December 1634: Nicholas Crouch, a 16-year-old from a small hamlet just north of Luton, Bedfordshire, arrives in the city of Oxford to enrol at the University.
July 1690: He dies at Balliol College, his home for the intervening 56 years. He leaves a collection of books that encompasses the intellectual, spiritual and political life of the turbulent middle years of the 17th century. Balliol College Library’s donor register records 319 volumes which he left to the College on his death; and other volumes in his library, probably given during his lifetime, are identifiable by their similar bindings and his handwriting inside them. His total library consists of an estimated 4,000 separate titles.
July 2016: Supported by a Wellcome Trust grant, the College embarks on an ambitious project to make this collection of books accessible through cataloguing and conservation.
Nicholas Crouch was a true 17th-century character. His books, diary, notes and prescription books, all surviving at Balliol, show that he studied and practised medicine, perhaps as a politically neutral subject after supporting the losing side in the English Civil War. The minutes of the Philosophical Society of Oxford also show him joining in with contemporary scientific experimentation and debate; at the gathering on 19 January 1686 he ‘acquainted ye Society, that in ye Abdomen of Mr Hodges, who lately died of a dropsie, 7 gallons of watery humor were found’ (Gunther, R.T., Early Science in Oxford, (Oxford, 1925), v.4, pp. 171).
Typically for his times, his interest in medicine did not limit his reading to scientific publishing. Alongside medical books in his library there are also plenty of political, literary, and religious texts. Most of the titles in his library are bound together in groups of anything up to about 65 short texts. For example, in one book a catalogue of medical books is sandwiched between two catalogues of theological works, one in English, one in French. Crouch’s collection shows medicine from a 17th-century perspective, at the nexus of science, politics and religion – a vision that is often obscured by today’s more distinct disciplines. It is hoped that once the project is complete, medical humanities researchers will be able to use Crouch’s library to explore the connections between disciplines in the 17th century.
The short publications that make up the bulk of Crouch’s library are of an ephemeral nature and the cataloguing project has already found items that are completely unique to Balliol’s collection, so demonstrating the desirability of having this collection fully catalogued.
Nicholas Crouch played a major part in the life of Balliol College. His handwriting appears frequently in contemporary records in the College Archives and the survival of many of them may be down to his meticulous administration.
His attention to detail extends to his library, where he has left a treasure trove of book history in the form of handwritten contents pages for each volume, detailing what he spent on each title, how much it cost to bind the whole, and sometimes even the name of the binder.
Project staff – cataloguer Lucy Kelsall and conservator Nikki Tomkins – will spend a year working to achieve a much higher level of accessibility for Crouch’s books. Lucy’s cataloguing will allow researchers to find all the titles in Crouch’s amazing library on the University’s public catalogue (SOLO), including details of the rich copy-specific information such as the handwritten contents pages. Nikki’s conservation will allow us to use the collection without fear of damaging it and make sure it is preserved for posterity. The benefits of the project will extend beyond academia helping Balliol to make the most of the collection’s potential for public exhibitions, school sessions and University teaching, so benefitting a wide range of audiences.
By Naomi Tiley, Librarian at Balliol College