Borrowing back a book

Image: Detail of a 16th-century woodcut showing the Schools quadrangle with Rotherham’s library above (Sel.3.229)

The first record of a book being borrowed from Cambridge University Library was made on this day, 24 October, in 1487 when, with the permission of the Vice-Chancellor, John Butler (the Chancellor’s servant) borrowed a copy of Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum morale in order to transcribe it. The Chancellor for whom it was borrowed was most likely Thomas Rotherham (1423–1500), Archbishop of York, Chancellor of England and also Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1469 and at intervals (perhaps continuously) from 1473 to 1492.

Ironically, the book had most likely been given to the Library by Rotherham himself. In 1475 the University recognised him as one of its principal benefactors for funding the completion of the east range of the Schools with a library above it, to which Rotherham donated two hundred books. This gift included the first printed books to enter the Library and Rotherham gave further books during his lifetime. Around thirty-six of these can still be identified in the Library today, but unfortunately, the Speculum morale is not amongst them: it is listed in the Library catalogue for 1557, but not in subsequent sixteenth-century catalogues. However, Rotherham’s donations of Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum historiale ([Strassburg]: Johann Mentelin, [1473]), Speculum naturale ([Strassburg: The R-Printer (Adolf Rusch), not after 15 June 1476]) and Speculum doctrinale ([Strassburg: The R-Printer (Adolf Rusch), not after 1478]) are still in the Library as Inc.0.A.2.1[57], Inc.0.A.2.2[81.1–2] and Inc.0.A.2.2[80] respectively. The edition of the Speculum morale given and borrowed back by Rotherham was presumably the one printed in Strassburg by Johann Mentelin in 1476. Another copy of this edition was bought of List & Francke in 1875 by F. Haywood, through the Library’s Rustat Fund, and is now at Inc.1.A.2.1[58].

Rotherham’s borrowing was a special case and there are no other records of books being borrowed from the Library until 1513, when the borrowers included Robert Shorton, first Master of St John’s College, who borrowed Saint John Chrysostom’s work on the Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians from the library that Rotherham had paid for. He gave in return (as a ‘caution’) a silver cup.


J.C.T. Oates, Cambridge University Library: a history. From the beginnings to the Copyright Act of Queen Anne (Cambridge, 1985), 52.

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