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  • The medieval University goes online

    The earliest surviving set in Cambridge of the University’s medieval statutes is one of three treasures from the University Archives newly online as part of Cambridge Digital Library. Thanks to the Society for the History of the University, generous funders of the digitisation, everyone can now access the statutes in the Old Proctor’s Book, parts of which date from ca 1390, alongside the no less significant statutory code presented by Elizabeth I in 1570 and the earliest register of University business from 1454 onwards, Grace Book Alpha.

    Originally containing all the statutes by which the University was then ruled, the statute book’s creation for use by the Proctors, the Chancellor’s chief executive officers, may have been a result of the reorganisation of records after the partial destruction of the University’s muniments during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

    St Christopher carrying the Christ Child, ca 1390 (UA Collect.Admin.3 f.6r)

    The statutes prescribed officials and their responsibilities, lectures, examinations, degrees and the academical calendar. Modified as organisational needs required, they were a living tradition supplemented by custom. Perhaps unexpectedly in their midst are two striking illuminations, St Christopher carrying the Christ Child and the Virgin and Child enthroned beneath a gothic canopy, intended to underline the solemnity of oaths sworn by civic officials.

    Portions of the book were subsequently removed wholesale and incorporated into the statute compilations of 1490 and later, known as the Senior Proctor’s Book and Junior Proctor’s Book.

    Stoutly adorned with metal bosses and clasps and with carrying chains for use in processions, they are slated for digitisation when funds allow.

    These statutes were added to from time to time until 1570 when the great Elizbethan code of statutes became the new foundation of government.

    Exam regulations, 1570 (UA Luard 187 f.4v)

    Their most significant innovation was the concentrating of power in the hands of a small elite: the Vice-Chancellor (the Chancellor being largely absent representing the University at Court by this date), Heads of Colleges and the Caput Senatus, away from the Proctors and those University MAs with teaching responsibilities, the Regent Masters. The Vice-Chancellor, for example, was given full reponsibility for the University’s finances. Celibacy was enforced on the Fellows of Colleges. The Elizabethan statutes remained in force until the mid-Victorian reforms of 1858-82.

    The continuous adminstrative records of the University begin in 1454 with the series of Grace Books. The earliest, Grace Book Alpha, contains the undifferentiated records of University business both financial and administrative and was kept by the Proctors. Here they wrote up their annual accounts; that is, receipts and expenditure of great variety from the Chest including fees received from students at academic exercises and forfeited ‘cautions’ or money pledges. The book was also used to record ‘graces’ granted; appointments of commissions for special purposes; decrees of congregations; and occasionally as a register of documents.

    Proctors’ expenditure, 1457 (UA Grace Book Alpha f.10r)

    The ‘grace‘ was originally a personal exemption from statutory requirements granted by the Regent House (the University’s governing body) to those aspiring to a degree. It came to serve wider and more general purposes and is still the name applied to signficant motions for decision by the Regent House. From the fifteenth century, degrees became increasingly ‘gratuosi’, that is awarded by grace, rather than ‘rigorosi’, awarded according to the rules. The series of Grace Books therefore, of which this is the earliest surviving, provide what is virtually a register of degrees.

    Images in the Digital Library are accompanied by detailed descriptions to aid navigation. Further catalogue information on these items and indeed on all the University’s medieval records are online on Janus, the internet resource for catalogues of Cambridge Archives.

  • All I want for Christmas is … Christmas pudding

    … or some other equally delicious dessert. Or possibly both!

    Mrs Beeton’s cookery. London: Ward, Lock, 1923. UL classmark: 1923.7.3551. Order in West Room

  • All I want for Christmas is … a surprise

    It came as a surprise to me that JRR Tolkien used to write letters to his children as if from Father Christmas, and that he illustrated them with these amusing drawings. In this picture a polar bear falls asleep in his bath so that the bath water floods into the room below, where Father Christmas and his elves are at work packing presents. Somehow I can’t imagine the elves in Lord of the Rings doing such a thing.

    The Father Christmas letters / JRR Tolkien. London : George Allen & Unwin, 1976. UL classmark: 1976.11.159. Order in West Room

  • Still discovering iDiscover?

