Papers of William Robertson Smith

By , 31 May 2011 3:11 pm

Image of William Robertson Smith taken from 'The Bailie,' Vol. XII, No. 293, 29th May 1878. CUL MS Add.7476/L22

As part of our programme of regular additions to Janus, the website for Cambridge archives catalogues, we have recently added a catalogue of the letters and papers of William Robertson Smith which are held in the Manuscripts and University Archives department here at Cambridge University Library.

Robertson Smith was a theologian and Semitic scholar who produced important work on comparative religion and religious anthropology, heavily influencing both Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud.  He was born in Scotland in 1846 and initially studied mathematics.  He also published scientific papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he became a fellow, before studying theology and accepting the chair of Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870.  His advanced theological views brought him into dispute with Church elders and he was dismissed after he was forced to defend himself in court on a charge of heresy for articles he had written on biblical subjects for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Robertson Smith subsequently became editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, before taking up a professorship in Arabic at Cambridge University, where he also became University librarian.  During his career he published a number of important works on Semitic subjects, whilst his Burnett lectures, of which he gave three series, were also subsequently published.

The collection includes letters, lectures, notebooks, sermons and papers pertaining to Robertson Smith’s heresy trial.  It is in two parts, and there is a separate catalogue for each of the two references: MS Add. 7449 and MS Add. 7476.

The papers are available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

‘A sapper’s letters to his mother’

By , 26 May 2011 12:07 pm

This is the title of an important collection of letters recently acquired by the Royal Commonwealth Society department and currently being catalogued. The author was the Royal Engineer, Colonel Hugh Pearson (1873-1922), who dutifully wrote weekly letters home to his mother throughout an extraordinary career. Students of imperial history will find much of interest in Pearson’s writings. Highlights include famine relief in India, fighting in the Khyber Pass during the Tirah campaign (1897-1898), and engineering work at Peking [Beijing] during the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1902).

Gun in the Mongol Market (adjoining the British Legation), Peking, 1900. RCS Y30377B/10

During the First World War, Pearson served in Sudan and Palestine. He organised refugee camps for Armenians fleeing the Ottoman Empire and was decorated for his work with the Desert Mounted Corps, which defeated the Turks and captured Jerusalem. Posted for many years to Sudan, Pearson became a leader of Khartoum society, organising sporting, musical and theatrical events. He met many prominent figures on the world stage, including Lord Kitchener and Theodore Roosevelt. One of Pearson’s most memorable experiences occurred during 1917, when he travelled to Addis Ababa to present Regent Tafari Makonnen, the future Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, with the Grand Order of St. Michael and St. George. He recorded a vivid account of the event:

‘The Prime Minister and two other principal officers of state came to the Legation with several hundred warriors to escort us to the Palace. Coach horns, bugles etc. supplied the music. We were all in full dress, scarlet tunics etc., and the procession made the most wonderful Kaleidoscope of colour imaginable. At the front there were a hundred or two ordinary soldiers in white with their rifles and swords, then three mounted officers in gold embroidered coats of blue, red, green, with lion’s mane over their shoulders and head dress, and silver and gold ornaments hanging over their foreheads. Then twenty or thirty men with various coloured head dresses and sheep skins dyed yellow hanging over their shoulders and right down their backs… and the three ministers in gorgeous robes heavily studded with gold and… lion’s mane head dresses heavily studded with diamonds and precious stones, and shields the same, semicircular swords in gold and velvet scabbards… we dismounted outside the throne room, put the G.C.M.G., Jewel, Collar, and belt on a cloth of gold cushion… entered together, bowed to the throne and [Envoy Extraordinary Wilfred] Thesiger made his little speech and clasped on the Jewel’.

Pearson reported a humorous exchange when being asked his age by Tafari Makonnen, who did not believe his reply, ‘What a dear old gentleman, but how absurd of him to say he is only 44. He must at least be 56’.  Pearson also visited the Regent’s wife, who offered him champagne and biscuits, and then went to see her eight lions being fed.

Pearson, 5 and 11 Apr. 1917

A second post will follow when the cataloguing is completed.

[The second post has now been published: see ‘A sapper’s letters to his mother’ II.]

‘Only death remains for him’: Taylor-Schechter Genizah Fragment of the Month

By , 24 May 2011 1:49 pm

T-S 10J7.4

Torture was an inescapable fact of life in medieval jails, and the Genizah has preserved an extraordinary letter, probably written in the 13th century, in which a torture victim gives a detailed account of what was done to him while he was imprisoned.

Read the full story on the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Unit’s website

What’s so special about Music?

By , 19 May 2011 12:06 pm
Viva la Trinité by a member of the UBC, c.1870, at UL: MRA.290.85

Viva la Trinité by a member of the University Boat Club, c.1870, at UL: MRA.290.85

Maybe surprisingly, the invitation to join this blog as a contributor made me re-consider what’s so special about Music. Of course, being employed within the music section I am extremely biased, and I think Music is special. But whether you agree with me or not, factually it is true: Music at the University Library is part of Special Collections, but why? One can crudely group the sections which form Special Collections at the UL as follows:

Languages using non-Western scripts:
Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Near and Middle Eastern

Unique and significant collections (including project groups):
Bible Society, Darwin Correspondence Project, Manuscripts & University Archives, Rare Books, Royal Commonwealth Society, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Maps, Music.

