Colonial Connections of the Early Bodleian Library

Book open at a map of the world
Jean Matal’s atlas from 1600: America, sive Novus orbis, tabulis æneis delineatus. I. Matalius. Shelfmark: H 7.2(3) Art.

by Dr Anna-Lujz Gilbert

When Thomas Bodley re-founded Oxford University’s library in 1598, he knew he would need the help of a “great store of honourable friends” for the project to be a success. He asked people he knew to donate to the Library and, as an encouragement, he had the names of donors written into an ornate Register of Benefactors.  Shaping Scholarship is an AHRC-funded project at UCL, in collaboration with the Bodleian, which uses that Benefactors’ Register to examine cultures of library donation in early seventeenth-century England, and their impact on the Bodleian’s book collections. The early Bodleian Library had many colonial connections, and the public database of the early donations to the Library (c. 1600–1620) which we are producing for this project will help further research in this area.

Page of the Benefactor's Book of the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library Records b. 903, Registrum Donatorum, the Benefactors’ Register

The Bodleian Library was established at a time when England was striving to become an imperial power. Many of the Library’s donors were statesmen, civil servants, soldiers, and courtiers—the kinds of people who were likely to be involved in overseas affairs of different kinds. Some donors were directly involved in colonial activities, such as Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?-1618), who led expeditions to the Americas, and who gifted the library £50 in 1603 (worth over £8,000 today). Others were involved in these activities from afar. Donor Sir Walter Cope (1553?–1614), for example, invested in and energetically raised funds for new merchant companies set up to promote international trade through colonising practices. Companies like the Virginia Company, which established England’s first North American colonies, made substantial losses. To raise money for these colonial ventures, they presented investment as a public-spirited act for the good of the nation. This context can inform how we understand donation to the early Bodleian Library as a similarly public-spirited act.

Overseas conquest, as well as trade and embassy, facilitated the movement of books into the Library. In the 1610s, for example, the Bodleian acquired a manuscript catechism  which had been produced by Jesuits in Brazil to help convert indigenous people. It was written in Tupi, a now extinct indigenous language. [See an online edition of this manuscript at the link here.] It was gifted to the Bodleian by English author Thomas Lodge, who had taken it from a Jesuit library during an English raid on a Portuguese settlement in Brazil. [see footnote 1]  (Lodge’s gift was, however, considered to be too small to be included in the Benefactors’ Register).

Exploration and colonisation helped to expand Western knowledge, and this was reflected in the content of some of the books purchased by the Bodleian. The 1603 gift of Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, for instance, paid for the acquisition of Jean Matal’s [Johannes Matalius] atlas of the world with its new maps of America.

The Bodleian collected books in non-European languages in the hope that these too would be used to advance Western knowledge, even if, for some of these languages, there was no-one in England who could read them at the time.

By looking at who was donating to the early Bodleian Library and what books were acquired, we can ask how this seventeenth-century project to encompass knowledge was aligned with English and wider European activities to compass the globe itself. Lines of enquiry include examining the colonial activities of donors, the acquisition of books produced outside of Europe, and the kinds of knowledge represented in the books acquired.

footnote 1: See: Vivien Kogut Lessa de Sá and Caroline Egan, ‘Translation and prolepsis: the Jesuit origins of a Tupi Christian doctrine,’ in Cultural Worlds of the Jesuits in Colonial Latin America, edited by Linda A. Newson (London: University of London Press, 2020), 189–206.

Anna-Lujz Gilbert is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Shaping Scholarship’ project at UCL. For this project, she is leading the construction of a database of donations made to the Bodleian Library in its first twenty years, c. 1600–1620, which will be published as a free online resource. Her wider research interests are in the movement to establish semi-public libraries in early modern England.

For more information about the Shaping Scholarship project, see the project website at: 

This blogpost is one of a series exploring the Bodleian’s colonial and imperial connections, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project in 2022-24.