Friday, 6 April 2018

"Rare Books and Religious History - discovering the Mirfield Collection" a blog by Marios Antoniou, Intern for the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past

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Before I started my placement at the Library of the University of York, I only had a vague knowledge of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church and had never heard of the Community of the Resurrection. The purpose of the placement was to add information for the Rare Books Collection webpages in order to promote the Mirfield Collection to a broader non-academic audience. Before I talk more about the collection I want to provide some context. 

The Oxford Movement began between 1833 and 1841 when a number of high-profile Anglican Church Leaders issued a series of Publications called ‘Tracts for Our Times’ seeking to reform the Church by rituals associated with the Catholic Church. Tractarianism as it came to be called aroused opposition from Low Church Anglicans who viewed these proposals as stealth Catholicism. Over the 19th century there were numerous conflicts about the role of Ritualism in the Church. Tractarian priests were often not supported by their Bishops and experienced poverty. Many became engaged in social work, living in slums and supporting the poor.

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The Community of the Resurrection was founded in Oxford - the epicentre of the Movement - in 1892. The Archives of the Community reveal that the decision to move to Mirfield was taken in 1897 and was driven by a desire to be close to the ‘great industrial centres of the North’. In 1898 the Community of the Resurrection moved from Pusey House, Oxford to Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Out of the first six members of the movement, five were part of the Christian Social Union who were instrumental in fighting poverty. The community was ecumenical and had contacts with religious figures outside the Anglican Church. The Community built a college and had an extensive collection of books which were given to the University of York on a permanent loan - along with the archive - as the Community did not have the facilities to store them. The Rare Books Collection at the University of York contains around 33,000 books and other items. The Mirfield Collection is the largest consisting of approx. 3000 books dating from the 15th century to the 19th century.

During my placement I looked at the Chapter minutes in order to find information about the Community and specifically about the acquisition of the Library. To do so I had to look at 
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microfilms in the Borthwick which recorded the Chapter minutes. It was a new experience as I had never seen a microfilm before. Subsequently I looked at a list that had been created showing book owners, and then at the books themselves. Although most of the catalogue records about the books were lacking information about their owners, a recent project in the library had provided provenance details for 242 of them. 15 of these belonged to women. Although the proportion is quite small it still shows evidence of female ownership of books. The great majority of the books in the provenance list, 207 out of 242 were of a religious theme but the collection also contained non-religious books. It contains treasures such as the second edition of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651), the first edition of A journey to the western islands of Scotland, by Samuel Johnson (1775) and an edition of St. Augustine's De civitate Dei, printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice (1475). 

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About half of the 242 provenance project books (118) are in English while 100 are in Latin and the rest in various European languages such as French and Italian. Although the text of most of these books is available online it is a worthwhile experience to spend time at the Borthwick Institute of Archives consulting the collection. Looking at a book printed many centuries ago, looking at the binding, the font and even smelling the pages is an exhilarating experience.

To arrange to view an item in the Rare Books Collection, please contact the Borthwick Institute

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