganwg, and is now an Honorary Fellow of the College. Being a native Welsh speaker, who was taught English by her father to entertain her when her mother was in hospital giving birth, through the course of her career she has published poetry in both languages. Displayed here are first editions of two collections of her Welsh verse presented to the Library by the poet. ‘Sonnets to Redsa and Other Verse’ deals with the history of the Philippines and was composed for the baptism of a Filipino girl; ‘One and One Make Three’ deals with society from two different points of view. Her most recent works include another collection in Welsh, Treiglo, dealing with a father/daughter relationship, and a translation of The Book of Taliesin into English, completed with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Balliol College Library 1 f 72/2 & 1 f 72/5


Saadi, Gulistan (The Rose Garden), 16th century

Image of the Persian text on Folio 9 verso of the Gulistan, Balliol College Ms 370

In one of the stories in the Gulistan, the Persian poet Saadi meets an Arab King at the shrine to John the Baptist in Damascus. The monarch asks Saadi to pray for him as he is frightened of a powerful enemy. If he wishes to live without fear of retribution, the poet tells the King, he need only rule his people justly. Justice and the abuse of political power, self-interest and altruism are two of the central themes of the Gulistan, or ‘The Rose Garden’, composed by Saadi in the 13th century and considered by many the greatest work of Persian literature. The author wanted it to be a practical ethics manual, intended to teach others how to live a good and noble life in a light-hearted way.



The tales may have been aimed particularly at leaders, as the story of the Arab King indicates, but it was also intended for a general audience. Iran had been Muslim since the mid-7th century, and while the elites may have been bilingual, Arabic had never replaced Persian as the everyday language. Where Saadi uses Arabic verse in the Gulistan, he provides a translation in Persian if the poem is key to the narrative. The Gulistan was first introduced to a European audience through a 16th-century French translation. Like other Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, Sa’di has had a profound effect on western culture, influencing writers like Voltaire, Goethe and Emerson. Balliol’s copy of was bought by the College in 1905.

MS 370 has been digitised in its entirety and can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://bit.ly/3diaip4

Balliol College MS 370

A New Lingua Franca

With Latin increasingly limited to Church use, 17th-century Europe searched for a new lingua franca. French became the international language of culture and diplomacy, its success attributed, by the French themselves, to the language’s innate superiority. In reality French dominance stemmed from the country’s social, political and economic influence. Meanwhile scholars experimented with creating synthetic languages to facilitate international scholarly communication and even, some hoped, describe all of human knowledge.


Memoire presented by Mallet du Pan to the allied sovereigns on the part of Louis XVI and other related papers, 1792

Image of folio 1 of manuscript Memoire composed by Jacques Mallet du Pan

In 1792, Swiss journalist and royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan was sent on a secret mission by King Louis XVI of France. He was entrusted to present a ‘Memoire’, or manifesto, to the Princes of Germany and the Austrian Emperor, Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother. The manifesto, composed by Mallet du Pan under direction from the King, called for a moderate response by the Princes when intervening in French affairs in support of the beleaguered monarchy. Louis was concerned that an invasion of France by a foreign power would lead to reprisals against his family and could result in civil war. He asked that that all foreign intervention should be limited to reinstating the monarchy and restoring peace. The Princes apparently agreed to the terms laid out by Mallet du Pan, but reneged soon after. In July 1792 the Austrian commander Brunswick released a manifesto that declared if any harm should come to the French royal family ‘exemplary and eternally memorable revenge’ would be enacted on the French people, fomenting Republican sentiment. In August the constitutional monarchy collapsed and the King and Queen’s fates were sealed.

Jacques Mallet du Pan escaped execution, to be exiled to Berne in 1797 for publishing anti-Revolutionary pamphlets. He ended up in London in 1798 where he continued to work as a journalist and wrote extensively on his experience of the Revolution. His papers came to Balliol as part of the Mallet family archive which includes also the papers of Mallet du Pan’s son, diplomat Lewis Mallet, and those of Bernard Mallet (Balliol 1878) and Louis du Pan Mallet (Balliol 1883). In his memoir of his great-grandfather Jacques Mallet du Pan and the French Revolution, Bernard claims that the manifesto was approved by the King and includes annotations in his hand.

Balliol College Historic Collections. Mallet Family Papers I. Papers of Jacques (James) Mallet du Pan. 1.2

Philosophical Language

Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 2nd Edition. Cambridge, 1713, & Optice. London, 1706.

The works of one of the most famous British scientists started out being printed in Latin, and ended being printed in English. In spite of the rise of vernacular languages in religious contexts during the Reformation, Latin had initially flourished in print as a scholarly and literary language, throughout the 16th and well into the 17th centuries. It took time for the Reformation and the rise of the nation state to impact on Latin’s status as the go-to language of internationalism, but by the end of the 17th century its decline was evident, as languages such as French, English and German became more widely used in scholarly contexts in their own homelands, and more widely known internationally.

Cropped image of an elipsis surrounded by Latin text, from Newton's Principia Matematica
From Principia Mathematica

The history of the publication of Isaac Newton’s works exemplify this shift away from Latin as their publication straddled this period. His ground-breaking work on mechanics, the Principia, was originally published in Latin in 1687. Nineteen years later the second edition was still published in the language. It wasn’t until after Newton’s death that the first English translation was published in 1729. Consequently the Principia was often seen as a very technical and inaccessible text that left many readers bemused. In 1704, however, Newton had published another major work, his Opticks. This was published in English, one of the first major scientific works to appear in the language, and seemed more firmly aimed at explaining the topic to a popular readership. The Latin translation shown here was undertaken two years later as a scholarly publication, but still it was in this form that it reached a broader continental audience.

Balliol College Library 470 f 3 & 470 f 4

John Wilkins’s An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. London, 1668

Plate divided into 31 squares, each showing the mechanism involved in pronouncing a letter from Wilkins' Real Character
Plate demonstrating how to pronounce Wilkins’ Real Character

As Latin as an international language of learning declined, scholars sought to replace it, seeing this as an opportunity to  formulate a system of communication based on rational principles. One notable example was devised by the theologian and founder member of the Royal Society, John Wilkins. Wilkins’s ‘real character’ was a notation based on logically ordered concepts, and therefore independent of any spoken language, an approach based on popular accounts of Chinese writing amongst Western audiences.
The ‘real character’ was a symbolic system that looked vaguely Arabic. To complement this notational system Wilkins also devised a means of articulating it phonetically so that people could, if so desired, speak a ‘philosophical language’. This ‘philosophical language’ mixed Roman and Greek letters.

The scheme was highly thought of amongst the Royal Society for a short while, particularly by Robert Hooke, probably because it worked like a classificatory system, moving from the general to the particular. Thus Z is used for the category of animals, Zi identifies the genus ‘beasts’ (mammals), Zit denotes ‘rapacious beasts of the dog kind’ and Zitα gives the species of dogs. As a language, though, this is not ideal, because words for fairly similar concepts look very similar (the word for monkey and cat are going to be four characters long and begin with Zi in the same way that dog does) leading to a vastly increased chance of verbal confusion. Wilkins made one such error in this book, using the notation for ‘barley’ instead of ‘tulip’.

Balliol College Library 30 e 92

Exotic Artifice

Robert Hooke, ‘Some observations and conjectures concerning the Chinese characters’, from The philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, volume 16. London, 1686


Nearly twenty years after the death of Wilkins, one of his proteges was still trying to validate his work in creating an artificial language on rational principles. Robert Hooke was the pioneering experimental scientist of his age, an associate of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, demonstrator to the Royal Society, and an experimental scientist in his own right, immortalized by Hooke’s Law regarding the extension of a spring. He had come under Wilkins’ influence during the later Commonwealth as part of a like-minded Royalist group with interests in natural philosophy, who were seeking to ensure the preservation of scientific learning which they perceived as being under threat from Cromwell’s regime.

Hooke had been very enthusiastic about Wilkins’s ‘real character’, and while this never really took off, he remained committed to the principle of an artificial language. In later years this was manifest in his participation on the discussions surrounding Chinese culture, and particularly linguistics. Hooke collected texts and word lists where he could and examined them. Bemused by the contrast between the apparent complexity of Chinese characters and the apparent simplicity of the sounds they represented, he concluded that there was a discontinuity here. The characters, he felt, actually represented an ancient rational writing system for which the original meaning had been lost in the mists of history, and which a later spoken language had adopted without relation to their original meaning. That such an artificial language seemed to have existed he took to validate Wilkins’ project. Even later, in 1693, Hooke’s interest in Chinese language was maintained, and he visited Chinese resident in London to share tea and try and converse in it.

