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The Cotton Collection of the British Library

Gregory DiPippo

I recently illustrated an article with an image of a manuscript in the British Library which is designated as “Cotton Vesp. d. xii.” The “Vesp.” here stands for the name of the Roman emperor Vespasian, for a rather interesting reason, connected to the collection from which it originally came.

When King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries and religious houses of his realm in the 1530s, the contents of their libraries were metaphorically (and perhaps in some cases also literally) scattered to the winds. Later in that same century, a lesser nobleman and member of Parliament named Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) began collecting these ancient books and manuscripts, many of which had come to the English nobility along with the former monastic properties, but whose new owners had no idea of their contents or significance. Once Sir Robert’s interest in book-collecting became known, many people either willed or sold their collections to him; his library quickly came to outrank in both size and importance the royal collection and those of several other old institutions. His house was located quite close to Parliament, and the library became a gathering place for both scholars and men in government.

Sir Robert organized his library first by bookcase, then by shelf, and lastly by position on the shelf. Each of his bookcases was surmounted by a bust of a figure from ancient Roman history: the twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian, plus Cleopatra, and Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius. Thus, the designation “Vesp. d. xii” means “the twelfth book (from the left) on the fourth shelf down, under the bust of Vespasian.”

The original library building no longer exists, and the much larger modern Houses of Parliament now stand in part on the site of it. Likewise, it appears that the original busts and bookcases are also lost. More additions were made to the collection by Sir Robert’s son and heir, Thomas, and by his son John; the latter, shortly before his death in 1702, bequeathed it in its entirety to the nation, on condition that it not be dispersed, and remain publicly accessible. The building itself, however, was in very poor condition, and in 1706, the collection was moved temporarily to nearby Ashburnham House. In 1731, a fire broke out in this building, which entailed the loss of 13 of the Cotton manuscripts, and damage from either fire or water to more than 200 others.

Subsequently, the Cotton library and two others, the Sloane and Harley Collections, were transferred to the new British Museum, shortly after its establishment in 1753, followed by the donation of the royal library in 1757. In 1973, the library holding of the British Museum were formally separated as the British Library. Despite all these vicissitudes, with the classic British love for custom, one of that nation’s most admirable traits, the British Library still to this day uses the original call numbers of the Cotton Collection.

Friday is the anniversary of Sir Robert’s death, so we will write then about specific items of interest in his collection. Since we don’t have the original busts from the library, here is one of the man himself in the British Library.

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