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December 15, 2017

Shakespeare, Potter & the Bodleian

On this day in 1602 the refurbished Bodleian Library at Oxford University was officially opened to the public. Sir Thomas Bodley, a wealthy retired diplomat, made it his cause to restore what had been in ruin for a half-century, spending four years and his own and his friends' money to repair buildings and fill bookshelves -- 2000 volumes to start, over 80 miles of books now. Bodley's letters explain that he had had enough of "the mediocrity of worldly living," and knew no better gift to himself, the students of Oxford, and posterity than book collecting. When sending a copy of his Advancement of Learning for inclusion, Francis Bacon praised Bodley for "having built an ark to save learning from the deluge."

Not all were welcome aboard, however. In 1610 Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers' Company to obtain a free copy of each book printed -- the Bodleian is a reference library, the second largest in England after the British Museum Library -- but made it clear that there would be no shelf space for plays or similar works on "very unworthy matters." This policy changed in time, and of the Bodleian's 50,000 manuscripts today there are many theatrical treasures, including some First Folios of Shakespeare, but all purchased long after the free copies had been rejected.

Bodley would no doubt have rejected Harry Potter, by book or film script, and been horrified to hear that those scenes from the movie depicting the library of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were shot in the oldest section of the Bodleian, the Duke Humphrey Library. Nor would the Duke have been amused. He was one of the first to help finance and stock the Bodleian in its earlier incarnation, in the first half of the 15th century -- this was decades before the library was allowed or forced into ruin and needed Bodley's rescue. He was the youngest son of Henry IV, and though "good Duke Humphrey" for his patronage to learning, a little ambitious on the political side. He and his second wife, Eleanor of Cobham, were caught (or at least accused of) practicing Macbeth -- style witchcraft in order to take over the throne. The Duke hanged for it and Eleanor was banished to the Isle of Man, after first being humiliated by a parade of penance, as she describes here in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2:
    Methinks I should not thus be led along,
    Mail'd up in shame, with papers on my back,
    And followed with a rabble that rejoice
    To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.
    The ruthless flint doth cut my tender feet,
    And when I start, the envious people laugh
    And bid me be advised how I tread.
    Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke?....

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