The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 2, 2014

March 2, 1545

The Bodleian Library is named after its founder -- Thomas Bodley, (March 2, 1545 to January 28, 1613).  Here is how the BBC describes the man who set up one of the most famous libraries in the world, at Oxford University.  

...[Thomas Bodley at the age of]  fourteen, became a student at Magdalen College, and by the age of nineteen, was appointed fellow at Merton College.  He also served as Bursar to the college and held university posts too; he was only twenty four when he was appointed Proctor with responsibility for maintaining discipline within the University, and he later became deputy Public Orator, which gave him the chance of making impressive speeches in Latin and Greek during the ceremonies held in the University Church. [snarkiness is courtesy of the BBC, not me, remember.]

In 1576 Thomas Bodley felt, as he put it: "..desirous to travel beyond the Seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some speciall moderne tongues, and for the encrease of my experience in the managing of affaires
[in order] to employ my selfe…in the publique service of the State."

So he was allowed by Merton to take leave of absence with a yearly stipend of £3.13s.4d., and spent four years in Europe....

[Bodley] later entered the diplomatic service for Elizabeth I as an envoy to Denmark. Further missions followed, to France and Germany, and then in 1588 he was posted to The Hague.

This Dutch posting was not an easy one - Bodley complained that it was "as if I shoulde strive to keepe water in a sive" - and he retired from public service in 1597.

In 1586 he had married Ann Ball, a rich widow from Devon. Her first husband, a fish merchant, had made his fortune from trade in pilchards, and it is always jokingly said that the Bodleian was founded upon this humble fish, but Bodley was already very wealthy in his own right - he had inherited family money, and was a canny property dealer.

However, extra funds never go amiss, and so there may be some truth behind the jest. The marriage lasted for twenty four years and when his wife died, he had a plaque erected in her memory in the church of St. Bartholomew the Less in London which records that they had a happy life together....

He tells us in his autobiography that after retiring,
he decided to "set up my Staffe at the Librarie dore in Oxon" and to begin the great work of restoring Duke Humfrey's Library.

He says that he felt well qualified to do this as he possessed four special attributes which would be advantageous: wide learning, wealth, many contacts ("a great store of honorable friends") and plenty of free time. His career had also given him a good grasp of administration and of the practical aspects of managing such a project.

Duke Humfrey's Library, a fifteenth century University library, had been built above the Divinity School (off Catte Street, behind the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street) and had been emptied of books and furniture during the Reformation in the 1550's.

Bodley felt that the University should have a fine library once again, and refurbished Duke Humfrey's, taking inspiration from the recently refitted library at his old college, Merton. ...

The opening ceremony took place in 1602, and at that time the library contained around 2,500 books, some given by Bodley himself, and others by benefactors such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney. Patrons gave both books and money, as Bodley was a successful fundraiser - he prided himself on being well able to "stirre up other mens benevolence".

At first he did not want any books in English in his library - he referred to them as idle books and riff raff - but he soon realised that more and more publications were in English rather than Latin, and in 1610, he applied to the Stationers Company in London to be able to receive one copy of every book published in England.
This agreement led to an explosion in the number of books coming into the library, which needed to be enlarged, so firstly an extension, Arts End, was built across the eastern end of Duke Humphrey's, and then in 1613 work began on a much larger addition to the library, with an impressive entrance tower on Catte Street.

Bodley's journals mention a cat just once, that I have found, when he refers in some April, to his concern an illness at Cat Hall -- so named after its address near Cat Street -- might spread to the other colleges. The Bodleian library, as we see above,  also has a front onto Cat Street. One might think that a street would be named Cat because of the prevalence of cats in the area. Others have not always agreed with this logic. The Victorians changed the name to Catharine Street, alluding distantly to St. Catharine. This was many centuries after Kattestreete is mentioned, for Kattestreete is the name of this avenue in the early 13th century. I suspect the Victorians here were guilty of putting a crucifix in a feline paw when they changed the name to something respectable like Catharine Street. We are encouraged in our history by the fact this area was, in 1442, referenced as Mousecatchers' Lane; in Latin that is Vicus Murilegorum. By Bodley's time it was again being called Catte Street. 

So it is jolly to read that in 1930s the street was changed back to Cat Street. The reason given was that there was already nearby another Catharine Street. Here is a picture of our Cat Street.

Yes it says Oxford Street. Here is a quote which explains why I include this picture here (and has some more pictures).

Cat St or Oxford Street Buildings and Street Scene and Views before the wall was thatched and before Stevenson garage built though wall already lowered at the West end not at the east End. Small gate had been moved. Still oil storage tank there....No infill house at Lilac cottage.

One last thought about cats and books. In the 1906 Bodleian Guide for Visitors we read:

The best starting-point for a visit to the Bodleian is in Cat Street, just in front of Hertford College. Cat Street,now wrongly called Catherine Street, in our oldest times was a narrow lane which led from High Street to a postern in the north wall of Oxford. It ran between a multitude of tumble-down houses, the abodes of scribes, illuminators, binders of manuscripts, parchment-makers. It is fitting that the sumptuous buildings which have replaced the old should be so many of them connected with books.

So the cats on Catte Street were protecting books from rodent damage. The cats are not just an accidental context to Oxford University.  The felines have historically helped to protect the books and ideas expressed on their pages. 

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