Balliol College Library 1500 g 1



Anonymous, Attributed to Thomas Dekker. O Per Se O. London, 1612 & Richard Head. The Canting Academy or Villainies Discovered. London, 1674

The purpose of O Per Se O, its author tells us, is to help readers identify ‘villains and rogues’ so that they may protect themselves against these criminals’ activities. It is attributed to Thomas Dekker, a prolific Elizabethan playwright who turned his hand to pamphleteering after a stint in debtors’ prison for unpaid gambling debts. The author begins with descriptions of the varied members of the criminal classes, followed by a dictionary of Cant, the language supposedly used by these rogues to plan and carry out their dastardly deeds without being caught. Its use is demonstrated in rhymes like the one shown here, helpfully translated, or ‘Englished’, for the book’s bourgeoisie audience.

Page showing a poem in Cant and translated into English

Tracts like O Per Se O were popular among the middle classes who were both shocked and titillated by this supposed glimpse into the dark underbelly of society. The secret world it claimed to reveal was imaginary, invented by writers like Dekker looking to exploit polite sensibilities, but the impact was very real. The portrayal of the poor as secretly wealthy rogues and thieves alleviated middle-class guilt at the terrible poverty surrounding them and justified their failure to address the situation. The fact that the poor seemed to have their own language fostered the idea that the lower classes inhabited a world apart and opposed to ‘normal’ society.

Engraved Triptych showing people speaking Cant
Criminal revellers speaking Cant, from Head’s Canting Academy

Pamphlets on the lives of criminals ceased publication during the Civil War and Puritan Rule only to re-emerge in greater numbers after the end of the Commonwealth as interest in the underclasses increased. The Canting Academy, one such later work, has a similar purpose and format to O Per Se O. First published anonymously, it was the work of novelist Richard Head, best known for The English Rogue. Based on the Spanish stories about lawless adventurers that were popular at the time, it was the first English novel published on the European continent. Head’s rogues bear a striking resemblance to the villains both he and Dekker claimed to expose in their pamphlets.

Balliol Library 910 c 9 (11) & 915 a 1

The Classical Revival

The role of the study of Classical languages, history and philosophy in the last few centuries of Oxford history cannot be overemphasised. Oxford men contributed to the King James Bible in 1611, translating the New Testament. From 1636, those who wished to qualify for a BA needed to study Latin and Greek grammar and rhetoric for four years.
In the 19th century, Literae Humaniores (classical language, literature and philosophy), or ‘Greats’ was a staple of the Oxford BA. While late Victorian students were no longer required to read Classics, they still had to demonstrate ability in Latin to be admitted to Oxford. Indeed, Oxford’s emphasis on Classical education became the subject of lively international debate, with reformers arguing that the curriculum was too narrow and impractical, and the other side maintaining that a solid grounding in the ancient authorities created well-rounded individuals with excellent critical thinking skills.

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford, 1855.

On top of their administrative and pastoral duties, Balliol’s Victorian Masters, Fellows and tutors indulged their own academic interests. Many Oxford academics still took holy orders, so it is unsurprising that they demonstrated a flair for biblical exegesis as well as critical commentary on classical language and thought, not dissimilar to scholars of the middle ages.

Painting of Robert Scott seated in academic robes
Robert Scott

Robert Scott (1811-1887) was the predecessor and more conservative rival of Benjamin Jowett, Balliol’s most celebrated Master. Having earned a first class degree in the classical school at Christ Church College, Scott became a Fellow and tutor at Balliol in the 1830s. He is best known for co-editing the monumental standard dictionary of Classical Greek with his old friend from Christ Church, Henry Liddell. This edition of A Greek-English Lexicon, with contemporary annotations, was published by Oxford University Press just a year after Scott’s appointment as Master of Balliol in 1854. While Master, Scott also served as Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture for the University.

Cropped image of opening of Greek-English dictionary with printed text on the right and a blank page with some notes on the left

Balliol College Library 1 a 161, 3 vols

Latin Prose by Matthew Arnold

Pencil and chalk drawing of the head and shoulders of Benjamin Jowett
Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) Balliol College Portraits: 67 Pencil and chalk on paper, 24×18″, c. 1855. Poole number 61

Benjamin Jowett, Balliol Fellow (1838), Tutor (1842) and finally Master from 1870 until his death in 1893, is almost synonymous with classical learning in Victorian Oxford. Appointed Regius Professor of Greek before being elected Master, he published several translations including St Paul, Plato, Thucydides and Aristotle over the course of his life.
Jowett was also the quintessential tutor, earning undergraduates’ high regard by devoting much of his time to teaching independent thinking by debating with them and setting essays on theology, classical and modern literature, philosophy and history.

Below is an early example of Latin prose composition by Matthew Arnold (Balliol 1841), who would go on to become a celebrated poet and writer with a keen interest in classical authors and the influence of Hellenic and Hebraic cultures on English society. It was found amongst Jowett’s papers, in a bundle of similar exercises by Jowett’s undergraduate students.

Balliol College Historic Collections, Jowett II.A1.2.1


Macdonnell, A. A., A Sanskrit Grammar for Beginners. Longmans Green, London, 1901

Sanskrit is a three thousand year old Classical language of learning, liturgy and literature. It is derived from the older Vedic, the language of the Vedas, religious texts which form the backbone of Hinduism. Many modern Indian languages like Hindi-Urdu are related to Sankrit through the Parkrits, just as the Romance are derived from vulgar Latin. Sanskrit was ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the 17th century. By the late 18th century scholars began to notice similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical European languages, a discovery which led to the development of comparative lingusitics and the classification of the Indo-European languages. Sanksrit literature became fashionable among intellectual circles, influencing writers like W. B. Yeats and Emerson, as well as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

For British colonists knowledge of Sanskrit was essential to spread Christianity among the local Indian population. To this end, Joseph Boden, a retired member of the East India Company, left a bequest to Oxford University, used to establish the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in 1827, the oldest and only remaining chair of Sanskrit in the UK. Reforms in 1882 saw Boden’s original objective removed, and the post was tied to a Fellowship at Balliol College, an arrangement that still stands. Balliol Fellow Christopher Minkowski is the eighth Boden Professor, a position he has held since 2015.

A Sanskrit Grammar for Beginners, written by second Boden Professor and Balliol Fellow Anthony MacDonnell, begins with a history of the language, and the alphabet of the Devanagari script, followed by a grammar and dictionary. The book would have been used by British officers taking the Indian Civil Service exam, a significant number of whom studied at Balliol in the late-19th and early-20th century.

opening showing Sanskrit alphabet table on the left with an introduction to Sanskrit on the right

Balliol College Library 2055 g 6

Expanding Languages

If the 19th century saw Balliol men involved in the revival of Classical languages,  in the 20th century they were instrumental in recording and disseminating those that had never been studied before.

Unangam Tunuu (Aleut)

Geoghegan, Richard. The Aleut Language. Washington D. C., 1944

Black and white photograph of Richard Geoghegan
Richard Geoghegan

When Balliol Master Benjamin Jowett met Richard Geoghegan, he was so impressed by the 18 year old’s linguistic skills that he financed the young man’s studies at the University of Oxford. Geoghegan left without finishing his degree, and over the years the man who reportedly spoke over 200 languages had a varied career. At one stage he was a linguistic consultant for the Japanese government, at another he deciphered the Mayan calendar. Fascinated by the idea of a universal language, he was the first English speaking Esperantist and produced the inaugural English-Esperanto dictionary.

In 1902 Geoghegan moved to Alaska to work in a clerical position. He became intrigued by the language of the Unangax people, whom early Russian occupiers of Alaska had christened the Aleut. Although the relationship between the two groups was exploitative, one positive outcome for the local population occurred in the 19th century, when Orthodox linguists accompanied fur traders to the areas inhabited by the Unangax, where they worked with locals to expand literacy. Together they devised a way to transcribe Unangam Tunuu, as the locals refer to their language, using the Cyrillic alphabet, which they used to translate religious and educational texts.

Examples of parts of speech in the Aleut languages with English trannslations

One of these linguists, Ivan Veniaminov, produced the first grammar of Aleut in 1824. Essentially a translation of Veniaminov’s work with the addition of a dictionary, Richard Geoghegan’s The Aleut Language was the first English language grammar of the language. It was published in 1944, a year after Geoghegan had died alone in an Alaskan cabin. The US Foreign Service presented Balliol with a copy of the book in 1946 at the request of Frederick Hollowell, a senior US civil servant.

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Abraham, Captain R. C. The Grammar of Tiv. Kaduna, 1933

The language of the Tiv is spoken by about four million members of the tribe of the same name in North Central Nigeria and Cameroon. Linguist Roy Clive Abraham originally classified Tiv as a Bantu language, by far the most common family of African languages with some 350 million speakers throughout the continent. Today the Tivoid languages, of which Tiv is the most widely spoken, are considered their own family, although there is still debate about this. The difficulty in categorisation is partly due to the complex linguistic landscape of the continent: there are some 2000 African languages compared to the about 450 Indo-European spoken today.

Detail of page showing the tonal system in Tiv

Roy Abraham worked for the administrative service in Nigeria while it was under British colonial control. While there he produced The Grammar of Tiv in 1933, the first scholarly work on the language. It was intended for a European audience, in particular colonial administrators who were expected to learn the language and culture of local people over whom they would govern.

