Award of the papal legate

Award of the papal legate

Oxford has been a home to scholars for over 800 years. This is the oldest document in the University Archives, issued in June 1214 to protect the university and its members after a violent episode of …

Book of curiosities

Book of curiosities

‘Marvellous watermelons’ and trees bearing humans on legendary islands in the Indian Ocean are curiosities presented here from the edges of the known world. This manuscript also contains unique maps i …

Toby the sapient pig

Toby the sapient pig

Toby took London by storm in 1817. His trainer, former magician Nicholas Hoare, penned the pig’s autobiography to sell for a shilling at his shows: ‘By the time I was four months old, I could read tol …

A scene at an Oxford book auction

A scene at an Oxford book auction

This painting in oil on canvas offers a rare glimpse into the sale-rooms of Oxford in the 18th century. Auctions of books are recorded in the city from 1686, at several locations. While catalogues men …

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

‘Oxford taught me to value humankind’, said the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on receiving her honorary Doctorate of Civil Law in 2012. She had studied here in the 1960s, and catalogued Burmes …

Purple and gold psalter

Purple and gold psalter

The gold ink on this psalter, made brilliant on parchment dyed with the murex shell, is worthy of a book for an emperor. Charlemagne (742-814) owned several such manuscripts, but this one was made at …

Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajnāparamitā (Perfection of wisdom in 8,000 verses)

Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajnāparamitā (Perfection of wisdom in 8,000 verses)

The Buddha addresses the Hindu deity Indra, one of several scenes illustrating his life in this early Mahayana Buddhist philosophical text. These illustrated manuscripts were treated as objects of wor …

An illuminated bestiary

An illuminated bestiary

Pursuing her stolen cub, the tiger pictured here is tricked into thinking her reflection in a glass thrown by the thief is her cub. She is further fooled by a second glass, which she tries to suckle, …

Sarus crane

Sarus crane

Mary Impey, an amateur natural historian, collected birds and wild animals at her colonial residence in Bengal. She commissioned Mughal artists to produce some 200 paintings of them, providing an impo …

Dulce et decorum est

Dulce et decorum est

This draft of ‘Dulce et decorum est’ shows Owen composing the lines of his great anti-war poem which graphically describes the horror of a gas attack. He died serving in France, at the age of 25. The …

Mary Shelley, draft of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, draft of Frankenstein

To fill the days of a wet summer in Geneva, Mary Godwin began to compose her novel on Victor Frankenstein’s creation. This single leaf from one of two draft notebooks includes her revisions, and those …

Frost fair souvenir

Frost fair souvenir

This souvenir was printed on the Thames, after it froze on Christmas Day 1739. A fair on the ice offered an ox roast, bear-baiting, skating, a children’s roundabout, toyshop, goldsmiths, turners, mill …

Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Kafka’s Metamorphosis opens with a man waking to find himself turned into a monstrous insect. This is the original manuscript of one of the few works that appeared in print in Kafka’s lifetime (first …

J.R.R. Tolkien, drawing from The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien, drawing from The Hobbit

Tolkien imagined his fantasy world in words and pictures, producing numerous illustrations of the landscapes and creatures of Middle Earth. This is one of five watercolours he painted for the first Am …

Astronomicum Caesareum

Astronomicum Caesareum

Apian sought to make astronomy easy, in this lavish book for royal patrons. He reduced complex astronomical computation to simple mechanics with the aid of paper volvelles – those pictured are for Mar …

Gough Map

Gough Map

This is the earliest surviving map to show Britain’s outline in a recognizable form, oriented with east at the top. It is also the first to mark routes across Britain and to supply distances between s …

Chanson de Roland

Chanson de Roland

Knowing that death is near, Roland tries to break his sword Durendal, so that it cannot be used by the enemy. The great epic of early French literature is shown here in its oldest surviving manuscript …

Women’s suffrage souvenirs

Women’s suffrage souvenirs

These are two of several examples of unofficial souvenirs printed by Mrs S Burgess, commemorating key protests and rallies from the campaign for women’s right to vote. The floral borders and portraits …

Holst’s Planets

Holst’s Planets

Holst had developed an interest in astrology, and described his orchestral masterpiece as dealing with the ‘seven influences of destiny and constituents of our spirit’. He composed this first movement …

Charles I’s request

Charles I’s request

Bodley’s Librarian John Rouse proved a most determined guardian of the Bodleian’s books. In 1645, he received a note from Charles I asking to borrow a world history by the French poet and chronicler A …

Ordnance Survey map

Ordnance Survey map

This and three other sheets covering Kent are the first maps issued by the Ordnance Survey for public use. The outbreak of war with France in 1793 prompted a defensive need for accurate maps of sensit …

Talbot photographs of Oxford

Talbot photographs of Oxford

Talbot found the architecture of Oxford highly suitable for his new photographic techniques, noting ‘the number of picturesque points of view seems almost inexhaustible’. The view of Queen’s College w …

Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on penicillin

Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on penicillin

Nearly 300 years after Hooke, Hodgkin employed X-ray crystallography to determine the chemical structure (the arrangement of atoms and bonds) of minute biochemical substances. She records her first aw …

Bay Psalm Book

Bay Psalm Book

In contrast with the purple psalter alongside, the ‘Bay Psalm Book’ – the first book printed in North America – was an inexpensive, modestly produced book for personal use, small enough to be easily p …

