The late 16th and early 17th Centuries saw the peak of ‘witch hysteria’ in Europe. Paranoia surrounding ideas about sorcery and demons led to accusations, trials and cruel punishments, including tens of thousands of executions. This month’s blog post explores the literature that fuelled this phenomenon: as texts that condemened or seemingly provided evidence for witchcraft circulated, feelings of panic and suspicion also spread. The following texts reveal not only the literature and academic ideas regarding witchcraft, but the real impact they would have had on ordinary lives.
From the founding of St John’s College in 1555 through to the present day, the life of the Library has been one of bold choices and big changes. Our current exhibition, Stories from the Shelves, explores the Library and its readers throughout the ages using items from our special collections.
Here you can see a few of the treasures on display. Click on the images to read about the item.
Due to their value, books in the Old Library were originally chained to the shelves. To prevent the chains from becoming tangled, the books were shelved with their foredges rather than their spines facing the reader. This volume of Erasmus dates from 1548. While its chain may potentially not have come from St John’s College Library itself, it illustrates how a book in the Old Library would have originally looked and been used.
The Benefactors’ Book documents books given to the Library across the 17th and 18th centuries. This text offers an insight into the College’s relationships with donors and the movement of literary material across the period. The beautiful presentation of the records celebrates the Library’s collections and honours the act of collecting.
David Loggan’s Oxiana Illustrata (1675) provides us with beautiful illustrations of the Colleges of the University of Oxford. Here we can see St John’s College – the figures going about their daily lives give us a sense of an active, working College
Among the Laudian Library’s curiosities was a pair of skeletons, donated by John Speed, the first anatomy lecturer at St John’s College. The two skeletons stood either side of the doorway at the far end of the Laudian Library in specially designed folding cases, until they were later transferred to the University’s Anatomy School. Speed provided descriptions and drawings in this text (Σκελετòς πολυκινητός, est. 1630) explaining how the skeletons were put together.
Although there is no official record, there was seemingly a fire in the Laudian Library during the 19th century in which a number of texts were damaged. The Library holds several editions of Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first world atlas ever published: the Library’s only first edition, however, is among the burned fragments.
One of very few early Chinese books owned by the Library, this 18th-century edition of the Kangxi Dictionary sheds light on the Library’s role within an increasingly global field of research and collection. Not only has the item itself travelled to Oxford, it generated interest and cooperation from one of the first Chinese travellers to England, Wang-y-Tong. When visiting St John’s College, he allegedly viewed and correctly arranged the volumes, which were previously out of order.
If you would like to visit the exhibition and are not a member of the College, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.