Abraham was a phenomenal linguist. He received a first in Arabic and Persian from the University of Oxford, while also holding a scholarship in Italian at Balliol. He worked extensively on West African languages including Hausa and Igbo, later adding Semitic languages Amharic, Ge’ez, as well as Barber and Somali to his impressive repertoire. Abraham received an honorary DLitt from Oxford University for his contribution to Tiv studies in 1949 and remains a key figure in 20th-century scholarship of African languages.

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Cryptography has a very long history: people have been using codes and ciphers to protect secrets for millennia, from scandals and political or religious intrigue, to top secret strategies in wartime. People also devised ciphers simply to amuse and delight those who enjoy solving puzzles.

Richard Hill’s Commonplace Book

Cryptography_MS354_f401_cropped (1)

This is the memorandum book of Richard Hill, a citizen and grocer of London. It is written in English, Latin, French—and code. It contains a huge variety of different types of works including chronicles, family memoranda, a treatise on horse management, riddles, recipes, mathematical tables and excerpts from texts such as Gower’s Confessio Amantis. It is most famous for its many poems and carols in English, some of which are now unique. It was possibly used as a kind of teaching tool for members of Richard’s household. On this page Richard or someone he knew devised some ciphers. We have not deciphered all of it, but one line, written partly in Latin, partly in code, translates simply as: ‘this book belongs to Richard Hill’.

Richard Hills’ commonplace book has been digitised in its entirety and can be accessed by the following link: https://bit.ly/2T0AtJB

Balliol College MS 354, folio 401

Family secrets: the Diary of Sir John, 3rd Baronet Conroy, 1868-1869

Sir John Conroy (Balliol Fellow 1890) is perhaps best known for his scientific work in chemistry at Oxford, but he was born into a family with royal connections. This diary, written around the time he took a First in Natural Science at Christ Church College, includes reminiscences of his grandfather, the 1st Baronet, and Princess Sophia. The 1st Baronet had been Equerry to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, and his influence over young Victoria’s parents led to some scandalous rumours. More than a generation later, the younger Sir John still felt constrained to render some of his musings into cypher, including the possibility that his grandmother Lady Elizabeth was the Duke of Kent’s illegitimate daughter.

detail of John Conroy's diary in ink showing cryptogram

Balliol College Historic Collections, Conroy 3.D.9

Balliol and the Bedford Japanese School

The two world wars heralded major advances in both cryptography and cryptanalysis (code breaking), increasingly using mechanical or electromechanical devices. Balliol students played a major role in one initiative, driven by the sudden urgent need for linguists after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour drew Britain into the war on the Pacific front. Within two months of the attack, plans were set in motion for crash courses to train interpreters and code-breakers in Japanese at the Inter-Service Special Intelligence School at Bedford. The preferred candidates were students who had won open scholarships in classics at Oxford and Cambridge, the reasoning being they would have no difficulty applying their skills to mastering another language.

A.D. Lindsay, Master of Balliol, was the first to be approached for suggestions of individual students. Balliol ended up supplying fourteen, more than any other Oxford college and second only to Christ’s, Cambridge. One of the first, Laurence Jonathan Cohen, went on to the Naval Section at Bletchley Park and ultimately served in Naval Intelligence in the Far East. He returned to Balliol in 1947, earning a First in ‘Greats’ and going on to become a well-regarded philosopher. In a letter from 1945 he reveals the difficulties he and his comrades experienced persuading the Armed Forces to recognise their code-breaking work as active military service, and that they were therefore eligible for release to return to their university courses.


Balliol College Archives. Laurence Jonathan Cohen dossier

Balliol in Europe, Europe in Balliol

This post is a digital version of Balliol’s exhibition from spring 2019. Entitled ‘Balliol in Europe, Europe in Balliol’, it examined the relationship between Balliol College and the continent over the College’s seven centuries.


This exhibition is about Balliol’s relationship with Europe. Balliol’s own foundation is essentially European. The College’s founder, John de Balliol, came from a French family, enriched by French lands. The very fabric of the College incorporated European materials. European students, from kings to refugees, have made it their home for centuries. Balliol graduates have travelled the Continent as tourists, diplomats and ambassadors, and shaped foreign policy at home. Balliol members and their families lived through and influenced significant European events and movements. Perhaps even more fundamentally, the movement of people, ideas, and materials has been crucial throughout Balliol’s history.  This exhibition therefore explores how ideas about, of and from Europe have shaped not only the College’s history, but its Historic Collections, from  medieval manuscripts commissioned in Europe by an English bishop, and anti-Protestant propaganda smuggled in from abroad, to maps, drawings and diplomatic communiques.  We’ll look at how the collections embody the curiosity, sense of duty, tension, strife, and collaboration that have exemplified Balliol’s ever-changing relationship with Europe—and  ever-changing ideas of what Europe is and what it means to be European.

European Roots: ‘The Ancient Castle of the Family of Balliol’

1.Balliol Castle

The Balliol family possessed extensive lands in England and France. They originated in Picardy, taking their name from Bailleul-en-Vimeu. No superstructure of the original castle survives, but earthworks may still be seen in the woods of a nearby estate. The College participated in an expedition to survey and study the site in 1923-1925.

Balliol Archives. Misc. 95.2A

European Fabric: Balliol in 1675, by David Loggan

30-g-62-Plate of Balliol in 17th century

Shortly after this engraving was published, the College embarked on a major improvement project for its Chapel. A fundraising appeal attracted about £250 from Old Members. The  College Benefactions Book shows that this helped pay for a new ceiling of oak imported from Flanders, with painted beams.

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European Students: The Kings of Norway at Balliol

3.HM King Olav
Portrait of HM King Olav V, by Jan Thomas Njerve, 1981. Balliol Portrait No. 105

Balliol has attracted foreign students for centuries, promoting the international exchange of ideas and fostering enduring links of friendship and shared identity worldwide. The relationship between Balliol and the royal house of Norway is unique, having endured for nearly a century. King Haakon wished his son, Crown Prince Olav, to attend Balliol in the 1920s. The King admired Balliol’s ‘reputation as a working college … because there must be a very definite understanding that the Prince is being sent to an English University to work’. Haakon was aware of Balliol’s left-leaning reputation, admitting that ‘perhaps the boys got very socialistic ideas there’, but even the election of the Labour-supporting A.D. Lindsay as Master did not deter the King. For his part, Prince Olav came to hold Lindsay in high regard. The Prince, later HM King Olav V, resided at Balliol 1924-1926, becoming an Honorary Fellow in 1937. Olav’s son, now HM King Harald V of Norway, followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Balliol 1960-1962, and becoming an Honorary Fellow in 1983.

Ideas of Europe: ‘It Begins with a Myth’

4.SAndys-Europa on the bull
Engraving of Europa astride the bull, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished by George Sandys

In Greek mythology, Europa was the daughter of the King of Tyre, a city in modern day Lebanon. She was abducted by the god Zeus in the form of a bull, and carried off to Crete where she bore him three children on the continent which bears her name. To what exactly she lent her name has changed a lot throughout history. For the ancient Greeks, Europe denoted Hellas, the lands around the Aegean Sea. Under the Romans the name was given to a province in Thrace,  incorporating parts of modern Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. For the Greeks and their Roman successors, ‘Europeans’ were the peoples of the Mediterranean. The people to the north were considered barbarians, brave but unthinking. Those in Asia were deemed intellectually equal but subject to despotic leaders. These ideas had a profound influence on visions of the continent into the modern period.

George Sandys. Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished. London, 1640.

Europa’s abduction is recounted by Roman poet Ovid in Book II of the Metamorphoses, an epic poem chronicling the history of the world from creation to the death of Julius Caesar. George Sandys’ loose English translation was originally published in 1626. Balliol’s copy is a later, more elaborate edition which includes the engravings of Francis Cleyn and Salomon Savery, and Sandys’ extensive commentaries and anecdotes, expressing his concerns about the growing friction between King Charles I and Parliament.

Sandys had previously made his name with his influential travelogue, A Relation of a Journey Begun an. Dom. 1610 (1615), recounting the author’s adventures through Europe into the Levant. After passing through Europe, he describes his arrival in Constantinople where he was impressed by the moderate and tolerant nature of the Ottomans. In his description of the Ottoman Empire, Sandys makes one of the first references to coffee in English. Diarist John Evelyn (Balliol 1637) claimed coffee was introduced to England by the Cretan refugee Nicolas Konopios (Balliol c.1639): ‘He was the first I saw ever drink Coffè, which custom came not into England til 30 years later.’

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Somerset de Chair. The Impending Storm. London, 1930. 

Europa is commonly used as a symbol of victimhood, particularly for satirical effect. The illustration on the cover of Balliol alumnus Somerset De Chair’s book shows an uncertain Europa who has just realised her God-bull has turned out to be a rubber cow. The cow in question is the League of Nations, an organisation created after the First World War to resolve international disputes. Its failure to fulfil these pacifist aims is one of the many contemporary political problems discussed by  de Chair in his book The Impending Storm, which anticipated the Second World War nine years before its outbreak. De Chair demonstrated his prescience again in Divided Europe, published a year later, which predicted the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

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From Victim to Queen

Sebastian Munster. Cosmographia. Basel, 1572.


