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The Bodleian’s incredibly rare medieval book coffer 2

a photo of an open wooden box with hinged lid showing a medieval religious painting on the inside

Book-coffer purchased 2018. Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave

The Bodleian Library celebrates book coffers and other wonderful things used to carry books through the ages – and shows off its new acquisition

Thousands and thousands of manuscripts and printed books survive from medieval Europe, but only just over 100 of the devices used to carry them – known as book coffers – are thought to be in existence.

At the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library they have recently acquired one of these rare protective boxes – a fine 15th-century French Gothic example, believed to have been used for housing and transporting religious texts.

The rare coffer forms the centrepiece of a current display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, titled Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures and features a colourful print inside its lid depicting ‘God the Father in Majesty’.

Describing the rare book box as a “remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional” that preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context,” Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries says the Bodleian is not just about collecting books and manuscripts “but also objects which help us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood”.

a photo of the lid of a metal-covered box

Book-coffer purchased 2018. Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave

a photo of an medieval illuminated painting fixed to the underside of a wooden box lid

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave.

the underside of a metal covered box with much of the metal worn away to reveal the wood underneath

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave

“Among other things,” he adds, “it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The Bodleian’s marginally less slender mobile device is 500-years-old (the majority of surviving book chests date to the 1500s) and is made of wood covered in leather, reinforced with iron fittings, hinges and a lock.

The fragile image inside the lid dates to c.1491 and includes a prayer in Latin, which would have been used as a chant on special feast days. Only four impressions of this woodprint are known to survive, dating from the very early days of printing in Europe.

Dr Cristina Dondi, Professor of Early European Book Heritage at the University of Oxford and Oakeshott Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities at Lincoln College, says “very few original woodblock prints from this period survive and each is rich in meaning, complex and exceedingly rare. So to be able to study one still attached to a physical object of this nature is truly exceptional.”

The woodblock print may well prove relatively easy to decode, but what the coffer was designed to hold remains a mystery.

It could have held a richly illuminated Book of Hours, alongside other Christian devotional books or materials, such as a rosary.

Whatever was inside it would have been protected by a lining of red canvas, which survives still largely intact. Some surviving coffers contain hidden compartments and straps suggesting that they may have held additional relics and were designed for carrying from place to place.

a photo of an open box with a painting on the inside of the lid

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave.

a photo of a hand resting on an old box

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave

a photo of an old box lined with ribbed metal

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave

“This coffer dates to a time when devotional materials were at the crossing between the medieval and the modern period, between art made by hand and by mechanical means,” adds Dondi, who is also the Principal Investigator of the 15cBOOKTRADE, a project which studies the impact of the printing revolution on early modern European society.

“The new arrival will join the right environment to further its investigation and understand how to place it within a European tradition,” she says.

The Bodleian’s Thinking Inside the Box display features about a dozen fascinating boxes, bags and satchels from around the world that have been used to carry books through the ages.

They include Qur’anic manuscripts with specially designed satchels, a palm-leaf manuscript from West Java inside a beautifully carved, lacquered and painted box, the Kennicott Bible with a lockable wooden carrying case, and a miniature artist’s book which springs from a faux matchbox to reveal an accordion-fold of thirteen wood-engravings.

a close up of a medieval print of a king on throne

Courtesy Bodleian Libraries and Richard Cave.

For more information, including opening times, visit www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/upcoming-events/2019/jan/thinking-inside-the-box

A 3D model and photos of the coffer are available to view on the University of Oxford’s Cabinet website, which uses digitisation to make museum collections more accessible for teaching and research. View the coffer at www.cabinet.ox.ac.uk/gothiccoffer. In addition, Cabinet also includes a 3D model and photos of a deed box, which features in the Thinking Inside the Box display. View the deed box at www.cabinet.ox.ac.uk/deedbox.

Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures continues until February 17 2019.


Bodleian Library

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…

2 comments on “The Bodleian’s incredibly rare medieval book coffer

  1. Margaret McManis on

    Fascinating and educational. As a librarian and author who writes about medieval manuscripts and relics this type of book curiosity will most likely make its way into a future book.
    Margaret McManis


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