MA Renaissance and MA Medieval Studies Students Visit the British Library

This post was contributed by Nuria Gisbert, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies

BL_BOOKSBirkbeck’s MA Renaissance and MA Medieval Studies students visited the British Library to familiarise themselves with the institution and its various collections. Prior to the visit, all students had to obtain a reader’s pass.

At one of the library’s seminar rooms, we were made very welcome by two members of the Rare Books and Music Reference Team, Christian Algar and Qona Bright. The Rare Books collection contains pre-1851 items, and is rich in incunabula and post-incunabula. The British Library holds over 12,500 incunabula, one of the largest collections in the world.

The Rare Books and Music Reference Team is composed of six members in total, and offers help and advice to students and scholars with their research, and with using the library’s extensive collections. The team can help with obtaining access to restricted items, offers specific pre-arranged research advice, and much more. The British Library’s Humanities section is particularly large, so navigating it properly can be difficult without some prior catalogue research knowledge.

Once we were all sitting comfortably within the seminar room, Mr Algar gave us an introduction to the institution’s history, and an explanation on how to use its many catalogues and research resources (both print and electronic). The British Library holds several reading rooms, where books may be pre-ordered online and then collected for perusal.

He had also organised an amazing display of unique manuscript and print books relevant to our fields of study. The titles displayed were impressively unusual in many respects, and offered fantastic insight into the period running from the late Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe.

The display included 15th– to 17th-century texts, portraying the shift or transition from manuscripts to printed books. It had additionally been chosen around a specific and very interesting theme: the consequences of power on languages and texts. Students were able to look at and handle most of the titles, which was a fabulous experience, especially with the oldest manuscripts.

To illustrate the effects of power on language development, Mr Algar gave us a short history talk on Cornish texts, and how the language did not make it from a hearing to a reading public, gradually disappearing due to the Tudor regime’s official standardisation and imposition of the English language throughout the country. Some of the books on display were either written in Cornish (including translated sermons), or were Cornish stories and legends that had been translated into English.

We were also able to look at different editions and versions of the Decameron, both in manuscript and printed format. A particularly interesting printed copy in Latin included hand-written margin annotations (presumably made by its owner). These lengthy notes corrected and explained passages that had been amended by the Catholic Church in the printed version. Any passages referring to the clergy or the Church had been removed from the printed version, as these were considered harmful to the dignity of that institution.

Regarding the British Library’s manuscript collection, 80% of these items are readily available for research, whilst others require special access and a letter from an institution. A small number of manuscripts are rated as highly restricted, mostly illustrated medieval volumes, and are best perused using the Library’s online digital version. These restricted items include 15th-century British books, which need special care and conservation for obvious heritage conservation reasons.

The visit, including the lecture and book display, were an absolute success with Birkbeck’s MA students. It will be extremely useful for our studies and future research to be able to access the British Library’s unparalleled collection of books and journals. Special thanks are also due to Mr Algar for preparing such a practical introduction to researching the collection, and for his illuminating talk on the effects and consequences of State and/or Church power and control on languages and the written text.


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