Munster’s map of Europe is closer to our conception of the continent than that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Yet there are striking differences: it is orientated south and much of the north seems to be missing.  The Cosmographia is a six-volume encyclopaedia of European knowledge, first published in Germany in 1544 during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The map of Europe shows Spain at the head and Bohemia at the centre, both ruled by Charles. Balliol’s copy is a Latin edition from 1572 and was donated by John Malet (Balliol 1588).

Cosmographia_Europa Regina

The boundaries of Charles V’s empire extended across the ocean to the Americas. For Europeans this consolidated their belief in the continent’s exceptionalism, and was embodied in the Europa Regina. a map first printed in 1537 which reconfigured Europe as queen. It appeared in all copies of the Cosmographia after 1588. It depicts Europa with the Habsburg orb and crown looking down on Asia at her feet. Surrounded by water in an allusion to Zeus’ consort Europa, she connects the rise of 16th-century Europe to her roots in classical antiquity.

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Ideas of Europe: Christendom


What remained of the cultural networks created by the Roman Empire were maintained by the Christian Church after the imperial retreat from Western Europe. Spiritual primacy over the Empire had been granted to the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) in the 5th century after the Empire’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century. Later re-alignments of power, however, caused the Papacy to seek protection against the Lombard kingdoms from the Empire’s Frankish successor state in the north, rather than its continuation, the Byzantine Empire, controlled from Constantinople (Istanbul). This led to a schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Pope claimed spiritual authority over much of Central and Western Europe and this crystallized in the notion of a shared ‘Christendom’.

The rapid expansion and continuing dominance of Islamic powers around much of the Mediterranean from the 7th to 18th centuries, weakening and eventually eliminating the Byzantines, further consolidated this identification. The idea of Europe as ‘Christendom’ formed the backdrop to the foundation and early history of Balliol, and would have shaped much of its intellectual life.

Vulgate Bible. 13th Century. Opening to Genesis with illumination depicting the Creation of the World

If one text underlay the unity of Christianity in Europe it was the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible made by Saint Jerome in the 4th century. It quickly became the standard Latin Bible, and its ubiquity is demonstrated by the existence of numerous copies in Balliol’s collections, dating from several different centuries. There are three medieval copies amongst the manuscripts, and several printed versions. The  image on the right is from the beginning of Genesis and shows a schematic illumination of the creation story and the ultimate redemption of the world through Christ’s suffering. It dates to the 13th century but later versions include one of the College’s earliest printed books of 1481, and a version authorised by the Catholic Church from 1650.

Balliol Manuscript. Ms 2

‘We Went Out Full … But Return Empty’

Thomas Fuller. The Historie of the Holy Warre. 4th edition. London, 1651.

Christendom_Holy WarreThe frontispiece to the first modern history of the crusades could be read as a diagram of the embattled mindset of European Christendom which persisted into the 17th century. It shows the armies of ‘Europe’, ‘promiscuously blended’ in terms of language, class and nation, marching to Jerusalem only to be scattered and dismembered by ‘the Angel, Turk and Death’. The two purses at the head of the image indicate a process of depletion, perhaps spiritual as well as economic. The ultimate failure of the crusades and the continued strength of Islam under the Ottomans from the 15th century are portrayed as a continuum of divine judgement up to the time of publication. Balliol’s copy was part of the fourth edition in twelve years. It has been part of the College’s collections since at least the 18th century.

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John Holwell. Catastrophe Mundi, or, Europe’s Many Mutations until the Year 1701. London, 1682.

Catastrophe Mundi-opening-2

In these apocalyptic predictions of the late 17th century, Europe is still being viewed through the prism of Christendom and its trials mapped onto a Christian eschatology. The Ottomans are predicted to continue their inexorable rise. The Sultan’s armies will sweep through Europe deposing the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, laying the ground for a ‘Great Conqueror’ who will unite the world and convert the heathen. In fact, the 1683-1699 war between the Turks and the Austrians ended in defeat for the former, with significant losses of territory in Europe, anticipating their decline as a major power.

John Holwell was a respected practical mathematician with expertise as a surveyor, working for John Ogilby on his pioneering road atlas, and maintaining the friendship of Edward Halley. But he also had a double life as an astrologer with a penchant for controversial prognostications. His end is shrouded in legend, involving the drinking of poisoned coffee whilst surveying in America.

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Ideas of Europe: Nationalism


The emergence of various nation states in the early modern period might have been expected to work against the notion of a European identity. Romantic nationalism from the 18th century onwards claimed roots in local, tribal identities as opposed to classical civilization, and in various folkloric traditions with pagan overtones as opposed to Christian culture. In practice, however, the collections of folk tales and rediscovered (or reconstructed) national epics often had a popularity that spread far beyond their countries of origin. The resulting national awareness bred a pan-European milieu emphasising national and individual self-determination. Fittingly for a College with connections to Scotland two key works anticipating Scottish romanticism are to be found in Balliol’s collections.


Famiano Strada. De Bello Belgico. Rome, 1640. Engraved title page with map shaped as the Belgic Lion.

The origins of the idea of the nation state seem to have emerged during the 17th century in Europe as a result of the diplomatic settlements reached following the devastation caused by the dynastic and religious wars of the period. Holland emerged from its conflicts with the Catholic Habsburgs as an independent confederal republic with a flourishing mercantile economy, and a consciousness of a nation bound together by symbols such as the heraldic lion.

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Fingal, an Ancient Epic poem, in Six Books. London, 1762.

Ossian-openingThe aged bard, Ossian, sits centre-stage voicing tragic tales on a rock set in a melancholic wilderness of blasted trees. Tucked between this vignette and the title is the name of the translator, James MacPherson. He re-packaged tales he’d heard in Gaelic as a Scottish farmer’s son as a lost epic poem. It wasn’t long, however, before there were suspicions regarding its authenticity, with claims that the entire thing was MacPherson’s own fabrication. On the continent, where such sensitivities were a distant concern, the poem was received enthusiastically. It became a major influence on European romanticism, inspiring the composition of other national epics from folkloric collections such as the Finnish Kalevala, and works in other media, notably Mendlessohn’s Hebrides, or Fingal’s Cave, Overture.

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Robert Burns. Poems Chiefly in a Scottish Dialect. Kilmarnock, 1786.


Whilst MacPherson’s Ossian poems drew upon a lost Gaelic past to express a sense of Scottishness, later in the century another farmer’s son drew on lowland Scots dialect and folklore to produce some of the most celebrated poems penned in Scotland. Robbie Burns had this, his first volume of verse, printed locally in Kilmarnock in order to fund his passage to a job as an overseer of slaves on a Jamaican sugar plantation. His bags were all packed when the immediate success of the volume saw him throw over his plans, borrow a pony and ride to Edinburgh to embark on a career of literary celebrity. Burns and his works went on to become Scottish cultural icons, and a continuing focus for Scottish national identity. In spite of the fact that he wrote in English as well, his use of the Scots dialect was seen to represent the authentic voice of a people.

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Mapping a Continent

Blaeu Atlas - Europe

Willem Blaeu. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Amsterdam, 1635. Map of Europe, with the costumes of the different nations and depictions of key cities in the borders.

In the latter half of the 16th century Abraham Ortelius initiated a revolution in map-making, publishing the first atlas, in Antwerp. By the early 17th century the focus of this flowering of cartography in the Low Countries had shifted to Amsterdam. This had emerged as the chief city in the newly independent Dutch Republic and the centre of an increasingly global maritime trading empire. In the 1630s map production in Amsterdam was powered by the ongoing competition between two publishers, each attempting to outdo the other in the coverage, quality and splendour of their atlases. On the one hand were the Hondius dynasty, who had re-established Mercator’s reputation by re-publishing his atlas. On the other were the Blaeu family whose atlas of 1635 is displayed here. This competition eventually culminated with the publication of the Blaeu’s Atlas Maior in 11 volumes, printing of which began in 1662, and which was the largest and most expensive book produced in the 17th century.

Around the borders of Europe contemporary costumes for each nation are displayed. A modern viewer is hard-pressed to see much difference between them, except for the odd item of headgear, but the vignettes demonstrate an increasing awareness of regional characteristics and differences in culture, making them simultaneously exotic and familiar.

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Networks of Books: William Gray’s Manuscript Collection

Balliol College has one man to thank for more than half of its surviving medieval library: William Gray, who gave or bequeathed nearly two hundred manuscripts by the time he died in 1478. The younger son of an aristocratic family from Northumberland, Gray was wealthy, intellectual and  cosmopolitan. He led a distinguished diplomatic and clerical career, including becoming Bishop of Ely. He came up to Balliol around 1431, A decade later he travelled to the University of Cologne, and then Italy to pursue humanistic studies. Renaissance humanism, the study of classical antiquity, was itself a European movement, spreading outwards from Italy in the 14th-16th centuries. Gray brought two other Balliol fellows on his travels, and commissioned multiple books in philosophy, theology, and other subjects along the way. We know this from the memoir of a Florentine bookseller called Vespasiano, and from the books themselves.

