By Danny Moran
Founded by Henry VI in 1440 the Eton College Library is home to literary works from all ages offering knowledge and historical insight to the entire student body. In this article we explore the detailed history of this vast collection and how the school has been fortunate enough to utilise these works to inspire learning.
Originally there were only a few manuscripts, some of which the school still have today. However, over the years the school’s collection expanded. These original manuscripts are believed to have been chained to the tables with strong clips and clasps to ensure that the books could only be read in the library. The marks from these chains remain and can still be seen today with small holes on the front of certain manuscripts!
The library which we know today was opened in 1729 after the Provost at the time decided a new library would be beneficial to the College. A new Library required a larger collection, and so the Provost invited people to donate works to the College. By the end of the 18th Century, the new library was full. Before the opening of this library, around 200 Medieval manuscripts were given to the College in 1639 after the passing of Henry Wotton, who was an ambassador in Venice but also a Provost of Eton. Another huge collection came to the school in 1799 from Morris, who became a collector in 1790. Morris, upon his passing, bequeathed his collection to the school. However, this came with certain conditions due to Eton being his third option! In his will, which is kept within the collections, it states that all books must be catalogued and that they should not be sold. To this day, the library still receives donations, and its collections are held in several different locations. There is a room for manuscripts, a modern collection within the tower gallery, and a fortified room where the most precious items (such as the Gutenberg bible) are kept.
But the works therein were not always open to the students. Originally, only the Provost and the Fellows were permitted to peruse the collections. However, the library has grown to become a place of education for the boys. During the first half of the 20th century, the boys were occasionally allowed to visit the library, usually on Sundays with masters and parents. From the 1960s onwards, they were sometimes invited to see display cases, but it has only been in the past few decades that boys have been able to enjoy the library as we do today. Students are now able to view the collections, request to see specific items, and can use the library as a great resource in their studies and free time. The literary works being more readily available allows for the sharing of knowledge which had previously been restricted.
Literature is a vital aspect of human history; it allows for us to communicate with future generations and place our ideas up for debate and improvement. Throughout history, different writing supports such as stone, wood, and bone have been used to enable people to convey their ideas in different forums. It is a naturally human interest and animalistic instinct to want to communicate and share what we have to say - and literature is an excellent vessel through which our passion can be displayed. Papyrus was the first revolutionary writing support; this was created from cutting the papyrus plant, pasting them, and then organising their structures. However, they were quite fragile due the plant base and how it grew along the Nile so were inaccessible to other parts of the world. As a result of this, parchment began to be used widely and rose in popularity. In the Second Century BC, the ruler of Pergamon wanted to produce a library as great as the one seen in Alexandria, so he began to use parchment which had been through a cleaning process to allow people to write on both sides. Many of the manuscripts which used parchment still exist due to its durability in comparison to papyrus, which is limited. However, many notes and writings have been lost due to the expense and time which is taken to produce parchment. Parchment had to be treated through several steps: initially, the parchment would be washed several times, then the hair and flesh side would be removed, and finally the parchment would be hung and stretched. Due to this lengthy process, many people, when finished with their notes, would erase everything by using a knife and scraping off the layer of writing in order to reuse it for a different purpose. If you feel parchment paper today you are still able to feel, due to the hair follicles, and see, due to colour differences from sun exposure, the hair and flesh side of the parchment. Parchment played an integral part in the passing on of information and is still made today in limited quantities.
Parchment production was a time-consuming process so an alternative method had to be created; whilst parchment was not completely abandoned, it was now used in a different way. Around the middle of the 15th century people began experimenting through the printing press. Without the creation of paper in China in 105AD and its subsequent spread throughout Italy and Europe, the printing press would not have been possible to create. Paper was mainly used for printing books with any parchment printed books being very rare due to it only being used for important documents. In around 1450, people began to experiment with the printing of books in a systematic way. Gutenberg made additional steps to the printing process and modified his press for olives. He also used a metallic based ink which was oil based so that the "varnish mix" was able to stay on the paper. Remarkably, the ink used by Gutenberg remains shiny to this day due to its metallic features. Despite being a failure at the time, it is important that this occurred as it led to others to begin printing books throughout the entirety of Europe. However, the paper we know today is not the same which was originally used. Originally, the paper was created through rags and then washed and then lines were composed onto the paper in printing shops. This was a very tedious job and the entire structure of the page had to be in the persons mind due to a plethora of pages being printed at the same time. We can still see issues of this job on the paper of books pre-1830 which have water marks on them. After 1830, printing production became much more industrialised, which meant you could no longer see lines and water marks, and paper was no longer created from cloth but by a fibre plant which we are more familiar with in the modern day.
The Eton College library covers a large period of time and thus deserves to be appreciated. Through it, we are able to explore minds of the past and present and understand the need for communication. It is something to be treasured and respected and a true pride of the College.
I would personally like to thank Dr Carnelos for allowing me to interview her and gain insight into the literary archives and the history of the creation of literature. All images have also been reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College.