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16th January 2020 Joanna Bowring, Librarian

Putting Exeter’s Special Collections Online

Exeter College's Librarian, Joanna Bowring, reports on the College's rare materials now available to view online.

Photograph of the Bohun Psalter, Exeter's greatest treasure

Photograph of the Bohun Psalter, Exeter’s greatest treasure

In 2017 the College Library began a programme of digitising the rarest material held in the Special Collections Library and Archive at Cohen Quad. Creating digital versions allows these books to be shared much more widely, and also helps to preserve the originals many of which are very old and fragile. Thanks to a donation from an alumnus we have so far created 11 online versions, and all of these may be seen on the Digital Bodleian website.

The items you can now read at the click of a mouse include the manuscript of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, once owned by Petrarch and heavily annotated by him. There is also a 14th century manuscript which recounts the miracles of St Thomas of Cantilupe, including the rescue of Sir John Morevyle from pirates. The oldest manuscript at Exeter, a 12th century Latin grammar is there online, as well as the teaching notes of Rector Prideaux (1578-1650). Two of Exeter’s illuminated manuscripts are digitised: manuscript 46, a 14th century book of psalms heavily decorated with borders of leaves and strange hybrid animals, and manuscript 47, the Bohun Psalter, Exeter’s greatest treasure.

The Bohun Psalter was written in the latter part of the 14th century for a nobleman called Sir Humphrey de Bohun, the grandson of Edward III. It was given to Exeter College by the college’s Tudor benefactor Sir William Petre and had belonged to two English queens, Elizabeth the wife of Henry VII, and Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. In the frontispiece you can see both of their signatures. The Psalter is illuminated with gold and features many small exquisite illustrations which tell the Bible story from the Creation onwards. The digitisation of the Psalter is useful here because readers of the online version are able to zoom in and magnify the images seeing detail which is much more difficult to see with the naked eye.

Progress with Exeter’s digitisation programme has been slow because the process requires specialist photography, but its benefits were immediately apparent as manuscript scholars and others were delighted to have access to these previously ‘hidden’ treasures. Last December the Bohun Psalter appeared in Digital Bodleian’s ’12 most engaging items’ of the year. Our next steps will be creating an online version of the catalogue of Exeter’s medieval manuscripts, and the digitisation of some archive material including letters sent by Charles I demanding the college silver to melt down for his war chest.

Along with creating online access to the special collections we have been able to increase physical access, hosting visits to the rare books stacks and archive for Exeter students, an increasing number of researchers, groups of alumni and school students.

The collections are still growing thanks to the support of the college, and we have recently acquired several items with strong connections to the college, including a 19th century manuscript, a poem by an Exeter student describing life at Exeter in the day.

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