Domenico Bandini of Arezzo. Fons Memorabilia Universi. Cologne, c 1445.

Network of Books_Ms238E_71r

This is one of six volumes of an encyclopaedia made for William Gray during  his travels. It reflects the international collaboration that characterised both scholarship and bookmaking in the later middle ages. Its author was an Italian humanist, it was commissioned by an Englishman, and copied in Cologne, Germany by Dutch scribes. The scribes and illuminators display an international range of influences: Dutch, Italian, English, even Spanish. There are over one hundred small pen-drawings in the margins of the volume, representing persons, allegorical figures, or incidents mentioned in the text. The drawing at the base of the page on the right side shows Venice, a centre for humanism.

Balliol Manuscript. MS 238E, folio 71r

English book, European scribe

Thomas Docking. Commentary on Deuteronomy. Oxford, c 1442.

MS28_006This book was probably written to    order for Gray while he was still in   Oxford, just before he left for Cologne. Docking was a Franciscan friar and theologian writing in Oxford in the 13th century. His work was enjoying a revival when Gray commissioned this manuscript, but was uncommon outside of England. Indeed, some of the decoration, like the blue and red capitals and flourishes, was probably done by an English illuminator. However, it was signed by a Dutch scribe, Tielman    Reynerszoon of                  Geertruidenberg in North Brabant. It is possible that Tielman accompanied Gray from Oxford to Cologne and finished some other     volumes there.

Balliol Manuscript. Ms 2

Bookmaking and European Networks

As we saw with William Gray’s library, medieval books in England commonly boasted international origins and features. They were often commissioned from European workshops, while those manufactured in England used imported materials and the work immigrant scribes and artists who contributed the styles of their own countries.

Even the spread of papermaking technology and, later, printing moved westward across the Continent, the latter reaching England about twenty years after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany in the 1450s. William Caxton, like William Gray, spent time in Cologne, where he learned the art of printing. Later, when he was a merchant living in the Low Countries, Caxton honed in on the commercial potential of printing technology and brought it back to England with him, setting up shop in Westminster.

The first book printed in England

Single leaf of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Printed by William Caxton.      Westminster, 1477.

This first edition of this most English of books is printed on paper in a type probably cut Case7_Chaucerand supplied from Louvain, Belgium, by Johann Veldener. Caxton worked with Veldener during his stay in Flanders. The typeface, called bastarda, is a later version of that originally used by Gutenberg. Space has been left for initials (larger decorated letters introducing important sections of text), which a client could have hand-painted to order. This book did not belong to William Gray, but he and other 15th-century Balliol Fellows did donate some incunables (books printed before 1501) to the Library, a few of which are still here today. Almost all of these have European provenance.

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Printing, Propaganda, and Reformation: A Social Network for Extremists?


The Protestant Reformation, too, was a pan-European movement which evolved in different ways in each country. European towns provided refuge for English Protestants and Catholics (depending upon who was on the throne at the time), and the continent’s printing presses enabled the spread of propaganda. Banned books were smuggled back to England, providing edification and comfort to co-religionists. This was an extraordinarily dangerous undertaking, since being discovered in possession of forbidden texts meant arrest and frequently execution. Sometimes propaganda went beyond the circulation of heretical ideas or anti-Protestant polemic to directly attack the monarch, and even encourage their overthrow.

‘Dr Slander’: An Oxford Catholic in Exile

Nicholas Sander. De Origine ac Progressu Schismatis Anglicani (Of the Origin and Progression of the English Schism). Rheims, 1585.

Nicholas Sander, from a Surrey Catholic family, graduated from New College, Oxford in 1551. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, he fled to Rome, where he was ordained a priest. A few years later, he had settled with other Catholics in Louvain, the very city where William Caxton’s associate, Veldener, had held his printing business.

From abroad, Sander used his connections with leading Catholic churchmen to attempt to persuade European leaders to depose Elizabeth. He even participated in a failed papal invasion of Ireland, where he ultimately died of starvation. Somehow he also found the time to write this Catholic version of the history of the Reformation, intended as a     counterpoint to the more famous Book of Martyrs by John Foxe. Highly critical of Elizabeth and her parents, it is the source for rumours that Anne Boleyn was disfigured by a sixth finger.

This version of the Schismatis Anglicani was published posthumously during Elizabeth’s reign by Jean de Foigny, printer to the Cardinal of Guise, who also printed favourable propaganda about Elizabeth’s rival, Mary Queen of Scots.

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Balliol’s Reformation

Balliol’s most famous medieval Master was John Wyclif, the early reformer whose followers, the Lollards, were persecuted as heretics. Yet by the 16th century the College was notorious for its Catholic leanings. It was the only corporate body to add a reservation to its acknowledgement of Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Pope. James Brookes, Balliol’s Master during the reign of Queen Mary, presided over the persecution of the Oxford Martyrs.

During Elizabeth’s reign, several Balliol men fled to the Continent, trained as Jesuits and returned as Catholic missionaries, only to be arrested and even martyred. Robert Persons, a Balliol Fellow forced to resign for his beliefs, returned from Europe a Jesuit and printed Catholic propaganda—including Nicholas Sander’s De Schismate Anglicano—illegally. He may have been active at Holywell Manor (now Balliol’s graduate centre), where the Catholic Napier family was known to harbour priests.

The former Broad St gate to Balliol College rumoured to retain scorch marks from the burning of the Protestant martyrs. It now resides in the Library Passage.

Amongst the most infamous executions of Bloody Mary’s reign were the burnings of Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in 1555 and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1556. The sentences were carried out in Broad Street (‘in the town ditch’) just outside Balliol’s main gates, and legend has it that scorch marks are still visible on the doors today.

By the 1580s, Balliol’s Catholic tendencies had subsided. The College’s original 13th-century charter derived its authority from the Church. Balliol’s leadership sought to put things right with the Queen by soliciting a royal charter, establishing the College anew with her as Foundress. You can see this charter on the north wall of the nave in the Historic Collection Centre in St Cross Church.


The Oxford Martyrs

John Foxe. Acts and Monuments, better known as the Book of Martyrs.             London, 1576.


John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is the famous Protestant history and martyrology that inspired Nicholas Sander to write his Catholic counterpoint. Foxe charts the history of the persecution of Protestants under Catholic regimes in gruesome detail. The woodcut in the image above shows Archbishop Cranmer thrusting his hand into the fire. Interestingly, elsewhere in the volume there is noticeable defacement to illustrations of the Oxford Martyrs and of Henry VIII with his feet on the Pope, suggesting this copy may have been read by a disgruntled Catholic.

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Travel in Europe


In his diary from 1702, Balliol Fellow Jeremiah Milles records reading works on geography, history and science, while for light relief he enjoyed travellers’ tales. At that time the Library already counted among its collection many notable works of travel literature, such as George Sandys’ A Relation of a Journey Begun an. Dom. 1610 and Thomas Coryat’s Crudities. Filled with descriptions of cities, local history and customs these works helped to popularise the idea of European travel, and encouraged interest in a Grand Tour, a custom which saw wealthy young men travel through European cities as an educational rite of passage. This had a profound influence on Britain’s cultural, political, social and artistic evolution. Several Balliol alumni partook, including John Evelyn (Balliol 1637) whose diary records his visit to Provence to see Roman ruins, and his year spent studying anatomy in Padua.

Thomas Coryat. Coryat’s Crudities. 1611.

Case9_CoryatThe Crudities is an exhaustive account of Thomas Coryat’s 1,900 mile journey across Europe in 1608, much of which he made on foot. A mixture of anecdotes and observations on local customs, history and architecture, among other things the Crudities introduced the fork to English readers.  The self-deprecating title probably refers to the glut of travel books on the market at the time, described scathingly by a contemporary writer as ‘unseasoned crudities’, dull and void of knowledge. The self-deprecation is reflected in the mock-heroic vignettes on the title page: we see Coryat being seasick on the boat from Calais to Dover; he is pelted with eggs by a Venetian Courtesan while he escapes in a Gondola; and he narrowly escapes attack after stealing grapes from a vineyard in Germany. We also see his well-worn, lice-ridden travelling outfit, and in the centre the allegorical Germania vomits on the author’s portrait.

Balliol’s copy of Coryat’s Crudities was donated by Henry Jeffereys who also gave the College a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1656.

