Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has acquired a rare late 15th century book chest. The Bodleian’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books is one of the largest in the world, but this is its first book coffer and it’s a special one. At 8.5 x 12.6 x 5.5 inches in size, it is one of the largest examples of a book coffer from this period known to survive.

This acquisition gives us greater insight into the ‘everyday life’ of books and print culture more broadly. The coffer provides a link between books held at the Bodleian and cultural objects which were once united, but now usually live apart in libraries and museums around the world.

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

“The Bodleian collects books and manuscripts but also objects which helps us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood. The coffer is a remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context. Among other things, it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The coffer is made of leather-covered wood and is lined with red canvas. The cover is wrapped with nine iron bands, hinges and a lock to secure the high-value contents. Also known as a messenger’s box, it has two iron loops on the side through which leather straps would have been threaded through so it could be carried on a person’s shoulders or attached to a horse’s saddle.

A woodcut depicting God the Father in Majesty is affixed to the inside of the lid, one of only four surviving impressions of this print. His presence would have blessed the contents and protected them during their journeys. Other coffers from this time also contain religious prints on the inside lid, and it’s possible they served double duty as portable altars.

It is a version of an illumination in a 1491 Missal by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany, a Paris illuminator who was active in the last quarter of the 15th century. He was a versatile artist who created designs for woodcuts, metalcuts, tapestries and stained glass as well as creating illuminated manuscripts for his highest-end clientele. The hand-colored prints found in messenger’s boxes were produced in Paris between 1490 and 1510, which is how we know where and when this coffer was made. These boxes are the only sources of single-leaf French prints before 1500. They are literally the only examples we have of the dawn of printmaking in France.

We have confirmation that these types of lockboxes were used to transport precious books as well as other valuables because depictions of them being used for this purpose have survived, most notably a Rest on the Flight into Egypt made in Antwerp around 1530 which shows a partially open coffer by Mary’s side. At the back is a small book with metal clasps. In front of it are a rosary, a pair of scissors and a brush.

The coffer has gone display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in a new exhibition, Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures, which runs until February 17th. You can see 3D models of the box here.


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Comment by Roszwytha
2019-01-24 02:54:19

In 1520, Albrecht Dürer went on a business trip to Antwerp and a few other Flemish cities.

Apparently, he took all kinds of cases, prints, books -and a whole lot more- with him, had a network of commercial transportation and was exchanging the stuff like mad (and he took notes).


ANTWERP, APR/MAY 1521: …I paid 6 stivers for a case. The monk has bound two books for me for the prints which I gave him. I have given 10 florins, 8 stivers for a piece of arras for two mantles for my mother-in-law and my wife. [a description of the deals of the day of roughly two pages follows]. I bought a broad cap for 36 stivers. I paid Paul Geiger 1 florin to take my little chest to Nuremberg, and 4 stivers for the letter. Painted a portrait of the duke in oils: have made a very fine and careful portrait in oils of the treasurer, Lorenz Sterk; it was worth 25 florins. […] I gave 12 stivers for a case for packing; 21 stivers for one dozen ladies’ gloves; 6 stivers for a bag; 3 stivers for three bristle brushes; changed 1 florin for expenses; gave 1 stiver for a piece of fine red leather. […] Bought a packing-case for 7 stivers; changed 1 florin for expenses; have given 7 stivers for a cut [leather] bag. Cornelius, the secretary, has given me Luther’s ’Babylonian Captivity’: in return I gave him my three big books…etc. …

Marcelli: A Venetian coin worth 10 soldi.
Stiver: A Netherlandish coin worth about 80 pfennigs.
Philip’s: A Netherlandish coin worth rather less than a Rhenish florin.
Crown: A Netherlandish coin worth 6.35 marks.
Noble: The Rosennobel = 8 marks, 20 pfennigs (Fl. one = 9 m, 90 pf).
Blanke: A silver coin = 2 stivers.
Angel: An English coin = 2 florins, 2 stivers Netherlandish.

Comment by Garth Groff
2019-01-24 05:52:37

Thank you for the very interesting story about the book casket. It was special to me, as I am a total book geek (a retired library cataloger).

The “Flight into Egypt” image came at a perfect time. Obviously the artist had no idea of what the Holy Land looked like or the clothes people would have worn in the biblical middle east. The landscape is pure late 15th century France.

