The Library at St John’s College houses extensive Special Collections, which date back to the 9th century and include some 400 manuscripts, 20,000 early printed books and significant collections of modern literary papers. In order to give College members the chance to learn more about these, we organise exhibitions displaying a number of items of interest twice a year. Each exhibition is based around a particular theme, with recent topics including a Classical A to Z and the Seven Deadly Sins. The current exhibition, set up before Easter and open until September, covers representations of war and warfare throughout history. With 2014 marking of the centenary of WWI, the issues and debates surrounding war as a concept have gained a new prominence in the media, and the exhibition engages with the impact of conflict on the public consciousness.
To tie in with the centenary, a range of items relating to World War I are displayed as part of the exhibition. These include artwork by Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist (some of whose pictures feature on the exhibition poster and handlist), letters to St John’s alumnus Robert Graves from his former comrades in WWI, and an illustrated first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, given by the author to his mother and brother. The exhibition as a whole, however, offers a broader perspective of the experience of war, covering responses to ‘human conflict’ from the 14th to the 20th century.
The oldest item exhibited is a 14th century Egyptian manuscript about military devices, by a renowned Mamluk officer of the guard, who wrote pretending to be Alexander the Great. From here the exhibition moves onto other texts covering weaponry and sieges: a 17th century printing of Vegetius’ De Rei Militari, a 1633 copy of Pacata Hibernia by Sir Thomas Stafford (recounting the Flight of the Earls in 17th century Ireland) and a decorative manuscript of an Old French poem describing the 1300 siege of Caelavarock Castle in Scotland by Edward I.
Early printed books featuring works by such diverse figures as Niccolo Machiavelli and King James I are followed by documents related to the English Civil War, collected by the 18th century antiquary John Pointer. The 19th and early 20th centuries are represented by the imperialism of Rudyard Kipling and a magazine competition asking readers to bet on battles in the Mahdist War, contrasted with the more sombre tone of A. E. Housman’s poetry. After the WWI items, the exhibition ends with some further Graves correspondence, in this case related to WWII, along with books by Gertrude Stein (one of which belonged to Graves with an enclosed letter from Stein) and original drawings and papers related to Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs.
We hope that the exhibition provides an interesting and informative insight into its subject, whilst also making people aware of the wider nature of the Special Collections held in St John’s College Library. We’ll be updating this blog every month, so look out for other posts about individual Special Collections items coming soon.