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‘If I Have Seen Further …’ : Scientific Networks


The 16th century was a time when the strange ideas of an astronomer living on the Baltic coast could spread across Europe to the shores of the Mediterranean and cause a major upset in Rome. A whole set of intellectual and linguistic networks allowed the ready transmission of thoughts between scientists in different locations, enabling them to share facets of knowledge about the physical world. Latin remained an intellectual lingua franca, allowing thinkers to speak across borders. Most scientific works appeared in the language until the later 17th century, when Sir Isaac Newton was amongst the last to use it in print. Printing itself enabled the dissemination of multiple copies of the same text across the continent. During the 17th century learned societies formed to promote the systematisation of scientific approaches. Such widespread communication led not only to collaboration, but also to conflict in the process of discovery.

Isaac Newton. Analysis per Quantitatum Series, Fluxiones, ac Differentias. London, 1711.

Newton-openingAlthough not mentioned by name anywhere in Newton’s volume, it is stalked by the spirit of the German scientist and polymath, Gottfried Leibniz. Newton and Leibniz had been in dispute over which of them had invented calculus for a decade. Leibniz had been publishing on it since 1684, although he claimed that he’d had the initial insight in 1673. Newton began publishing using his notation in 1693. Both men were aware of the other’s work but their relations remained cordial until an allegation that Leibniz had plagiarised Newton surfaced in 1699, and anonymous reviews (probably by Leibniz) of Newton’s work in 1704 made the reverse claim.

With this volume Newton made his case for priority, including in it a tract on infinite series he had written in 1669, and which he had shown to others, notably the mathematician John Collins. At the time Newton had refused to publish, but Collins circulated the tract in manuscript. It is possible that Leibniz had seen a copy through Collins during a visit to London in the 1670s when he demonstrated a calculating machine that encouraged the Royal Society to make him an external member, but Leibniz refuted this. The ‘Priority Dispute’ rumbled on into the 18th century and demonstrates the self-regulation and co-ordination of scientific networks across Europe through learned forums, such as the Royal Society.

Balliol Library. 470 f 2

Newtonian Astronomy, Ancient Wisdom

David Gregory. ‘Part of a Letter from Dr. David Gregory to Dr. Sloane, Dated Oxford, October 12. 1699. Containing His Observations of the Eclipse of the Sun on the 13th of September Last’, from vol. 21 of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. London, 1699.

An early admirer of Newton, to whom he submitted his first publication, David Gregory started his career in Marischal College in Aberdeen. From there he moved to Edinburgh, then finished his education at Leiden before roving through Rotterdam and Paris, and eventually ending up in London. As Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh he became known as the first teacher to incorporate Newtonian theory into his public lectures. He also wrote effusive praise of Newton’s Principia on its publication in 1684.

Balliol Library. 790 f 1

Balliol in Europe: Diplomacy


Balliol counts among its alumni many diplomats, several of whom left their papers to the College, including Louis du Pan Mallet, ambassador to Turkey at the outbreak of the First World War, and the diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson, as well as the Morier family.

TS copy of letter from RBD Morier to M E Duff, St Petersburg, 31 December 1888. 

Sir Robert Burnett David Morier (1826-1893) was up at Balliol in the 1840s and spent his diplomatic career in Europe, becoming Ambassador at Madrid and St Petersburg. In a letter to a Balliol contemporary Morier addresses ‘the great 25 year duel between Bismarck and me’. At the root of their feud lay a fundamental ideological opposition: their respective conceptions of Europe as a political entity. Morier’s views were representative of the liberal elite of the 19th century. His ‘outlook was as much European as English… [he] was at home in almost any continental country’, says his biographer Agatha Ramm (1973, p.5). Conversely, Bismarck was associated with an assertive Prussianism characterised by militarism and discipline.

Their antipathy towards each other came to a head when the German press falsely accused Morier of sending Prussian military secrets to the French during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Morier published correspondence that conclusively established his innocence. He gives his opinion of the matter in his letters.

Balliol Historic Collections. RBD Morier Papers. 5.3

Albanian/Turkish/Greek sketchbooks. 

EPSON scanner imageRBD Morier came from a long and distinguished line of diplomats, including his father David, and uncles John Philip (Jack) and James Justinian, whose letters, journals and drawings from their journeys in the Ottoman Empire are also included in the Morier Family Papers. The sketchbooks displayed in the exhibition date to 1804-1806, when Jack, the eldest Morier brother, was joined by younger brother David on a diplomatic mission into the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. At the time, the Ottoman Empire extended well to the north of Greece, where Jack was sent by the Foreign Office to persuade the Ottoman-ruled Greeks and Albanians not to sympathise with the French. The British Government feared a French invasion in the wake of Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt in 1798, in which conflict the British had intervened.

Jack and David spent two years travelling the area. Their sketchbooks, letters and dispatches betray the imperialist and orientalist perspective of the age, displaying at the same time both a fascination and a denigration of the culture and country ‘that seems strange and barbarous’.

Balliol Personal Papers. Morier Family Papers. N. Manuscript Volumes. N3.2

Balliol in Europe: The Chalet


The Châlet des Mélèzes, or Chalet des Anglais, as it became known, is an Alpine retreat near Saint-Gervais, France, once owned by legendary Balliol Fellow, Francis Fortescue ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, 1868-1934. Beginning in 1891, Urquhart took parties of students from across the University to the Chalet in the Long Vacations to read, walk and play sports. After his death, the Chalet was bequeathed to his friend, Balliol Fellow Sir R. A. B. Mynors, and is now held in trust. The tradition to holiday in Europe has continued ever since, securing the French Alps in the memories of generations of Balliol students.

The Chalet Book 1891-1908.

The Chalet Books provide us with an excellent record of the parties, containing the autographs of the guests, accounts of their hikes, dinners and activities, and a great number of photographs. The first volume in the series gives the details of the hikes taken in 1898. Also included is a poem sent to Urquhart, which conveys the affection he inspired among his students.


Balliol Personal Papers. Chalet Papers. I. 1. 1. 1

Letter from Meredith Starr giving an account of using the Chalet during the Second World War.

The Chalet’s position in the Alps made it a perfect hideaway for an escaped British soldier in the Second World War. A letter from Meredith Starr recounts his journey evading German forces in Italy and subsequently France where towards the end of the period, he was advised to use the Chalet for five weeks.

In his letter to the Chalet’s owner after the event he writes:

‘I hope you will forgive us for trespassing on your property! I was one of 3 out of 37 English & American subjects who escaped being caught by the Germans… though we had several narrow escapes.’

Balliol Personal Papers. Chalet Papers. III/1/1

‘The Perfect Chalet-ite’

Perfect Chalet-ite


A little pamphlet from around 1934 provided a humorous guide to life at the Chalet, rules of conduct, how to get there, its history and details of some walks on the Prarion.

Balliol Personal Papers. Chalet papers. IV/2/2

Strained Relations: The First World War


When war came to Europe in 1914, it touched the lives of all of Europe’s inhabitants. Members of Balliol were no exception. Balliol had always attracted an international membership and the College sent men to both sides of the conflict.

Minute Book of the Hanover Club. May 1911-April 1913. 

MinutebookThe Hanover Club was a University society with many prominent Balliol members, which aimed to ‘promote the course of good-feeling between Germany & England, by giving Englishmen and Germans in the university opportunities of meeting and discussing topics of interest & importance to both nations’. Their minute book describes the debates during the meetings, which were generally of a political nature. It shows members’ awareness of impending war. A particularly prophetic motion was tabled for debate on 27 February 1912: ‘That under the present situation of European politics a rapprochement between England and Germany is an unrealistic ideal’. The motion was carried by seven to six.

Balliol Archives. Societies. 1

The College War Memorial Book. Oxford, 1924.

In addition to the war memorials found in the Chapel Passage on Balliol’s main site and on the south wall in St Cross Church, a two-volume set was produced by the College in 1924 to commemorate the Balliol casualties. It contains an account and photograph of each, together with selections of their verse, musical notation and sketches. It includes an entry for Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister’s son, who died at the Battle of the Somme; though none for the German Chancellor’s son Friedrich von Bethman Hollweg (Balliol 1908) who was also killed in action.

Balliol Library. 88 d 13/12 and 88 d 13/13

The Club at War: War Edition of the Balliol Club Magazine. No. 4. Oxford, May 1917 and No. 8, May 1918.

War_CLub at warAnother Balliol club to be shaken by the impact of the War was the Balliol Boys’ Club. Formed in early 1907 as a result of changing attitudes towards social responsibility and widening access to education, it was run by undergraduates for local working class boys. Based in the underprivileged area of St Ebbe’s, it offered the boys activities such as boxing, football and camping. It remained open during the course of the War, though its numbers were much reduced. The Club also played an important role in the wartime experience of many of its Old Members, of whom 250 in total saw active service. The Club’s trench magazine was devised as a way for Old Members to keep in touch with one another. It circulated from 1916 to 1919 and mostly comprises brief letters.War_Blub photo

The Boys’ Club War Memorial board is on the south wall of Balliol Historic Collection Centre in St Cross Church, listing the members who fell, Oxford boys and Balliol men together.

