22 July 2010

Visiting Nosey Parker in the library at Corpus Christi

Archbishop Matthew Parker (right) at the door of the chapel in Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I visited the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, this morning as part of the programme for this year’s summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

The Parker Library is named after Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575), who was the Master of Corpus Christi 1544 to 1553, before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury (1559-1575). The library is a treasure house of mediaeval and renaissance manuscripts and early printed books. The magnificent collection was given to Corpus Christi College by Parker and among the books and manuscripts we were shown this morning are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the principal source book for early English history; the Northumbrian Gospel (ca 700), which is a century older than the Book of Kells; and the best manuscript of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

The Parker Library ... rebuilt in the 1820s by William Wilkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Other important parts of the collection include Middle English, French and Latin texts on subjects ranging from alchemy and astrology to music and medicine. We were shown an early Greek Psalter from Mount Sinai, letters signed by Martin Luther and John Calvin, and a text from Saint Basil in Greek, transcribed by Melanchton, which shows the interest of the reformers in returning to Patristic sources.

The collection comprises over 600 manuscripts, around 480 of which were given by Parker. The archbishop also donated around 1,000 printed volumes. However, we did not see a sixth-century Gospel book from Canterbury, which is the oldest illustrated Latin Gospel book now in existence. It is still used for the enthronement of each new Archbishop of Canterbury, and is brought to and from Cambridge to Canterbury for this service by the Master and one or two college representatives. Archbishop Rowan Williams has asked to borrow it to show to Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain in September.

Archbishop Parker (right) at the chapel door in Corpus Christi, seen from a window in the Parker Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Archbishop Parker, who is celebrated by the college as its greatest benefactor, was so assiduous in acquiring books and manuscripts that he became known as “Nosey Parker.” He donated his library to the college, along with silver plate and the college symbol, the pelican, which appears on the college coat-of-arms-arms and crops up in many places around the college.

The Pelican of Matthew Parker on the altar frontal in the chapel of Corpus Christi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

To guarantee the integrity and safety of his collection, Parker specified in his endowment that should the college ever lose more than a certain number of books, the rest of his collection would pass first to Gonville and Caius College and then – if there were any more losses – to Trinity Hall.

Is it any wonder that every few years, representatives from both these colleges ceremonially inspect the collection at Corpus for any losses?

Parker placed similar conditions on the silver that he gave to Corpus. To this day, Corpus retains the entirety of Parker’s library and his silver collection, as they could not be sold off, in one case, or melted down, in the other, without losing both collections. Corpus was the only Oxbridge college not to sell its silverware in support of either side during the English civil war, and remained neutral. According to college legend, the silver plate was distributed to the fellows to keep it from being requisitioned by the warring factions.

Corpus Christi traditions

After Peterhouse, Corpus is the second-smallest of the traditional colleges of the university and the smallest in terms of the number of undergraduates. Formally known as the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, this is the only Cambridge college founded by the townspeople of Cambridge: it was established in 1352 by the Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Old Court in Corpus is the oldest of court in any Oxbridge college. The new college acquired all the guild’s lands, ceremonies and revenues, including the annual Corpus Christi procession through the streets to Magdalene Bridge, during which the Eucharistic host was carried by a priest and several of the college’s treasures were carried by the Master and fellows, before returning for an extravagant dinner.

The Old Court in Corpus Christi College is the oldest surviving court in any Oxbridge college (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg says Mass in a corner of the public gardens in Trebizond to mark the Feast of Corpus Christi. After Mass, he holds a procession round the gardens, chanting Ave Verum, stops, preaches a short sermon in English, and says that Corpus Christi is a great Christian festival and holy day, “always kept in the Church of England.”

The procession in Cambridge continued until the Reformation, but in 1535 William Sowode, who was Parker’s predecessor as Master (1523-1544), stopped this tradition. However, the college continues to have a grand dinner on the feast of Corpus Christi.

At first, the college had no chapel, and used Saint Bene’t’s Church next door for worship and liturgies until the beginning of the 16th century. At one time during the Reformation, the college was also known as Saint Bene’t’s ... perhaps in a conscious effort to make a break with the rituals associated with Corpus Christi.

The first college chapel was built by Thomas Cosyn, who was Master from 1487 to 1515, along with a passageway between Old Court and St Bene’t’s Church. The old chapel was demolished to make way for New Court, including the Parker Library, which were designed by William Wilkins and completed in 1827.

The chapel in Corpus Christi College was designed by William Wilkins as a miniature replica of the chapel in King’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The chapel now in New Court is part of the 19th century rebuilding of Corpus Christi. It is the third chapel in the college, and was built as a replica of the chapel in nearby King’s College.

Eagles, ducks and time-eaters

The Eagle ... part of college life in Corpus Christi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The student bar in Corpus is called the Pelican, another living connection with Matthew Parker’s rebus. But Corpus also owns the Eagle Pub nearby, where some of us have adjourned for a drink in the evenings. James Watson and Francis Crick are said to have refreshed themselves in this pub while deliberating over the structure of DNA in the Cavendish Laboratory. On discovering the structure of DNA around 1952, it is said, they walked into the Eagle and declared: “We have found the secret of life.” A plaque on the front of the pub recalls the event.

Each spring, for the last few years, a duck has chosen to lay her eggs amongst the plants in Corpus Christi. This is some 200 metres from the River Cam and across Trumpington Street. When the ducklings hatch and are ready to get to the river, the mother duck signals this by walking around the court quacking loudly.

In a scene that would be the envy of any hotel in the Peabody Group, one of the porters then stops traffic on Trumpington Street to allow the duck and her offspring to cross. Across the street, the porters in Saint Catharine’s College then open their college gates and take over responsibility for getting them safely to the river.

The Chronophage or “Time Eater” at Corpus Christi is accurate only once every five minutes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

When the lease of the National Westminster branch bank adjacent to Corpus on the corner of Trumpington Street and King’s Parade expired five years ago, the college reclaimed the premises and began building Library Court, which was completed in 2008. The building, which has received several awards, is best known for the new clock – the Chronophage – which was unveiled by the physicist Stephen Hawking, on 18 September 2008.

The name Chronophage means “Time Eater.” The clock is unusual not only because of its design but because it is accurate only once every five minutes. A few steps away, the National Westminster night safe is still in the wall – time has failed to eat it.

In any case, it was delightful to spend time in Corpus Christi this morning, being a true Nosey Parker in this unique library.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The name still is "The College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary" but, like many of the full college names, it is rarely used