The British Library is, by number of items cataloged, the largest library in the world, and is the national library of the United Kingdom. In 1973, it was established as an entity separate from the British Museum, and the bulk of its founding collections were taken from the museum’s holdings.
One of these founding collections is the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), an antiquarian, bibliophile, and Member of Parliament. According to historyofinformation.com, Cotton began collecting in 1588, when he was about seventeen years old. He amassed what is now considered to be one of the greatest private collections of manuscripts in English history, which included the Lindisfarne Gospels, two copies of Magna Carta, and the Nowell Codex,* which includes the only known manuscript copy of Beowulf. Cotton “developed a particular interest in manuscripts concerning the early history of England, manuscripts which he himself put to scholarly use and which he liberally made available to contemporaries who shared his interest. In the spirit of the national enthusiasm of the late Elizabethan period, Cotton regarded this granting of access as an important public duty” (Graham, p. 10). The collection finally contained nearly 1,000 manuscripts and remained in the private library of the Cotton family until 1700, when it was willed to the English nation.
The House of Commons members entrusted with its care moved it first from the by then somewhat ramshackle Cotton House, first to Essex House in 1722, then to Ashburnham House, which was deemed safer (Kiernan, p. 67).
Or perhaps one should say, “the ironically-named Ashburnham House,” because on the evening of October 23, 1731, a fire broke out.
In the collection of the American Bookbinders Museum, there is a copy of the report given to Parliament in the aftermath of the fire, explaining what had happened, gathering eyewitness reports, and providing a detailed list of every manuscript damaged or lost. Their description of the fire includes the following fascinating detail:
But the Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley, the Deputy Librarian, took Care in the First Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection. Several intire [sic] Presses** with the Books in them were also removed; but the Fire increasing still, and the Engines sent for not coming so soon as could be wished, and several of the Backs of the Presses being already on Fire, they were obliged to be broke [sic] open, and the Books, as many as could be, were thrown out of the Windows.
This fire is the reason why the Beowulf manuscript is singed along the edges, but for some inexplicable reason, it does not show up in the committee report as being damaged. Of the 958 manuscripts in the collection, the original report shows only 114 as being destroyed, and 98 as damaged. Under the circumstances and given the nature of the collection, those are miraculously low numbers.
An unusual aspect of the damage list for librarians and others who are interested in information management and organization is the cataloging method employed by Sir Robert Cotton, which was maintained by the trustees and continues as unique identifiers for the items to this day. The collection is divided among fourteen book presses, each of which originally had a bust of a Roman emperor on top. Thus the Nowell Codex, which contains the Beowulf manuscript, is cataloged as Vitellius A. XV: It was the fifteenth volume on the first shelf of the Vitellius press.
If, as is indicated by the passage excerpted above, the books in the Augustus press were considered the most valuable, and the books were shelved in order of value, then by that logic, the items in the Vitellius press would have been considered among the least valuable.
It is therefore astonishing to the modern mind that what is far and away the most famous of the texts in the Cottonian Library – the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – was considered so unimportant that its damage was not mentioned in the official report of the fire, a report that is obsessively detailed in every other way.
Beowulf was not translated into modern languages until 1786, when Icelandic scholar G. J. Thorkelin came to England to research documents related to Danish history. He had two copies of the poem made, and returned to Copenhagen to study them, finally printing the first edition of Beowulf in Danish in 1815.
The first translation into modern English did not take place until 1833. Between the fire and a nineteenth-century rebinding of the manuscript, thousands of letters have been lost from the now world-famous poem that was once considered so unimportant that its damage was not recorded in the 1732 report on the fire at Ashburnham House.
*Named for the collector Laurence Nowell, in whose collection the codex first appears.
**Book presses are shelving cabinets that may be locked, thus requiring the tactics of breaking them open or throwing the whole case out of the windows.
Encyclopedia Romana. “Beowulf.” Accessed February 24, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/beowulf/vitellius.html
Graham, Timothy, ed. The Recovery of Old English: Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
House of Commons. A report from the committee appointed to view the Cottonian library, and such of the publick records of this kingdom, as they think proper, and to report to the House the condition thereof, together with what they shall judge fit to be done for the better reception, preservation, and more convenient use of the same (pp. 445 – 535). London, 1732.
Jeremy Norman’s HistoryofInformation.com. “Sir Robert Bruce Cotton Forms One of the Most Important Private Collections of Manuscripts Ever Collected in England (1588-1631).” Accessed February 24, 2016. http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=1800
Kiernan, Kevin S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.