Balliol Archives. The Balliol Boys’ Club. 4bii


Rhodes Scholar and Member of the German Resistance: Adam von Trott zu Solz (1909-1944)


A German aristocrat, Adam von Trott came to Balliol in 1931 as one of the first German Rhodes Scholars since the First World War, attracted by Balliol’s already-famous Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree. Von Trott was politically active during his time in Oxford, joining the Labour Society and the Jowett Society. Many Germans studied at Oxford between the two World Wars, but von Trott’s participation in the failed July Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler earned him an inscription on Balliol’s War Memorial and an international legacy still felt today. This was not always the case in his own time. As a patriot who loved his country but detested Hitler, he was frustrated by the tendency of his English friends to equate Germans with Nazis.

IMG_20190429_140329After leaving Oxford, von Trott returned to Germany to complete his legal training – and clandestinely seek allies in the resistance to Hitler’s regime. He even met with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in 1939. Unable to mention the plot to overthrow the dictator, he was suspected of working for the Nazis. In 1940 von Trott stepped up his role in the resistance movement, guided by his vision of European cooperation. He exploited his position in the German Foreign Office, making journeys to Switzerland, Sweden, the Low Countries and Turkey. On 20 July 1944 a bomb exploded next to Hitler. Believing Hitler dead, von Trott said to a colleague, ‘I won’t have to sign under that horrible greeting any more’.

Letter from Adam von Trott to Diana Hubback, February 1933. 

Von Trott wrote to his friend Diana Hubback after reading in a newspaper in the Balliol Junior Common Room that Hitler had become Chancellor. Unlike some German students in Oxford, von Trott expressed his disgust at Hitler’s rise to power, resolving not to join the Nazi party unless it became necessary to do so to resist from within. Von Trott wondered if revolution would break out, foreshadowing his later vision of radical social reform in post-war Europe.

Over 700 letters between von Trott and Hubback survive. They discuss everything from social engagements and academic progress to their most personal feelings. They also  comment on the situation in Europe in the 1930s, and the rising tensions between Germany and the United Kingdom, which von Trott feared would ‘estrange my few friends’ in England. Von Trott and his friends often used code when discussing political subjects, to evade German censorship.

Balliol Personal Papers. Von Trott Papers. I.iii.T36

Trial, Execution and Legacy

Adam von Trott commemorative service, 2013.

Adam von Trott was arrested a few days after the failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. At the trial the judge dubbed him a ‘spineless intellectual’ on account of his years at Oxford and his travels around the globe. Von Trott was hanged in Berlin on 26 August 1944.

In the post-war years, von Trott and his fellow conspirators were portrayed as Nazis in the press. His Balliol friend, David Astor, devoted himself to refuting this. Von Trott’s name can now be found inscribed on the plaque outside Balliol College Chapel alongside other members who lost their lives in the Second World War. The addition of five German names was not without controversy, but in the end their shared identity as Balliol men transcended war.

In 2013, the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, a seminar on British-German         relations in the European context, organized by the Adam von Trott Memorial Fund at Mansfield College, was followed by a commemorative service in Balliol Chapel.

Europe in Balliol: Refugee Scholars


Conceived as a College for poor scholars, Balliol has offered support throughout its long history to students of limited means. In the 20th century this was extended to systematically provide refuge to those who, for whatever reason, could not study in their home country. Begun as a personal campaign by the Master to help out a friend, the Refugee Scholarship programme was revived at the request of the College’s students and continues to this day.

Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy

In October 1933 the Nazi government dismissed Jewish academic Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy from his chair of International Law at the University of Hamburg. His close friend Balliol Master Alexander Dunlop Lindsay secured funding from the College and benefactors for a three-year fellowship for Bartholdy, which lasted from 1934 until his untimely death in 1936. By all accounts Albrecht, who was the grandson of composer Felix Mendelssohn, was a most gregarious man. Professor Hugo Wach presented Balliol College with a manuscript memoir of his friend in 1937. Its description is included in the catalogue of Balliol’s manuscripts written by R. A. B. Mynors, a Fellow of Balliol at the same time as Mendelssohn Bartholdy. The record is brief but stands out for its personal embellishment. refugees_abm_mynors.jpg

Balliol Manuscripts. Ms 425

Hungarian Refugees

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a nationwide uprising against the Soviet-led government that left 200,000 people as refugees. In Oxford, students were the first to take the initiative to provide relief, establishing two chairitable funds. The Balliol Fund was set up to provide general aid to those affected by fighting. With £20 worth of medicines that they had funded themselves, Robert Oakeshott (Balliol 1953) and Ian Rankin of Christ Church College left Oxford on 25 October and made their way to refugee camps in Hungary. A little after, the student committees throughout Oxford University established the Refugee Scholarship Fund to allow Hungarian students to continue their studies at English universities.

The Refugee Scholarship was continued at the request of the students. The JCR committee meeting minutes record the formation of a refugee sub-committee whose role was to bring forward candidates and to collect funds via a student levy. The Fellows of the College covered the candidates’ tuition and lodging. In the intervening 58 years this collaboration between students and senior members of Balliol has provided support to refugee scholars from South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Tibet and Syria.

Balliol Archives. JCR. Accounts & Minutes

In, Out, Shake it all About: Britain & the European Union


After the devastation of 1939-1945, leaders across the continent looked for ways to work together and avoid a resurgence of the extreme nationalism that had led to war. Winston Churchill was the first to moot the notion of a ‘Council of Europe’ and this body was inaugurated in 1949. The Council focuses mainly on ethical and legal issues administering such bodies as the European Court of Human Rights. In the 1950s a group of six states pushed towards a closer union focused on economics and trade, forming the European Economic Community in 1957 at the Treaty of Rome. This organisation continued to add new members, including Britain in 1973, and re-founded itself as the European Union at the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993. Britain has never seemed at ease in the Union and in 2016 a referendum result registered a desire to leave. The terms of this exit continue to be negotiated.

Alumni from Balliol have been prominent at key junctures in this fraught membership, from its beginnings under the premierships of Harold Macmillan (Balliol 1912) and Ted Heath (Balliol 1935), to negotiating Britain’s exit under Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Balliol 1983).

We have lost everything …’: Harold Macmillan and Britain’s First Application

Photograph of Harold Macmillan being presented with his portrait in Balliol Hall, January 1963

At the start of the final year of his incumbency, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan attended a dinner in Balliol to receive the portrait that now hangs in the Hall. 1963 opened badly for the PM with news that Britain’s first application for entry into the EEC had been rejected, due to the veto of President De Gaulle of France. Britain, the President felt, was not European enough and might act as a Trojan horse, allowing the Americans to disrupt the community. Although he was by no means overly enthusiastic about the prospect of entry, worrying about its impact on the UK’s agriculture and relations with the Commonwealth, Macmillan was deeply disappointed, feeling that America might sideline Britain for the Europeans.

1963, however, had more to throw at him: the firing of a third of his cabinet in the Night of the Long Knives, the Profumo affair, and a prostate problem which led to his premature resignation as Prime Minister in October. Whether his trip to Oxford was a welcome respite amongst all this is difficult to say. Macmillan had been one of the few survivors of the generation whose education was cut short by service in the First World War, and, although he retained fond memories of the era, found returning to a ‘city of ghosts’ difficult.

Balliol Archives. PHOT. 8

Ode to Joy: Ted Heath and Britain’s Entry to the EEC

Ten years after its first application failed, Britain was admitted into the EEC. In May 1971 President Pompidou had renounced De Gaulle’s veto. In October the House of Commons had approved the proposed membership. That night the Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, who had made entry a priority of his tenure, returned to Downing Street and played Bach on the clavichord to his intimate circle.

Where Macmillan had had his time at Oxford cut short, Heath had had his extended to four years after he secured the organ scholarship at Balliol. The son of a builder and a parlour maid from Broadstairs, this funding was no small matter and allowed Heath to settle more fully into Oxford life, joining societies and buying books and records. The former included musical and dramatic societies, and those of all the main parties. Heath was also able to travel during his vacations and his experiences left him with a dislike of fascism and extreme nationalism: on one trip he inadvertently ended up attending one of the Nuremberg rallies and shaking hands with Himmler, on another he narrowly escaped a bloody assault on Republican Spaniards by Franco’s forces.

European Competition

Entry form for the Third Millenium Games

During the course of 1992 while the Maastricht Treaty was being signed and the EU was born from the EEC, a competition was held to ascertain the most knowledgeable students in Europe. Described as a Knowledge Olympiad, the Third Millennium Games saw teams from universities across the continent compete for the title. The competition used a computer simulation that engaged the teams in running a European business. A team from Balliol College emerged as the winners, although there was some consternation in the press that it didn’t contain any British members, and that the student judged the most knowledgeable over all, Frederick Paul (Balliol 1991), was a German PPE student hailing from Nuremberg.