Conference of the birds

Conference of the birds

Attar’s birds journey in search of a king, an allegory of the Divine known as the Simurgh, shown here with an elaborate tail. When the birds find their king, they see themselves: in achieving a vision …

Shikshapatri

Shikshapatri

Swaminarayan, a reforming Hindu leader, wrote these moral and spiritual codes for everyday life in 1826. They were to be read, heard or venerated daily. He gave this copy to the Governor of Bombay, Si …

Kafka’s Dick

Kafka’s Dick

Kafka has been brought back to life, and finds out on these pages that he is a famous author, with 564 entries in the Bodleian Library catalogue. At the start of the play, as in real life, his friend …

Disraeli meets Queen Victoria

Disraeli meets Queen Victoria

Disraeli here recounts his first meeting with Queen Victoria, on becoming Prime Minster on 27 February 1868. He wrote this letter to his private secretary Montagu Corry, and sent an almost identical o …

Earliest surviving book printed in Oxford

Earliest surviving book printed in Oxford

The Expositio in symbolum apostolorum is the earliest book to survive from Oxford’s first press, established by a German printer in the 1470s. The omission of an ‘x’ in the date, printed as M.cccc.lxv …

Milton’s ode to Bodley’s Librarian

Milton’s ode to Bodley’s Librarian

Milton sent this copy of his poems to the Bodleian in 1646, with a handwritten Latin ode to the Librarian John Rouse. Books, Milton says, are nobler treasures than gold, and he hopes for a secure futu …

Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech

Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech

This speech was instrumental in Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power. Geoffrey Howe was her longest serving Cabinet minister, but his pro-European position left him with an irreconcilable conflict of l …

Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame

Grahame was brought up in Oxford, but his family had no money to send him to the University. He became Secretary of the Bank of England, and established himself as a writer. Best remembered for The Wi …

Magna Carta

Magna Carta

These are original engrossments of the 1217 issue of the Great Charter, sent by the royal chancery to Oxfordshire. Henry III, who was ten years old and too young to put his own seal to it, reissued th …

Poppy

Poppy

These are some of the finest illustrations of British plants ever published. They are drawn from living specimens grown at Bermondsey and Lambeth Marsh. Trained as an apothecary, Curtis emphasizes ide …

‘Caedmon’ manuscript

‘Caedmon’ manuscript

The striking gestures depicted in this rare survival of Old English poetry may be traceable back to those of the Roman stage. Here God, who holds open a door at the centre of Noah’s ark, indicates ‘tw …

Plato’s Phaedo

Plato’s Phaedo

This is the oldest surviving manuscript (discounting papyrus fragments) of around half of Plato’s dialogues. The Phaedo, also known as On the Soul, makes a central claim for the soul’s immortality, an …

Scraps

Scraps

Treasures lie hidden in otherwise unremarkable bindings. Beneath the covers of many bindings from the 15th to 18th centuries are fragments of books thrown out as redundant or dangerous, recycled as sc …

Oscar Wilde’s bill and summons

Oscar Wilde’s bill and summons

This bill offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of Oscar Wilde during his student days at Oxford. Spiers & Son’s shop on the High Street provided him with 14 packs of playing cards over two years, a …

The Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible

The ‘Gutenberg Bible’ epitomises the great advances made in printing technology in the 15th century. It is the first substantial book to be printed from individual pieces of metal type. This flexible …

Jewels

Jewels

Precious metals and stones, antique cameos, enamel and ivory work, and lavish embroidery adorn the covers of these religious books, the value of the texts within marked by the value of the binding tha …

Two concepts of liberty

Two concepts of liberty

Berlin introduced his famous distinction between negative and positive liberty at this inaugural Oxford lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory. After fleeing from Riga and witnes …

Copperplates of the Americas

Copperplates of the Americas

A set of printing plates brought to light in the Bodleian in the 1980s poses something of a mystery. They are perhaps those to which William Byrd asked the naturalist Mark Catesby in 1737 to add figur …

The lives of exemplary women

The lives of exemplary women

The figures chosen for this series of biographies demonstrate the good and bad effects that a woman could have on prominent dynasties. The Widow of Tao Ying of Lu avoids the unwanted attention of a su …

Micrographia

Micrographia

The Micrographia is the first book in English to illustrate observations made under the microscope. Hooke had to ply the ant with brandy to keep it still long enough for him to draw. It obliged for an …

Alchemical roll

Alchemical roll

The humanoid figures in these flasks illustrate the idea that life could be generated from putrefaction. The child-like homunculus, endowed with special knowledge and powers, was said to generate from …

Map of Narnia

Map of Narnia

Lewis drew this map of Narnia, but, unlike Tolkien, left the illustration of his books to a professional artist. Pauline Baynes was introduced to him by Tolkien, and redrew the map for Prince Caspian …

Lyric poems by Sappho

Lyric poems by Sappho

One of the earliest personal voices of world literature, Sappho here celebrates love and beauty as greater than all the armies of Homer. Her poetry was all but lost for nearly two millennia, her reput …

Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Charles Dodgson and his illustrator John Tenniel no doubt saw the ‘Caedmon’ manuscript on display in the Bodleian (it appears in an exhibits list of 1868). The figural style of its illustrations with …