If you wholeheartedly agree with the above compartmentalisation, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. I don’t think it’s that clear-cut at all!

Rather, say, the Chinese Collections contain, amongst many unique items and significant collections, also a collection of Chinese Oracle Bones; of course that’s not only unique, but also conveying information in a special format. The Bible Society’s holdings contain 500 manuscripts in 184 languages: so they don’t only have printed books (format!), but also there are items in languages which do not use Western scripts (not least some items in Hebrew). Finally, Rare Books does obviously contain unique and rare items, but also, for example, “non-books”, such as the E.H.L. Jennings portrait collection which consists of around 100,000 portraits.

So how does Music fit into all this? Unusually for the UL, we classify books, and order, process and catalogue all printed sheet music, and create catalogue records for archival and manuscripts materials which will then be held at the Manuscripts & University Archive department. We also have a sizeable rare books collection within Music, and have a number of composers’ archives (with their music manuscripts and other archival materials, as they are still in the process of being catalogued and processed). The only three ‘formats’ relating to music we do not get involved with are periodicals, e-resources and microfilms.

Anderson Reading Room at the UL

Anderson Reading Room at the UL

We have our own reading room, the Anderson Reading Room, which not all of the Special Collections have. We are also the first UL department to have a Head and Deputy Head who each work 50% at the UL and the Faculty of Music’s Library (Pendlebury Library of Music): currently this is a 3-year arrangement, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Music Pilot’. I don’t know whether that convinces you that we are ‘special’ enough to be part of Special Collections, but with all of the above, it is “good enough” for me.

Cambridge Bibliographical Society talk, 18 May 2011

By , 11 May 2011 6:39 pm

The Munby Fellow, Dirk Imhof, will give a talk on ‘The Plantin Presses of Catholic Antwerp and Calvinist Leiden around 1600: working together or separately?’ on Wednesday, 18 May, 5:00 pm in the Morison Room, Cambridge University Library. Non-members are welcome and there is no admission charge. Tea is served from 4:30 pm.

Islamic seals event

By , 10 May 2011 4:14 pm


Seal engraver

A seal engraver, drawn in the Kashmiri style, ca 1850. Add.Or.1692. © The British Library

On Thursday 19 May, Venetia Porter and Annabel Gallop will give a talk in the Library on ‘Islamic Seals: Treasures from the British Library and the British Museum’.

Venetia, from the British Museum, will introduce a millennium of Islamic seals, from the earliest lead and clay seals stamped on papyrus documents in Arabic, through early seals carved in carnelian, quartz, garnets and other semi-precious stones, to more recent seal matrices of silver and brass. Annabel, from the British Library, will pick up the story from the time that paper replaced papyrus and parchment as the main writing medium in the Islamic world, and will talk about Islamic seal impressions stamped on manuscript books and documents, treaties and royal letters.

This illustrated talk will be accompanied by a display of the travelling photographic exhibition ‘Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World’. It starts in the Library’s Morison Room at 5.30 p.m., and forms part of the programme of the Friends of the Library (see Friends of the Library: £2.50. Others: £3.50. (Junior members of the University of Cambridge: free.)

John Ruskin and the King James Bible

By , 10 May 2011 4:13 pm

Ruskin, like many English writers, was inspired by the King James Bible: not only its religious teaching but its rhythms, imagery and social subversiveness. On Tuesday 17 May, Cambridge poet and academic Clive Wilmer will give a talk in the University Library on ‘The “King James” as Literary Inspiration: John Ruskin and the Bible’.

The talk starts in the Library’s Morison Room at 5.30 p.m., and forms part of the programme of the Friends of the Library (see Friends of the Library: £2.50. Others: £3.50. (Junior members of the University of Cambridge: free.)

Before the talk, visitors may like to take the opportunity of viewing the Library’s current exhibition, ‘Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible’, on display in the Exhibition Centre adjacent to the Morison Room (see

Incunabula lecture

By , 10 May 2011 3:43 pm

On 7 June the incunabulist Paul Needham, Scheide Librarian at Princeton University, will give a masterclass at Cambridge University Library on collation and composition in the fifteenth century. Using CUL’s 42-line Gutenberg Bible as an exemplar, Paul will discuss how collation can be deduced and described and what can be learnt about the incunable press through unpicking a book’s collation.

The class will take place in the Sir Geoffrey Keynes Room at Cambridge University Library and will run from 2.00 until 3.30, including time for questions. Places will be limited to 15 and booking is essential. To reserve a place please email Katie Birkwood.

Illuminated initial from CUL's 42-line Bible - Inc.1.A.1.1(3761)

Red letter day for Darwin Correspondence Project

By , 4 May 2011 12:59 pm

Darwin correspondence

The project mapping Charles Darwin’s life and work in the 15,000 letters he wrote or received during his extraordinary lifetime will be completed after a £5 million funding package was announced.

Read the full story on