Special Collections Today and Tomorrow

Our Michaelmas term exhibition celebrates some of the key treasures of St. John’s College. Aptly named Special Collections Today and Tomorrow, the exhibition spans the new Library & Study Centre, the 17th century Laudian Library, and the 16th century Old Library, and exhibits a wide range of our Special Collections. Read on to find out more about some of the highlights.


Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Antwerp: 1603)

Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is thought to be the earliest “modern” world atlas, dated at 1570. St. John’s College owns four editions of this atlas, including the 1570 one. However, as the 1570 copy was largely destroyed in a fire in the nineteenth-century, the best-preserved edition is on display, dated at 1603.

These hand-coloured maps were not the first world maps to appear – Ortelius draws heavily on the work of other cartographers – however his atlas is the first recognisably modern atlas for a number of reasons. Its organisation system combined with its attempt to cover the entire known world resonate with present-day atlases. Ortelius was also the first cartographer to bind similar maps together along with annotations and comments. While these are entirely in Latin in the 1603 edition, this does not prevent the average viewer from identifying and recognising familiar tropes.

On display in this exhibition is a double-page spread of Iceland. This intricately detailed map combines the fantastical with the real, as the intricacy of the islands presents a marked attention to detail. However, the sea monsters surrounding the islands breaks from the precision and reality of the islands, showing clearly mythical animals and a celebration of brown polar bears. The size of these animals, some of them larger than the smaller islands, develops a fascinating insight into the way in which unknown places were visualised, combining a scientific knowledge with beliefs and imaginings about the specified location.

The 1603 Ortelius is on display in the exhibition case located in the Lobby of the new Library & Study Centre.


Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Westminster: William Caxton, 1483)

This second edition Caxton Chaucer dates at 1483, and is one of the first printed books in English. William Caxton was a merchant and book printer, the first to print books in English. By printing in English instead of the traditionally preferred Latin, he was choosing not only to angle his printed books at local readers, but also at a more modest subsection of society. This move away from a highly educated and more international (i.e. euro-centric) audience signifies the shift towards books becoming an increasingly tradeable commodity, although printed books were still very much luxury items.

Caxton’s first edition of the Canterbury Tales was printed in 1476 at his newly established printing press in London. Caxton was an adept businessman who drew on his mercantile experience in establishing his printing press and in selling his printed books. In the early stages of printed books, printing presses extended beyond the sole printing of books, and represented the entire book business. While many printmakers in the late-fifteenth century went out of business, Caxton flourished by tying printing to his merchant trade, and viewing the book industry as a mercantile role over a scholarly one.

The key changes to the second edition of Caxton’s printing of Chaucer are the 26 woodcuts, and the smaller typeset. There is a woodcut at the beginning of each tale, most of which represent a pilgrim on horseback. These woodcuts seem lively and intricate to us, but compared to woodcuts of the time from France and Germany, these are rather simplistic. Caxton’s Canterbury Tales woodcuts were created by a local woodcutter-artist, but the captions would have been added by hand as adding lettering to these woodcuts was too complex a job. The woodcuts in St. John’s copy are hand-coloured, by request of an early owner who wanted to personalise his copy.

The type setting used in both Caxton’s first and second editions of the Canterbury Tales is a Burgundian-style type, derived from the handwriting found in manuscripts in the Burgundian court. The typeset for early printed books often mimicked that of handwritten manuscripts, as there was no other precedent. Johann Veldener, a printer and creator of type in continental Europe, probably designed the type used in Caxton’s print editions of the Canterbury Tales. Caxton and Veldener worked together in the Low Countries early on in their respective print-making careers, and Caxton is thought to have bought several typefaces off Veldener upon his return to England. Making the type smaller in the second edition was an economical move, as this meant that more words could fit onto a page, creating fewer pages, which of course meant a higher profit margin.

The second edition Caxton Chaucer can be found in an exhibition case by the Old Library, beneath the window.

Psaltarium hebraeum, graecum, arabicum, et chaldaeum cum tribus latinis interpretationibus et glossis (Genoa: 1516)

This Genoese polyglot psalter, whose official title in Latin is Psaltarium hebraeum, graecum, arabicum, et chaldaeum cum tribus latinis interpretationibus et glossis, dates from 1516. It was the first polyglot psalter ever printed, as well as the second printing of Arabic in the Western world. Psalters focus on an arrangement of the psalms from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and are traditionally intended for song. Polyglot psalters encourage the study of the language used within the psalms, by comparing versions of the same psalms in different languages in parallel columns. This tradition of comparing scripture in different languages started with Jewish scholars.

The Genoese polyglot psalter is particularly noted for its Latin gloss of the life of Christopher Columbus running alongside the columns of scripture, linked to psalm 19. This gloss did not please Columbus’ illegitimate son Fernando, who ordered the psalter destroyed. This destructive effort was of course unsuccessful, and several copies still exist today. St. John’s copy was donated by Archbishop Laud, and had earlier belonged to the seventeenth-century courtier-diplomat Kenelm Digby. The title page includes Digby’s ownership inscription, which has been visibly crossed out.

The psalter is located in the left-hand side exhibition case upstairs in the new Library & Study Centre.

The Maqamat of al-Hariri (Aleppo? c. early 18th century)

This literary Oriental manuscript is the Maqamat of al-Hariri. This is traced to the Maronite Christian Arab community in Syria, and the marginalia and inscriptions suggest it most likely dates to early eighteenth-century Aleppo.

Maqamat literally translates as ‘assemblies’, and refers to the literary tradition of rhymed prose and verse, which was often used as a basis for musical composition. Similar traditions are found with various names across the Middle East and North Africa. The maqamat genre had existed before al-Hariri’s use of it, however he is credited with making the genre more well-known. His use of Arabic combined sophisticated language and puns with relatable plots, resulting in the Maqamat genre being seen as a more artistic form.   

This illuminated manuscript contains around fifty short stories written in Arabic on thin ivory paper, and centres upon a nomadic hero from a town in northern Syria. Each of these stories takes place in a different location, making it more accessible and relatable to a geographically wide-ranging audience. This draws upon the disparate community of the Maronites, whose traditionally rural and isolated ways stem from their migration to the mountainous regions of Lebanon and Syria following persecution in the seventh-century. Al-Hariri’s maqamat was a success, and had a wide reach across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Maqamat is located in the Laudian Library, and is item no. 6 in the School Access Quiz. This quiz runs through the Laudian Library exhibition cases, and highlights some of the work the Library does with school students. It asks these students to guess the date of production, language, writing surface, and whether it is handwritten or printed, of a selection of books and documents from our special collections. This helps students engage with the special collections, encouraging them to think about books and history in a more living and “real” way.

Explore these treasures and many more in our Special Collections Today and Tomorrow exhibition. The exhibition runs until 13th December 2019. Members of the College and their guests are welcome to view the exhibition at any time. Non-members should email in advance to book an appointment.


Special Collections Today and Tomorrow exhibition book. St. John’s College Oxford. 2019.

Feature Photo: MS 204, fo. 14′. David harping an initial B of Psalm 1, in a mid-14th century Psalter from Northern France. (Located in the exhibition case in the Lobby of the new Library).


Caxton Chaucer:

Genoese Polyglot Psalter:

Maqamat of al-Hariri:

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