‘Close’ Encounters – Norwich Cathedral Library Visit 2017

Delegates from all disciplines, departments and CHASE institutions were offered exclusive access to the hallowed shelves of Norwich Cathedral’s library for one afternoon only. Tucked inside the cloister is a collection of liturgical and secular works which have been donated and accumulated over the years by the diocese, with the earliest printed text in this collection dating to 1474. Students were fuelled up on refreshments before being given a selection of materials to look at; Peter Aston’s collection of 18th and 19th century musical scores; 16th and 17th-century early-printed books; a beautifully illuminated frontispiece to a copy of the doomsday account, and a wooden seal box from the 13th century, one of only a handful still extant in the UK.

Clear favourites emerged when the illustrated 1751 edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene was whipped out, proof that even to a contemporary audience, the Spenserian stanza is still very much vibrantly alive. Other works included a first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles from 1577; this was the book that Shakespeare consulted when writing his history plays, and served as a crucial text on the history of England’s invasions and the subsequent monarchs who proceeded to reign up until the sixteenth century. John Lydgate’s verse additions to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a later printed amalgamation of these works proved a welcome way in to talking about editorial license and issues of author legitimacy in a pre-copyright renaissance world. The Arcadia by Philip Sidney provided some welcome pastoral relief, and attendees learnt about printing techniques, woodcuts, and the kinds of attitudes towards newly-emerging print culture in England, from the initial press of Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, through to the burgeoning trade of print shops in the latter half of the 16th century.

Delegates were also given an exclusive chance to look at the Norwich Domesday, a 15th-century copy of a late 13th- century taxation valuation of the diocese which is the only pre-Reformation manuscript remaining at the Cathedral. Its illuminated opening page displayed the real significance of this piece of social history, which was only just saved from the book-burners of Cromwell’s army by the clergy. The Priory’s 13th-century wooden seal box positively creaked with history with its twin sections and six keys containing rare seal matrices.

A welcome and satisfying murmur pervaded the length of the library as each group moved from manuscript, to printed text, to musical score, and the 1913-built shelves, packed with intriguing acquisitions, were the focus of some attention, with students keen to see what else was hidden within the depths. There was a real sense that a historical pilgrimage from the written word (and musical note) to the printed copy had been completed, and that the themes of ‘Space and Time; central to CHASE’s conference had been admirably served by the afternoon’s discoveries.

The cathedral library is open to visitors Tuesday to Thursday 9.30am - 4.30pm and on the first Saturday of the month, 12.30 - 2.30pm. You can find out more about access to the collections by contacting its Librarian and Curator, Gudrun Warren at gwarren@cathedral.org.uk.