The librarian sharing the stories of our medieval past

Alexander Devine is captivated by all things medieval. He’s a librarian at the Parker Library, a stunning collection of early manuscripts at Corpus Christi College. The stories they tell are still being discovered.

Alexander Devine in the Parker Library (Phil Mynott)

Wonderful things happen when you engage with the public. Last autumn a visitor identified a decorative motif on an oak chest as likely to be moonwort. He’d come to see the Library during Open Cambridge and was looking intently at the Billingford Hutch — a massive chest that’s been in the possession of the College since around 1420.

The chest has impressive iron bands and three locks to make its contents secure. Each lock plate has a leaf motif punched into the iron. Our visitor, a botanist, immediately suggested it represented moonwort. According to the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper, moonwort was associated with the opening of locks.

All the time we’re learning more about the Parker Library collection. Thanks to an ambitious digitisation project in collaboration with Stanford University, the Library’s treasures are available online to anyone with access to the internet. This means that scholars all over the world can view and work with every page of every one of our manuscripts.

The Parker Library is the product of a remarkable man. Matthew Parker was born in 1504 in the city of Norwich. He studied at Corpus Christi, becoming chaplain to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. On Henry’s recommendation, Parker was elected Master of Corpus Christi in 1544. He was later appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Elizabeth I.

Matthew Parker lived at a time of huge change. Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic church and Parker embraced the notion of an independent English church. His collection of manuscripts was motivated by the need to give the English church its own distinctive history — one that began not with the Reformation but with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th century.

Our treasures include some of the oldest of all books in English history. People are often amused by the earliest known illustration of Stonehenge, found in a world chronicle written in the late 14th century. According to the text, Merlin flew the stones over from Ireland. Another favourite is Matthew Paris’s drawing of Henry III’s elephant in the Tower of London.

I’ve always felt most at home in book rooms and workshops. As a child I loved stories and making things. Both were encouraged by my parents and grandparents. I assembled Airfix models while listening to audio tapes of Wodehouse and Tolkien. I had a protracted Robin Hood phase and made armfuls of bows and arrows. My granddad introduced me to calligraphy and I learnt the basics of decorative writing and lettering.

Durham, where I grew up, is steeped in history. On our doorstep were Durham’s magnificent Cathedral, built in the 11th century as a shrine to St Cuthbert, and the city’s Norman castle, in addition to Hadrian’s Wall, Hexham Abbey and Alnwick Castle. At weekends we explored other historic places and went hill walking in the Lake District and Northumbria. It gave me a huge enthusiasm for the history of the North.

At school I discovered performance and music. I played Fat Sam in Bugsy Malone, Mr Bumble in Oliver! and Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I learnt flute, recorder and piano, and sang in Durham Cathedral, an experience that gave me a great interest in ancient sacred spaces.

I studied History and English at Edinburgh University. There I discovered the treasures of the National Library of Scotland, including the Iona Psalter, the Murthly Hours and, of course, the famous Auchinleck Manuscript.

I knew I’d be a hopeless academic. But when I worked in Corpus Christi’s libraries as a graduate trainee librarian back in 2008–2009, I realised that a library can also be a classroom — and that I could combine my knowledge of medieval manuscript culture with my enthusiasm for public and scholarly outreach. It was a transformative year.

My goal became a career in libraries working with special collections. The appeal was that I’d be working with the manuscripts and books themselves, showing them to people and sharing their stories, acting as a curator, researcher and teacher rolled into one.

To work with historic collections, I needed a PhD. I did an MPhil at York University’s Centre for Medieval Studies, where I met my wife-to-be. We both got places to do PhDs at the University of Pennsylvania. My research looked at the portable bibles produced in huge numbers during the 13th century. For a while I was a stay-at-home dad and I did my PhD viva on Skype while our newborn son slept close by.

It’s thrilling to be working in Cambridge again. It’s been a big upheaval to move our family — my ever-supportive wife and our rambunctious two-year old son, plus our grumpy cat, from the USA — but it’s absolutely been worth it. Every day when I walk into the Parker Library, I feel proud and privileged to be part of a long history of custodianship.

Parker was a brilliant administrator. On arranging the bequest of his books to Corpus Christi, he laid down a series of conditions to ensure their preservation and security. The books were to be accessible and used, but there was to be an annual audit of the library’s contents.

His strict conditions ensured the future of the collection. According to Parker’s instructions, if the College was found to have lost six large manuscripts, or 12 small ones, his entire bequest was to be transferred to Gonville & Caius College, and if they proved unsuitable caretakers of the collection, Trinity Hall would take possession. Not a single book has been lost.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life interview series.

Inset images (all Corpus Christi College):

Decorative motif of moonwort plant adorning one of three locks securing the Billingford Hutch, medieval loan chest, England, c.1420

The earliest known depiction of Stonehenge in a 14th-century chronicle of universal history called the Scala mundi (CCCC MS 194, fol. 57r)

Matthew Paris’ illustration of the first elephant in England, drawn by the scholar-monk of St Albans c.1255, in the autograph copy of his Chronica maiora (CCCC MS 16.i, fol. iir)

Late-6th century Gospels of St Augustine showing 12 scenes from the Passion of Christ (CCCC MS 286, fol. 125r)

Opening of The Gospel of St John in The Northumbrian Gospels, produced on Lindisfarne c.800 (CCCC MS 197b, fol. 2r)