The Wall Street Journal has a well-illustrated review of an upcoming exhibition of manuscripts and artifacts from the Corpus Christi Library in Oxford set to open at the Folger Library on February 4 (subscription required). The Folger Library website has this announcement:
Founded 500 years ago in 1517, Corpus Christi College, one of the oldest of the 38 self-governing colleges at the modern University of Oxford, is a repository of extraordinary treasures, few of which have ever been seen by the public. To mark its 500th anniversary, a selection of fifty manuscripts and early printed books from its celebrated Library, ranging in date from the 10th to the 17th centuries, is being brought to America for the first time.
Focusing on the first hundred years of the College’s existence, the exhibition introduces its Founder, Richard Fox, powerful Bishop of Winchester and adviser to Henry VII and Henry VIII, and its first President, John Claymond, who laid the foundations of the Library’s great collection. From the start, Corpus—the first Renaissance college at Oxford—was to pursue Humanist ideals of scholarship in three languages: not just Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of the Bible, along with such other subjects as Astronomy, Mathematics, Medicine, and Philosophy.
A series of display-cases present books in each of these languages, including a number that are bilingual and even trilingual. Most notable among them are a group that has been called "the most important collection of Anglo-Jewish manuscripts in the world"; these works of the 12th and 13th centuries include a series of volumes apparently commissioned by Christians from Jews, from which to learn Hebrew and study biblical texts in their original language, as well as the commentaries of Rashi and what is thought to be the oldest surviving Ashkenazi prayer book.
Highlighting Corpus’ role in the development of science and medicine at Oxford, the exhibition finishes with a series of ground-breaking works, from Galileo’s first observation of the moon using a telescope and Sir Isaac Newton’s autograph observations of Halley’s comet to Hooke’s observations of insects using a microscope and Vesalius’ studies of the human body.
Among the items on display will be Bishop Fox's crozier, shown in the photograph above in situ at Corpus Christi. Bishop Fox may have been more statesman than bishop, however, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
After receiving ordination into the priesthood Foxe became secretary in Paris to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, an exiled claimant to the throne. On Richmond’s accession as King Henry VII, Foxe was made principal secretary of state and lord privy seal. He later became bishop of Exeter (1487–91), Bath and Wells (1491–94), Durham (1494–1501), and Winchester (1501–28).
Nevertheless, he neglected his ecclesiastical duties to concentrate on diplomacy. He negotiated the treaties and directed the diplomatic maneuvers that minimized the aid given by the Scots, the French, and the Dutch to rival claimants to Henry’s throne. In addition, he helped formulate and execute Henry’s ruthlessly efficient financial policies.
But The Wall Street Journal article's comments about Fox's intellectual vision for Corpus Christi, tied as it was to understanding the Holy Bible better through language arts, might indicate there was something more to Bishop Fox than politics:
“There was this idea that the college would be a trilingual college, where Greek and Hebrew would be taught alongside Latin,” says the show’s curator, Peter Kidd. English scholars “realized that the only way to get back to the true meaning of the Bible was to find out what it said in Hebrew.”
Accordingly, the collection contains 13 rare Hebrew manuscripts, an extraordinary number for one library. A 12th-century prayer book once owned by a Sephardic Jew who traveled to England contains notes that use Hebrew characters to write Arabic words on the fly-leaves—the only such example from medieval England. A 13th-century book of psalms includes side-by-side Latin and Hebrew versions. The college’s scholars likely would have used these works, which will be part of the tour, to learn Hebrew.
This juxtaposition of judgments reminds me again how complex the past is and how careful we have to be in "labeling" a person (in the past or present).