    Originally posted on MusiCB3 Blog:
    The Farewell to Voyager post a few weeks ago prompted some further comments about iDiscover. So here’s a quick follow-up post about iDiscover, which, in the best Darwinian tradition, is constantly evolving. Let’s look first…
  • All I want for Christmas is … something sweet

    Home made marzipan, truffles and sugar mice. My favourite is the ‘Psychedelic caterpillar’ in lurid orange, yellow and green marzipan.

    Chocolates, sweets & toffees / Jan Morgan. London : Ward Lock, 1979. UL classmark: 1979.10.533 Order in West Room

  • – an online source archival and citation resource

    The University Information Service (UIS) has made available to members of the University of Cambridge. You can sign up with the UIS to be part of our organisational account to is a free to use service where you can create a link to the version of a web page from which you obtained information and ensure URLs listed in your citations do not lead to broken links and missing pages.

    “, developed by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, is a caching solution to be used by authors and journal editors in order to integrate the preservation of cited material with the act of citation. Upon direction from a paper author or editor, Perma will retrieve and save the contents of a webpage, and return a permanent link. When the work is published, the author can include that permanent citation in addition to a citation to the original URL, or just the permanent link, ensuring that even if the original is no longer available because the site goes down or changes, the cache is preserved and available.”

    ‘Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations’ by Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert & Lawrence Lessig (Harvard Law Reform Forum, March 17th 2014)



  • All I want for Christmas is … food from all around Europe

    In 1973 recipes for Christmas food in Europe included the following: Italian ham in a pastry case with glace fruits, German carp cooked in beer, Spanish lamb with chili & garlic, French Normandy pate, Scandinavian spiced pork.

    The Cookery year. Reader’s Digest Association, 1973. UL classmark: 1976.10.105 Order in West Room

  • Rebinding the Red Book of Thorney

    By Shaun Thompson

    The Red Book of Thorney is an early fourteenth-century cartulary originally from Thorney Abbey in Cambridgeshire. It was donated to Cambridge University Library by Samuel Sanders at the end of the nineteenth century. The medieval manuscript consists of 467 parchment leaves some of which are illuminated. The Red Book of Thorney would have originally been bound in a monastic setting by a highly skilled bookbinder using the highest quality materials. It was rebound into two volumes in 1889/90 by Stoakley (late Hawes) of Cambridge.

    A detail of illumination

    Many early books that remain in their original bindings have survived in excellent condition. However, a significant number of medieval books, including the Red Book of Thorney, were re-bound in the nineteenth century by bookbinders using techniques which are not appropriate for parchment manuscripts. The Red Book of Thorney’s binding had severely restricted the opening characteristics of the book causing mechanical, chemical and structural damage. The structure itself was beginning to significantly break down, providing very little protection to the text-block and making access increasingly difficult.

    The  poor condition was partly caused by its nineteenth century rebinding




    Dr. Sandra Raban, who has a particular scholarly interest in the Red Book of Thorney, had noticed a significant change in its condition. She made a generous donation through the Friends of the Library, with the intention that this would contribute to the conservation of the manuscript.

    After discussion with the Head of Conservation, Keeper of Manuscripts and colleagues in Conservation and Collection Care, it was decided that the Red Book of Thorney should be dis-bound, repaired, resewn and rebound. The aim would be to create a working, functional object using techniques from the medieval period that complement the parchment text-block.


    The old covering leather and animal glue on the spine were softened with a wheat starch paste poultice and mechanically removed using a fine spatula and bone folder. The sewing threads were cut at the centre folds of each gathering and the thread was pulled through the spine folds, to free the gatherings from the sewing supports, before they were separated. This process revealed the damaged caused by roundingbacking and the application of hot animal glue which had been carried out during the nineteenth-century binding process.

