To be honest, though for most of my adult life I’ve lived less than twenty minutes away from the Bodleian Library, I haven’t spent a great deal of time in its reading rooms – or even using its collections. When younger, I preferred my Oxford college library, and even then, I disliked reading, working and writing in the company of others. The Internet was made for people like me. But I have had some splendid times in the Bod. Perhaps the most fun was an occasion when I was part of a gang that included Philip Pullman, Tracy Chevalier, some other local writers and a posse of librarians. (What is the collective noun for a group of librarians? A reading of librarians? A research of librarians? A shelf? A cabinet?)
This was before the superb renovation of the New Bodleian on the Broad, and we were allowed to go into the tunnels that joined Old to New, and to the Radcliffe Camera. We were shown the stacks, including shelf after shelf of embargoed Mss and letters – I’m trying hard to remember which excited me most. Maybe Ted Heath’s papers? We understand that the police or security people have recently been sorting through these, as part of the daft witch hunt that was being carried out against the probably sexless former Prime Minister. (See the Ethiopian eunuch, below.) I think this might have been before Alan Bennett gave his papers to the Bodleian in 2008, but I’m certain they’re pretty gripping, too.
In his supremely wonderful illustrated book, Bodleian Library Treasures, David Vaisey, Bodley’s Librarian from 1986 -1996, cites Sir Thomas Bodley’s founding aim in 1598. He wanted his endowment to create “A Treasure…and a singular ornament for the University.” With 11 million volumes and 150 miles of shelving, the Bodleian has more than lived up to his ambitions for it. In addition, it is a copyright library, where publishers must donate a copy of any book in which they wish to establish copyright. Over the centuries Bodley’s Librarians have pursued an acquisitions policy that has resulted in some near-miraculous finds, discoveries and gifts, as recorded in this gorgeous, thought-provoking book.
The Laudian Acts is the Ms of the Acts of the Apostles, the most important biblical Ms in the Bod, written in Latin and Greek in parallel columns. The illustration is the Ethiopian eunuch’s “confession of faith,” where he says he believes in the divinity of Jesus, a controversial matter at the time. In Acts 8 he is supposed to have said this to Philip the Evangelist, who was forewarned by an angel, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza – whereupon Philip baptized the eunuch, but was himself bodily whisked away by the Spirit of the Lord. I didn’t know (or had skipped or forgotten) this passage, which is very worth studying, as Acts 8:27, says the eunuch was the head of the treasury of Queen Candace of the Ethiopians. As an official of the court, he was probably literally a eunuch. This led to much subsequent and amusing controversy, which has lasted to the present day, about his pre-conversion religion. Was he a black Jew? The trouble is that Deut 23:1 means that a castrated male could not have worshipped in the Temple (i.e., been Jewish) and also, for the same reason, could not have been a “proselyte,” a full convert to Judaism. He might have been a non-Jewish monotheist (a “godfearer”), and so occupy a position midway between Jew and gentile, but the majority opinion from Eusebius to Martin Luther was that he must have been a gentile because he was an Ethiopian – which runs into slight trouble because Acts says Cornelius was the first gentile to be baptized a Christian. John J. McNeill suggests that, as Matthew 19:12 uses “eunuch” in a metaphorical, non-literal sense, perhaps the “Ethiopian eunuch” was actually “the first baptized gay Christian.” Entertaining though this is, such speculation is, of course, outside David Vaisey’s brief.
But it shows how nearly every “treasure” he includes has had some far-reaching consequence for civilization.
The object that was “A book no one in Oxford could read” in 1603 was the Bodleian’s first Chinese book, which turned out to be “chapters 4-6 of the Analects of Confucius with the whole of Mencius, and is part of a cheap edition of the ‘Four Books’ (Si shu) of Confucius printed from blocks at Chien-yang in Fu-chien province during the Wanli period – the last quarter of the sixteenth century.” The importance of this is that Sir Thomas Bodley, had he known what it was, would almost certainly have classified it by analogy with one of the “baggage books” he loathed, because they were cheap European productions. “Ironically,” says Vaisey, “books such as this one, because they were not collected, are now very rare.”
Thereby hangs my tale. Even so late as the time of China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, China had very few printed recipes. The formulas for preparing dishes, even in restaurants, were transmitted orally, from master chef to apprentice cook. In the late 60s, most of the chefs of China’s best restaurants were banished, as bourgeois lackeys, and made to work in the fields. By 1976, a good many of these top chefs were in their seventies and eighties; they had no apprentices for about 10 years, their recipes had not been passed on to another generation of cooks, and so it was urgent to capture their recipes in writing. Chinese publishing houses embarked on a sort of emergency programme to retain this knowledge.
In 1980, I went to China in the company of Alan Davidson, the founder of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, and the author of the million-word tome, The Oxford Companion to Food, and Caroline Hobhouse, a well-known British editor of cookery books. We were part of an “official” delegation of nutritionists and environmental scientists. The three of us made it a point, when in any large city that housed a publisher, to go to them in a taxi, and inquire whether they published any cookery titles.
In this fashion Davidson and I acquired a collection of the first cookery books in the Chinese language. Like Sir Thomas Bodley, we were ignorant of the language and could not read the books. Worse, when Alan died, many or most of his books were sold at auction by Bloomsbury, and when I went to view them, it was evident that most of them were being sold as uncatalogued, mixed lots, packed into boxes. This included many volumes of the first Chinese cookery books, in their unassuming paperback livery – despite the fact that there are unlikely to be copies in any British library, including the British Library. I doubt if any of the new owners of the Davidson mixed lots had any idea of their rarity or value; and expect most of them have by now made their way to Oxfam shops. Do not, however, despair. Alan and I each bought a copy of every book. Now, if only I could remember where I put them.