Words on Witchcraft

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.

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The Texts of the Reformation

The 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a text that sparked the Reformation. The movement was entwined with the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, allowing the rapid spread of texts such as pamphlets and vernacular Bibles. As such, it is a historical moment of shift in terms of reading, writing and literacy, as well as fascinating texts. Continue reading

Scandinavia in the Special Collections

This month, we gather together a number of different items which share a northern theme: twentieth-century cartoons, seventeenth-century astronomy, nineteenth-century literature, sixteenth-century history, eighteenth-century exploration, and a seventeenth-century Bible.

Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [Description of the Northern people], Olaus Magnus (1550) ∑.2.14

Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) was a Swedish writer and Archbishop of Uppsala, and this book was his magnus opus. With over 800 pages of Latin text – and littered with pleasing woodcut prints – Magnus systematically makes an effort to describe the people and the land in full. He writes on religion, law, government, lifestyle, food, wildlife, mythology and more.

The woodcut prints cover a similar range of subjects. The examples shown below include a rendering of a runic alphabet, depictions of a giant, a bear dancing with a woman, a battle between an army of cranes and an army of dwarfs, a King, and Norwegian seamonsters.

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Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1667), and Lectures and Collections (1678)

The works of Robert Hooke are well preserved at St John’s College Library with the library holding copies of 17th-century publications of Hooke’s work on microscopy, observations of comets, and the proposition of his eponymous law of elasticity.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was renowned in his day for being an early member of the Royal Society – for which he was, at various points of time, curator of experiments, member of the council, and secretary – and for being a leading figure in 17th-century science, working closely with the likes of Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Over time his reputation slipped somewhat, and there was a tendency to consider him, in the words of biographer Lisa Jardine, “the man who almost made great discoveries, now tied to the names and enduring fame of others”. More recently his character and the range of his contributions have attracted some interest.

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Mamusse wunneetupanatamwe up-biblum God (the Massachusett Bible), 1661-1663

St John’s College library has a copy of the first Bible published in America. It is written in the Massachusett dialect of Algonquian, a Native American language which missionary John Eliot learnt in part of his attempt to convert the Massachusett people to Christianity and literacy.


The title page of St John’s library’s copy of the Massachusett Bible, with ownership marks visible at the top of the page showing the book as a gift from a student of St John’s College in 1666.

In 1663, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Samuel Green published John Eliot’s Massachusetts Bible, the first Bible ever published in America. Although there had been printing press established much earlier in Mexico City (1539) and Lima (1584), where over 1,000 documents (several in native languages) had been printed before Samuel Green’s press arrived on the scene, they printed no full Bible. John Eliot’s Bible is written entirely in Massachusett, in a manner devised by Eliot using the Latin alphabet. Massachusett is a dialect within the larger sub-family of Algonquian languages– most of which have been extinct now for over 50 years. The Massachusett Bible is a translation of the Geneva Bible and was produced primarily as an evangelistic device by Eliot to convert the Massachusett people to Christianity.

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Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

In St John’s College Library’s Special Collections there are four copies of Ortelius’s world atlases. These were the first attempts at mapping the known world in its entirety which demonstrate a balance between striving for accurate cartography and presenting the wondrous elements of the distant world.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)

From Antwerp, Brussels, Ortelius was part of the world-renowned Dutch-Flemish school of cartographers. Over his lifetime he worked as an engraver, geographer, cartographer and book trader but he is most well known as the creator of the first world atlas – the first edition of which was published in 1570. Interestingly, Ortelius may also be the first person in history to have formally presented the basic theory of continental drift in his discussion of the ‘matching’ coastlines of Africa, Europe, and South America. It is fitting that his interests covered not only the revolutions in the scientific geography of which he was a primary innovator but also historical geography: his early works include detailed maps of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.


 Abraham Ortelius, 1579, Wikimedia Commons

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Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Westminster: William Caxton, c. 1483)

Early printed books form a significant part of the library’s Special Collections, and this particular item contains an illustrated second edition of one of the most famous works of middle English literature, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is thought to have been published in 1483 by William Caxton, famous for being the first English printer, and is the only known complete copy of this version of the text. According to the preface, the reason for the existence of this volume was a complaint from a man, whose father owned an accurate manuscript of the work, that Caxton’s first edition, printed around 1476, was incomplete. The second edition was therefore produced using this manuscript.

Section of printing in the book  (Image from www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/385/Library-and-Archives.html)

Section of printing in the book (Image from http://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/385/Library-and-Archives.html)

The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s most famous work, estimated to have been written between 1390 and 1400 (the year of his death). Consisting of a Prologue followed by the tales told by various characters making the pilgrimage to Canterbury, it is both highly regarded for its literary merit, such as its use of multilayered narrative, and enjoyed for its bawdy and even puerile humour. A typical example of the latter element can be seen in The Summoner’s Tale, where the title character relates an angry incident between a friar and his acquaintance, claiming that the latter: ‘Full in the friar’s hand he let a fart, / And no carthorse that ever drew a cart / Ever let out a fart as thunderous’.

The book is illustrated with hand-coloured woodcuts, which depict each pilgrim travelling to Canterbury on horseback, to accompany the appropriate tale. Some illustrations feature multiple times throughout the text, due to the reuse of the woodcuts.

Woodcut illustration of the Wife of Bath

Woodcut illustration of The Wife of Bath (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

Other works have been bound with The Canterbury Tales to form a composite volume; these are Troilus & Criseyde (c. 1482), also by Chaucer, John Mirk’s Quattuor Sermones (1483); and a manuscript of The Siege of Thebes by John Lydgate (MS 266). The book was originally owned by Roger Thorney, a London merchant, before it later came into the possession of Sir William Paddy. Paddy was one of King James I’s personal physicians and a major benefactor to the library (his portrait is displayed at the end of the Old Library), who donated the volume to the college. No date is given in the provenance note, but most of the Paddy bequest was received either in 1602 when he resided in the Front Quadrangle of St John’s, or after his death in 1634. It is therefore reasonable to date the acquisition of this item to the early 17th century.


N. F. Blake, ‘Caxton, William (1415×24–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4963, accessed 30 June 2014]

Douglas Gray, ‘Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5191, accessed 30 June 2014]

Rachel McDonald (Graduate Trainee 2012-2013), ‘‘The Paths that Sinners Tread’: Tracking the Seven Deadly Sins through the Special Collections of St John’s College Library’ Exhibition Handlist