    Using a poultice to remove spine glue

    All of the damaging repairs were carefully removed. Tears were repaired and infills were introduced, using cold gelatine mousse as the adhesive and caecum as the repair material. These materials were selected for their physical characteristics and for the like-for-like properties with parchment; this ensured the creation of subtle repairs that are sympathetic to the original materials and place minimal strain on the original parchment leaves. Gelatine mousse is a gelatine solution which is allowed to cool and gel and is then aerated by passing it through a fine mesh. Caecum is alum-tawed goldbeaters skin which is produced from the intestine of a cow, using parchment-making techniques. It is produced in three different thicknesses and can be layered to achieve a suitable thickness for repair. The caecum was shaped and feathered so as to ensure good adhesion and the creation of a gentle transition of the repair to the original leaf.


    A shaped and feathered caecum infill being applied to the original parchment

    Parchment leaves before and after repair

    The gatherings were sewn on double 8-ply linen cord sewing supports, the technique of half-packed sewing which allows the tension created in the sewing process to be trapped underneath the turns of the thread. This trapped energy is transferred along the supports and acts much like a spring and thus distributes stresses evenly.

    Sewing the Red Book of Thorney on a sewing frame


    A close-up of half-packed sewing (left) and the alum-tawed bonnet (right)

    Once the sewing process was complete, a ‘bonnet’ made of alum-tawed goat skin was added to the spine. The bonnet is a non-adhesive spine liner. The alum-tawed skin was slit to correspond to the sewing stations; it was attached by placing it over the sewing supports which were pulled through the slit skin, thereby locking the bonnet in place. The bonnet is not adhered to the spine. Primary endbands were sewn through the spine folds and the bonnet onto an 8-ply linen core. As well as protecting the parchment from the adhesive, applied to the covering material, the bonnet also contributes to the mechanical function of the binding.

    New wooden boards were worked from 12mm quarter-sawn oak, cushioned on the outer surface and gently bevelled on the inner surface. The sewing supports and the endband cores, were laced in to the boards and pegged in place.

    Attaching the wooden boards to the textblock

    The book in boards and ready for covering

    Testing the staining options for the cover

    Alum-tawed goatskin was selected as the covering material. A red stain was created using Brazilwood and a base made from potash which, when processed, can achieve a palette of colour from pinkish reds to red/violets. Once the stain was prepared it was painted onto the skins using a large brush.

    The skins were then hung up to dry. The process was repeated until the desired depth of colour was achieved.

    Following the staining process, which made the skins hard and inflexible, the skins were ‘boarded’ to loosen the fibre bundles. The boarding process ensured that the skin was flexible enough for covering.

    Covering the Red Book of Thorney with the stained alum-tawed skin

    The cover was attached to the book using wheat starch paste which was applied to the flesh side of the skin. The skin was then moulded over the spine bonnet, sewing supports and boards; the corners were mitred. The book was ‘tied-up’ and bandaged for a short while to ensure that the skin was securely adhered.

    A secondary end-band was sewn through the covering at the head and tail. This serves to secure the covering material to the spine of the book. It is also a further mechanical attachment which strengthens the structure, supporting the arching of the text-block when opened.

    The primary (top) and secondary endbands are structurally important as well as being decorative.

    Materials salvaged from the nineteenth-century binding were encapsulated into polyester and sewn into a non-adhesive, long-stitch book format with alum-tawed spine reinforcements and flax paper covers. They are stored alongside the manuscripts.

    The nineteenth century boards, the new bindings and the salvaged material

    The Red Book of Thorney in its conservation binding

    All the bookbinding techniques used were adapted from the medieval period, when the importance of understanding materials was crucial to the structural concept of bookbinding. The Red Book of Thorney is now well conserved, open easily and is fully accessible for research. The manuscript has been digitised and can be viewed from cover-to-cover on the Cambridge Digital Library.

    Click here to see a video of me rebinding the Red Book of Thorney.

    With special thanks to Dr Sandra and Tony Raban; Abigail Quandt from the Walters Art Museum; Jiri Vnoucek from the Royal Library Copenhagen; Edward Cheese from the Fitzwilliam Museum; Henk de Groot, parchment maker; Antoinette Curtis, conservator and my colleagues at Cambridge University Library.



  • Still discovering iDiscover?

    The Farewell to Voyager post a few weeks ago prompted some further comments about iDiscover. So here’s a quick follow-up post about iDiscover, which, in the best Darwinian tradition, is constantly evolving. Let’s look first at a problem that has … Continue reading →