Balliol Archives. MISC 164

‘Stealing Brexit’: Boris Johnson and the EU Referendum


On the 23rd June 2016 the population of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum on continued membership of the EU. 52% expressed a preference to leave, 48% to remain. Whilst the result was non-binding the Conservative Party had expressed a commitment to implement the decision, although this came at the cost of losing the incumbent Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Amongst those who looked set to benefit most from the outcome was the colourful ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who had returned to Parliament to become a leading figure in the ‘Brexit’ campaign. He might reasonably have expected to become PM if, a few days later, one of his key backers, Michael Gove, had not unexpectedly withdrawn his support and launched his own leadership bid. Although later appointed Foreign Secretary by Theresa May, Johnson resigned over the terms of the deal she had negotiated with the EU. After May resigned in May 2019, Johnson was appointed Prime Minister and in December 2019 he led the Conservatives to their biggest election win in over thirty years.

Johnson came to Balliol via Eton and was not entirely comfortable with the left-wing milieu in Balliol JCR, tending not to broadcast his political views inside the College. He was less inhibited in the broader University, joining the notorious, and exclusive, drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Like Heath before him, he became President of the Oxford Union. He also edited the satirical Oxford paper The Tributary. Within Balliol he played for the Balliol Rugby XV and was President of the Arnold & Brackenbury Society, a comedic debating club.


From cardiology to imperial mythology: a selection inspired by graduate research

What do cardiology, the Armenian language, early saints’ lives and Matthew Arnold have in common? They are some of the current research topics which Balliol’s graduates challenged library staff to find in the collections in advance of their visit to our Historic Collections Centre last week.

Here are some of the research topics with the material that staff picked to match. It’s an amazing selection.


Research interest:

The Middle East and British imperial rule

Sketch of 'A Persian woman of low rank & her children'

Sketches made in Persia, 1809-1815, by James Justinian Morier, diplomat and novelist. Balliol preserves the letters and papers of five generations of James’ family of traders and diplomats in the Middle East.

[Morier Papers N3.4]

Page from a letter to Louis du Pan Mallet from Blanche Ovey, dated Athens, 19 November 1914.

‘I wish I could tell you half the thrilling things that happened after you left…’

Letter to Louis du Pan Mallet, British Ambassador at Constantinople (1913-1914) from Blanche Ovey, wife of William Ovey, member of Embassy staff in Constantinople, dated Athens, 19 November 1914. It describes the departure of Embassy staff and British subjects from Constantinople after the outbreak of World War I. Ovey makes frequent reference to Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and Talaat Pasha, Ottoman Minister of Finance at the time.

[Mallet Papers IV 11.10]


Research interest:

Cardiology or cardiovascular medicine

Engraved plate (table 1) showing diagrams of the heart

Richard Lower’s Tractatus de Corde, London, 1669, is an extension of William Harvey’s ground breaking work on blood circulation, De Motu Cordis [Balliol’s copy: 820 c 12]. Lower was part of an Oxford based group performing laboratory experiments during the interregnum. His work included the first successful blood transfusion, between two dogs. His book also documents his observation of the differences in colour between arterial and venous blood and his hypothesis that this was due to its interaction with air supplied by the lungs.

[820 b 15]


Research interest:

Saints’ lives 600-1100 

Detail from title page of Arch b 7 4 showing woodcut images of saints

This book of saints’ lives was originally written by 14th-century Venetian, Petrus de Natalibus. This early printed version was made in Paris in 1514, less than 100 years after the birth of European printing. It is highly illustrated with woodcuts some of which have been reused many times for different saints, others, like the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, were less transferable.

Final page and end papers of Arch b 7 4 showing graffiti and recycled printed waste

The final pages reveal contemporary graffiti and a page from an older book recycled by the binder to make the end papers.

[Arch B 7 4]


Research interest:

Matthew Arnold (Balliol 1841) & Arnold Toynbee (Balliol 1875)

Letter from Arnold Toynbee to his nurse from Margate, 31 October 1876

This collection of letters from Arnold Toynbee to his family include quite a few to his childhood nurse Mrs Sheppard. The one on display is from a trip Toynbee made to Margate. It was donated by Arnold’s niece Margaret Toynbee in 1982. Arnold Toynbee was a social reformer and political economist who was committed to improving working class conditions. After gaining his MA he stayed on at Balliol as lecturer in Economic history from 1878-1882. Although only 30 when he died, Toynbee’s liberal reformist ideas inspired many others. Toynbee Hall, the site of the first university settlement which encouraged closer relations between the working classes and those educated at the universities, was named in his honour and still stands at Whitechapel in London.

[Toynbee Papers 1]

Page from an exercise book belonging to the Arnold family

This Brown leather-covered notebook stamped in gilt on front cover, “Rugby School. Fifth Form. 1837”, begins with a Latin prose essay for which 14-year-old Matthew Arnold won first prize at Rugby school in 1837. A few pages in, however, it erupts into a visual feast of fairy tales and domestic scenes of games and dancing. The drawings were contributed mostly by Matthew’s sister Frances and his daughter Eleanor from 1846-1879. On display is a riddle accompanied by a helpful visual aid, and a joke: Why is an ironmonger the most likely person to make the alphabet quarrel? Because he can make A pokeR & shoveL.

Balliol’s Historic Collection Centre houses the personal papers of many of the Arnold Family including Matthew’s brother Tom and his niece the celebrated author and social reformer Mary Augusts Ward.

[Arnold Family Papers. Wode 1.I.3]


Research interest:

Medical imaging, ultrasound, inspection of the human body

Engraving showing a tumour in the stomach

A Series of Engravings, Accompanied with Explanations, which are Intended to Illustrate the Morbid Anatomy, London, 1812 is considered the first systematic study of pathology. It is illustrated with detailed engravings of problems inside the body. An inscription in the front of the book explains that the author, Matthew Ballie (Balliol 1779) gave ‘the whole of his most valuable collection of Anatomical Preparations to the College, and £600 for the preservation of the same; and this too, (after the example of the illustrious Harvey) in his life time’.  The Anatomical Preparations were passed on to another institution but Ballie’s portrait still hangs in Balliol’s Library Reading Room.

[615 e 11]


Research interest:

Biochemistry and/or cancer

Engraving of an operation to remove cancer

A Compleat Treatise of Preternatural Tumours by John Browne, London, 1678, depicts early modern operations to remove cancers. The author was surgeon-in-ordinary to Charles II and a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

[300 i 11 (1)]


Research interest:

Imperial and colonial narrative building (histories, philosophies, mythologies)

Title page and engraved portrait of Tipu Sultan

A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultaun by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Beatson, late Aide-de-Camp to the Marquis Wellesley, London, 1800. Tipu Sultan, known as the Tiger of Mysore, clashed with the British East India Company. A series of wars ended in his death whilst defending his fort of Seringapatam in May 1799. This contemporary narrative, written by a soldier on the winning side, looks like it has been rushed through the printing press with the text askew in places.

[2050 c 1]


Research interest:

Armenian language manuscripts or early printed books

A handwritten Armenian compilation of prayers and teachings, the Treasury of Truth. The binding, complete with metal clasps to hold they book shut, looks early modern but this manuscript is nineteenth-century.

[MS 375]


An early printed Psalms of David in Armenian that belonged to a 17th-century Fellow of Balliol, Nicholas Crouch. We catalogued the rest of Crouch’s library during a Wellcome Trust funded project in 2016-17 but staff did not have the language specialism to catalogue this. We still don’t know exactly when or where it was printed.

[Arch c 10 10]


Research interest:

Woman Philosophers (Mary Astell & Catharine Macaulay) in 17th and 18th century Britain and the relationship between moral and political philosophy

Title page for An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in the Kingdom, London, 1704

An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom: In an Examination of Dr. Kennett’s Eermon, Jan. 31. 1703/4. And Vindication of the Royal Martyr by Mary Astell, London, 1704, deplores the execution of Charles I. As a Tory, Astell believed in the necessity of a citizen’s absolute obedience to a monarch.

[905 i 10 (9)]

Title page of Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France, London, 1790

Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France: in a letter to the Right Hon. the Earl of Stanhope by Catharine Macaulay, London, 1790 is an impassioned republican response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. This publication gave rise to a correspondence and mutual admiration with Mary Wollstonecraft and in Balliol’s volume, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men is bound next to Macaulay’s work.

[60 h 19 (01)]


Research interest:

Infections, microbiology, penicillin

Illustration from Anatomia seu Interiora Rerum

Anatomia seu Interiora Rerum : cum animatarum tum inanimatarum, ope & beneficio exquisitissimorum microscopiorum detecta… by Antonio à Leeuwenhoek, Paris, 1687. The largely self-taught author was a pioneer of microbiology. He used single-lensed microscopes of his own design to experiment with microbes, which he originally referred to as ‘animacules’ or tiny animals. He was also the first to document microscopic observations of muscles fibres, bacteria, spermatozoa, red blood cells and blood flow in capillaries.

[825 d 10]


Research interest:

Electrical power grids (specifically power electronic converters, power management, DC microgrids, solar power)

Folding plate with diagram to help sailors determine latitude

De Magnete by William Gilbert, London, 1600, coined the word electricitas (derived from the Greek word for amber) and expanded the range of electric and electrostatic experiments.

[470 d 14]