The very idea of a book in chains. The very idea.
Chains hail from a time when books were outrageously expensive. If you believe this mediaeval price list at Luminarium, one book was the price of four cows. It was the cost of ink, and labour, and paper, all luxuries in a world where a cow could feed a hamlet for a week.
It is little wonder, at four cows apiece, that the books of Oxford’s earliest library went walkabout. Duke Humfrey’s library is named after Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose lavish bequest of manuscripts necessitated moving the university’s books from the room above the local parish church in the High Street, to a purpose-built site above the Divinity School between 1435-7.
But by the time Thomas Bodley set eyes on the library in 1598 it had come to a pretty pass. It included just three of the original books. All those beautiful old vellum pages: they had disappeared into thin air.
Isn’t it always the way with libraries? That’s what fines are for.
And librarians. They are the warriors charged with keeping the books at bay.
In 1599, the first Bodley’s Librarian was appointed, to do right by the volumes which were shortly to arrive. And Thomas carved out a canny deal with the Stationer’s Company in London. For every book registered with them, a copy would arrive with the Bodleian library.
So the library thrived and grew under the watchful eyes of its librarians through the ages.
And today, I arrived to meet the books.
They accustom you gently to where you are: the introduction is not brutal. You are ushered into that famed hall which formed the backdrop for Harry Potter’s infirmary in all the films, with its intricate ceiling and walls of golden stone. You sit on a dark oak bench and listen to the years mumble past on the lips of a guide and gaze up, wondering if you will ever manage to take in everything in that enchanted ceiling.
You nod to Christopher Wren’s door, his addition in the eighteenth century,(for the architect was also an Oxford astronomer) and shamble through to the Convocation House, a debating and meeting room which has on occasion held the English Parliament. And from thence into the tiny university court where Oscar Wilde was tried for non-payment of fines.
But all this is just prologue, when Duke Humfrey’s books sing siren silent songs somewhere up the stairs.
And all of a sudden there we were: in the most monumental library you have ever seen.
From floor to ceiling were books, thick, creamy-pages uneven books, not those nasty machine-type ones. The books were bottle green and deep, rusty red and they sat with titles you wanted to devour hungrily, one next to another, stretching off into the distance. Each side had black oak balconies constructed so that you could climb dark wooden stairs to reach a higher tier of books: and everywhere there were ladders on wheels.
And then I glimpsed it: a chained book.
Librarians began by riveting the chain to the cover of the book. But the rivets would tear away at these priceless volumes; so they attached chains to the spines, and turned them towards the wall.
Which meant you couldn’t see the titles. Every book had a number on its closed pages, and you found the catalogue and identified it before taking it from the shelf.
But you couldn’t walk away with it.
Some time in the 18th century Oxford decided to emancipate its books, and the chains were no longer used.
But some of the chains are still there. Just in case.
The rare air of that wondrous place is still in my lungs, and the half-light of its balconies a shadow behind my eyes. If ever a library could weave a spell, then this one wove it today. I did not pick up one book, but every volume muffled the sound of my footsteps and the rise and fall of the guide’s words with the very time it has existed.
A haunting idea, this book in chains.
Sadly photographs are not permitted in the library itself: here is the rest of the Bodleian tour…