Monday, June 30, 2014

Academic Day 1: Bodleian Library & Christ Church College - Oxford

Statue of Sir Thomas Bodley, visionary benefactor of this most prodigious library. The The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library is an exquisitely magical place, rich with history, of which, our tour guide, Mr. Christopher Nichols, was extremely willing to elucidate for us. Tour guides are always different, and he, an Oxford resident for over 30 years, retired military, and self-starting historical scholar, impressed upon me the context of both the university and the town within the framework of medieval Europe. This information is essential to understand the magnitude of energy and circumstances that possibly created first 'college town', which now contains over 120 libraries holding around 13 billion books. According to Mr. Nichols, the foundational roots of Oxford date to 1209 C.E., when the first writings of 'the ox's ford' is mentioned to aid access to herdsmen and their livestock. A bit earlier, in 1167 C.E., the rumblings of the impending 100 Years War between France and England manifested in the former's King Louis VII expelling the latter's clerics from Paris, then, the capitol of higher learning in Europe. These refugees knew of the religious evangelicalism of the budding area of Oxford, so, made their way there. Upon arriving, it was determined that this was a physically strategic point, being surrounded on three sides by water, so a wall was built on the fourth quadrant and the town was secured. In 1209, the first town/gown strife took place when a monk was accused of murdering his lover (a townswoman) in a crime of passion. Instead of being able to seek sanctuary within the religious walls, the townspeople were outraged and the first legal documents were drafted to address the legalities within the town of Oxford. 1444 found the first patron of the universities in Duke Humfrey, regent of the king, who donated 300 manuscripts (not books...laboriously created medieval manuscripts that was worth several kings' ransomes in money and time). This led to the construction of an actual library room that continues to exist today as, fittingly, Duke Humfrey's Library, although, sadly, only 7 of the original manuscripts survive. The 'Scholastic Era' and the humanists of the Renaissance pressured a seperation of religion from academics and in 1426, the school's administrative offices seperated, physically and symbolically, from St. Mary's Church to a new building a mere stones throw away. King Henry VIII's infamous 'Dissolution of the Monastaries' had been in the process for hundreds of years due to the physical remoteness of Rome to England, and within all this turmoil, the vast majority of the above mentioned manuscripts were neglected and lost. The upswing came during Elizabeth I's reign when English diplomat Thomas Bodley became a major benefactor of Oxford University. By 1605, theology was still the major focus of study at the university, but medical, law, and liberal arts were also being taught. Bodley's wealth and influence with the Queen infused a major kickstart to academia which has carried over to the present day. Two other people of interest that Mr. Nichols mentioned were William Orchard and Christopher Wren. Orchard was the master mason who designed, among other structures, the university's first examination school, which is where Divinity was taught and tested. The gothic architecture of this room is magical...incidentally, used as the hospital scenes in the Harry Potter movies! Broken archway windows and double-groined archways give light and strength to the structure, while hundreds, if not thousands of carved stone details, tell complex stories to those who take the time to study and ponder the mysteries of thier symbolism. Christopher Wren studied mathematics and astronomy at the university, yet, ironically, is most well known for his architectural designs that restructured London after the Great Fire of 1666. Wren also designed the first public library in Oxford. Mr. Christopher Nichols was a great joy to have as a guide through the intricacies of such a complex subject, yet limited to one hours time. The actual library, above the Divinity classroom, is obviously very ancient, with portraits covering the walls and a new cork floor to gently and quietly walk upon.
Mr. Christopher Nichols, our informative guide.

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