What makes this a treasure for me is that the man we may assume is the long-suffering Joseph is wearing a “Gaston Phoebus” tunic ( see “historical inspirations” at ). While the tunics of this type are typical of the 14th century, here we see it still being worn in 1491, and with a hood! This tunic seems to have been as universal as modern blue jeans, and was common in both France and England. If the English wore it, so did Lowland Scots. This is almost exactly what I wear in the SCA as a 1496 Lowland Scot. I will soon be teaching a class on Scottish clothing, and the confirmation that the Gaston Phoebus tunic was still in use in the 1490s couldn’t have come at a better time.

Yours Aye,

Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge (SCA)

Comment by dearieme
2019-01-24 12:15:28

Home of Lost Causes.

Comment by Barbara JH Austin
2019-01-24 12:31:16

Is this box made of wood covered in leather? Is difficult to tell as there seems to be a ton of varnish on top.

Comment by Roszwytha
2019-01-24 12:35:50

Yes, a box made of wood, covered in leather, covered in iron :D

Frankly, I wondered where I had seen the winged bull and the lion before, and as I had found out, wondered where the eagle and the angel had gone.

When looking closely, it’s all there, and I now understand the idea of what kind of books were transported in that ‘Gothic’ coffer.

The Evangelist’s symbols are: the Lion of Mark, the Eagle of John, the Ox or Calf of Luke and the Angel or Man of Matthew. Often all symbols are shown with wings, as in the coat of arms of Venice, whose patron saint was Mark.

They are a common feature in larger Gospel Books from the the 6th century until the decline of that format in the High Middle Ages, by which time they were being used for portraits of other authors.

OK, as in the 15th century the ‘Middle Ages’ were about to be left behind, maybe other types of literature were about to be carried around, but the woodcut print does not really support that, or does it? (Dürer, for example, did not only transport books in cases, he also wrote some).

PS – Note to self: Whenever the 15th century is concerned, it’s ‘gothic’ (while ‘goth’ indicates a period from an additional 1000 years earlier). That woodcut, however, was ‘old-school’ in the 15th century already :yes:

Comment by Robin
2019-01-24 14:32:05

Fascinating article and as usual, the comments are as interesting as the article. I love the details in the painting, especially the leaves and vines climbing everything. Did you notice the nest at the top of the tree? At least, I think that is what it must be. If only Mary and Joseph could have been this comfortable in their travels.

Comment by Trevor
2019-01-25 05:07:09

I see that in the painting the book chest has a leather or cloth flap that would conceal the lock. I can also see a strip along the lower edge of the lock side of the chest – would this be the remains of a similar flap? On the top of the chest there is a strip of metal with a hole in it that might have been a catch to hold the flap in place.

Comment by Emily
2019-01-25 13:07:40

The painting, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” was painted in 1530, before the King James translation.
Some of the symbols in the painting are most interesting. For example, the single shoe next to the staff with the facsimile of a serpent’s head is an allusion to the Hebrew scripture that Eve(Mary) will crush the serpent’s head. The pair of shoes on the left side indicates that this is holy ground, Exodus 3:5. Mary wears a delicate veil to indicate her virtue. Her hair is not braided to signify she is a virgin. Mary’s hat is made of plaited straw and sewn row by row, exactly as it is still done 500 years later! tres chic! Is there any research for symbolism in religious art that has been published? Thank you again for posting!

Comment by Roszwytha
2019-01-25 15:46:32

Yes, I also noticed the additional single shoe in the painting, am -now that you mention it- a bit worried about the book coffer being blatantly misused as some form of lunchbox, and there also is a coat of arms in the bottom right hand corner that should be easily identifiable.

Where exactly did it say 1530? Did it say a bit more? Back then, Belgium was part of the Low Countries or Netherlands. Of course, the coat of arms might be from elsewhere.


Comment by Emily
2019-01-25 17:40:26

The next to the last paragraph states the painting was made in 1530.

Comment by Emily
2019-01-25 17:44:21

The above link is to an interesting article about the symbolism of the shoe in ancient Israel.

Comment by Trevor
2019-01-28 03:37:02

Ah, so the stick is like a serpent, heading for the shoe that will crush it. So what is the meaning of the cloth laid over the stick and apparently concealing fruit / a spare set of breasts?

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November 2020


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