Arabic manuscripts in Cambridge

Cambridge University Library has existed in some form since the beginning of the fifteenth century. The earliest catalogue is dated ca. 1424. After the magnificent library Thomas Bodley built for Oxford University during the early years of the seventeenth century, Cambridge was desperately keen to establish an institution that could rival the Bodleian. Ambitions were high, but funds hard to find. The only accessions of consequence were presentation copies from their authors (from Bacon in particular).

In 1629, linguist Abraham Wheelocke was appointed as University Librarian. He was admired for his scholarship in Anglo-Saxon studies, and, in 1632, took on the position of the first Professor of Arabic at the University (and in England). His librarianship was crucial to Cambridge. When appointed the library held barely 1,000 volumes. After his death in 1653, it owned about 12,000 books. He was active in persuading donors to present their collections, and, more importantly, in ordering and describing which books entered the library. One of the many intellectuals who donated copies of their work to the University Library was Gerardus Joannes Vossius who, in 1629, had been offered a Professorship in History by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke.

Wheelocke assisted the university in obtaining the collection of some eighty-six oriental manuscripts assembled by Thomas Erpenius, Professor of Arabic at Leiden University. This collection had been purchased by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in conditions of great secrecy from Thomas’s widow in 1625, with the avowed intention of presenting them to Cambridge University. Villiers was close to the Low Countries. In 1619, for example, he appointed Middelburg-born architect and art agent Balthazar Gerbier as keeper of his outstanding York House picture collection. The impressive Erpenius-legacy was finally presented to Cambridge by the widowed Duchess in June 1632. It contained a wide variety of Eastern manuscripts, mainly Arabic but also Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, and Javanese, and included five of the oldest Malay manuscripts in existence. Previous to that magnificent acquisition, Cambridge possessed only a single Arabic manuscript. Leiden put Cambridge on the map of Eastern learning.