New College has the largest collection of manuscript books remaining in situ of all Oxford’s medieval colleges. The Founder himself made a magnificent original donation, almost two hundred and fifty books, of which around thirty remain. Over the centuries, many more manuscripts were added to the Library collection by gift or bequest, and in 1624, when the catalogue was compiled on which the modern numeration is based, there were two hundred and ninety-five. The total number today is some four hundred books, ranging in date from the eleventh to the twentieth century. There are giant bibles and some precious illuminated manuscripts, alongside shelves of scruffier books that are none the less of great textual significance; there is a large cache of splendid Italian books, mostly collected in Florence by a Fellow in the 1440s; there are many Greek books left to the College by Cardinal Pole, a handful of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts, something in Burmese, a Chinese block-book, and four volumes of autograph papers left by Sir Isaac Newton. Over three quarters of the collection comprise manuscripts in Latin or Greek, with five times as many Latin as Greek manuscripts.
The collection in its current state is not adequately catalogued. New College was included in the union catalogue of all Oxford college manuscripts prepared by H.O. Coxe in the mid-nineteenth century (published in 1852). Coxe’s manuscript descriptions, consisting of little more than a short-title listing of contents, are not sufficient for modern purposes (nor does his survey include those forty-six manuscripts that were received after his time). While most of Oxford’s medieval foundations have now addressed this problem through their publication of new, modern catalogues, New College still hides its light. To remedy the lack, a cataloguing project has now begun.
In certain ways, the New College catalogue will innovate. Chiefly, where it is the normal practice to catalogue only the medieval manuscripts, treating them as a discrete collection independent of the rest — even if that should mean the omission of material from numbered sequence — and we intend to catalogue all of the manuscripts held by the College, not only those of interest to medievalists dealing in western European languages. There is intended to be an entry in our catalogue for every numbered manuscript, and we will consider for inclusion certain ‘archive’ items obviously within the conceptual ambit of a manuscript collection, as opposed to an institutional archive. The historical unity of the Library and the diverse patterns of donation and acquisition that have made it what it is over more than six centuries, will be an educative feature of the catalogue; it represents a new approach.
The catalogue is being compiled by Dr James Willoughby (Research Fellow), with close help from Dr Will Poole (Fellow Librarian).
Since a new catalogue of the New College manuscripts has been commissioned and will include post-medieval, it was thought prudent to look carefully at the items allocated a manuscript number after Coxe’s catalogue was published in 1852 (from MS345 onwards) as some were clearly printed, separated from another collection, photographic, or even just typescript. Therefore, some items have now been relocated into other collections and the remaining volumes re-numbered where necessary.
Though out-dated and incomplete, an online version of Coxe’s Catalogus codicum MSS. Collegii Novi (1852) provides for the time being a searchable brief listing of most of New College Library’s manuscripts.