The Bodleian Acquires Rare Medieval Book Chest

The Bodleian Library in Oxford announced earlier this week its acquisition of a rare, fifteenth-century French Gothic coffer, or book chest, once used for the transportation of books. According to the Bodleian, only about 100 such book coffers are extant, and this is the first of its kind to enter the library’s collection. It is also the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Bodleian’s Weston Library called Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures.

18C02557 copy.jpgThe book chest is made of wood, covered in leather, lined with red canvas, and reinforced with iron fittings, hinges, and a lock. As you can see in the above image, the coffer’s inside lid contains a colorful woodcut print dating to c.1491 depicting “God the Father in Majesty.”

What the coffer held is unknown, although, according to experts, it is believed to have secured religious or devotional texts, perhaps with accompanying relics, such as a rosary.

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 exhibition, which features a selection of boxes, bags, and satchels designed to carry books, remains on view through February 17. If you can’t make it to Oxford, a 3D model and photos of the coffer can be seen on the University of Oxford’s Cabinet website.

Image: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries

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