Discovering Traherne

This term we embarked on a new initiative: The Library and Archives “In Conversation” Series.

We were excited by the idea of an “in conversation” format because it offers our students and former students the opportunity to become involved by using their own knowledge to quiz an “expert” (or someone with more knowledge) on a particular topic and to present the audience with a stimulating exchange of thoughts and facts. The student involved in each conversation can demonstrate their knowledge and at the same time hone their public speaking skills, while the interviewee is there to provide more in depth knowledge and/or insight and to answer any tricky questions that might come from the audience.

Throughout the series we will be featuring a specific book or manuscript held at Brasenose, something from the Archives, College history or a Brasenose individual. We decided to launch the “conversations” with an exploration of the books and life at Brasenose of Thomas Traherne, 17th century poet and divine. This linked in with the Brasenose Authors theme we had running in our Treasury display last term and in selecting Traherne we were able to showcase material from the Library and Archives, pull in an expert who has carried out research at Brasenose and introduce Nam Rao (BNC 2011-14; PhD candidate at St John’s) as our star interviewer.

This first conversation took place in the 2nd week of Hilary. Despite the somewhat inclement weather and fears that there simply might not be enough interest we had a good turnout. The audience, which spanned an age range of nineteen to eighty plus, was an interesting mix of current students, alumni, fellows and lecturers, some of whom had no knowledge of Traherne and his works, others who were considerably well informed. The expert for the evening was Dr Julia Smith, General Editor of the Oxford Traherne and author of many articles on Thomas Traherne. (Dr Smith is currently working on an autobiography of Traherne in addition to her editorial work.).

Dr Smith began with the statement: “Thomas Traherne understood the value of library and archives, and their place within the University. He emphasized the importance of the most old and authentic records and he gave thanks for such books and universities, such colleges and libraries that seemed to him to constitute part of the paradise of God.” The introduction afforded a glimpse into the life of Thomas Traherne after which Dr Smith moved on to discuss his works and more specifically the two 17th century Brasenose books on display: Roman Forgeries (1673) and Christian Ethicks (published posthumously in 1675). For two centuries it was for these two works that Traherne was known, however, the late 19th century brought the first of several discoveries with further manuscripts being discovered during the 20th century. The result was the publication of works including: The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne 1636?–1674 (edited by Bertram Dobell) (London: Dobell, 1903); Centuries of Meditations (edited by Dobell) (London: Dobell, 1908; Traherne’s Poems of Felicity (edited by H. I. Bell) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910).

Thomas Traherne was born in Hereford in 1636 or 1637 and said to be the son of a shoemaker. He was educated at Hereford Cathedral School before matriculating at Brasenose in 1652. Thomas paid a matriculation fee of eightpence and for admission to the “Schooles”, half a crown. (In addition to these fees it would have cost around twenty pounds a year to maintain an undergraduate at that time.) In October 1656 he received his baccalaureate degree and five years later he was promoted to the degree of Master of Arts, Oxon. He went on to become a Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) on 11 December 1669.

When Thomas arrived at Brasenose the University had somewhat recovered from a period of great unrest and disorganization. Oxford had been a garrison and the King’s headquarters and had also seen a number of “reforms” decreed by Parliament which had been enforced by their appointed “Visitors”. For the Presbyterian party the “Committee for Reformation of the Universities” and the “Visitations” had been a triumph but with Cromwell in power all that changed, the Committee was dissolved and the Visitors unable to act. Cromwell became Chancellor of the University and reappointed a committee with a new remit that did not included expulsions or inventing new reforms. Brasenose had put up a determined fight against the Parliamentary Visitors but by 1653 was quite settled. The Principal of the time was Dr Greenwood, a Puritan, who had been installed by Cromwell despite the Fellows of the College having elected Thomas Yates as their Principal. (Yates lived quietly in London until Greenwood was ousted in the Reformation.) Greenwood was apparently a safe pair of hands in which Brasenose flourished and he was respected by Puritans and Royalists alike. During his ten years as Principal the numbers in residence at Brasenose rose dramatically from twenty to one-hundred and twenty.

Brasenose was physically much smaller in those days: no Deer Park, no New Quad and no Library (as we know it) or Chapel. Images from the College Archives were on display to show what College would have looked like in Thomas Traherne’s time. Thomas was able to witness a major College development during his lifetime: the building of the Library and Chapel. Records in the Archives show that he made a contribution of twenty shillings, not an insignificant amount for man of his background, towards the new buildings indicating perhaps that he was rather fond of the place. Although during his early years at BNC he would not have witnessed the completion of the new buildings, he would have seen these wonderful additions by the time he received his B.D.

The Benefactors’ Book recording Traherne’s donation

The Benefactors' Book recording Traherne's donation
In December 1657 Traherne was presented to the living of Credenhill in Herefordshire, which was not a BNC living, supported by the county’s leading Presbyterian clergy. (After the Restoration he received episcopal ordination, and subscribed to the 1662 Act of Uniformity.) Traherne remained rector of Credenhill until his death in 1674. He was resident in Herefordshire until the last months of his life making visits to Oxford to work in the Bodleian and to take his MA and BD. Credenhill, therefore, is the context for the composition of almost all his extant works.

The scene set, Nam and Julia shifted the focus of the evening to the books on display exploring themes that included the reception history of Roman Forgeries and the question of authorship; donation of the copies Christian Ethicks and Roman Forgeries now at Brasenose; evidence of scholarly use; discovery of the new works; the Oxford Traherne project and recent work on collation.

Roman Forgeries and Christian Ethicks came to Brasenose courtesy of W.E. Buckley. Buckley was a 19th century collector of books by Brasenose authors and his collection was bought by the College in 1892.

The Brasenose copies of Roman Forgeries and Christian Ethicks


The title page of Roman Forgeries simply states that the author is a Faithful son of the Church of England. On the BNC copy readers across the centuries engaged in a debate about attribution with Dr Thomas Comber erroneously named as the author before a later note identifies Traherne.

While Brasenose did not acquire its copy of Forgeries until the 19th century, copies were available in various University and College libraries in the 17th and 18th centuries and extant copies show evidence of modest scholarly use. The same cannot be said for Christian Ethicks which appears for the most-part to have been privately owned for non-scholarly use. It was for these two works that Traherne gained his reputation as a scholarly Oxford author however this changed with the discovery of ten manuscripts. The new works showed that Thomas Traherne was a spiritual writer of great beauty and power and it is perhaps for these works that Traherne is most admired and on which his current reputation stands. Critics have accused Traherne of being unaware of what was going on around him and yet, although most certainly an optimist who hoped things would turn out of the best, his works do show pastoral awareness of the lives of others along with an implicit awareness of, and references to, current affairs.

Last year Brasenose participated in a collation project which is part of the collaborative Oxford Traherne Project. Coincidentally first Senior Kurti Fellow at BNC, Dr Andrew Zisserman, was responsible for developing the image comparison software which integrates with the collator developed by Dr Christopher Palmer, and can automatically identify variations between copies.) When asked about the project Dr Smith explained how, with the help of this ground breaking procedure and the Oxford project as a whole, Thomas Traherne is now seen as one of the great mystical poets of the Anglican Church.

Although there was insufficient time to explore the text of Traherne’s work, those who beforehand had little or no knowledge of the subject of the “conversation” went away with insight in to BNC life at the time and to the background of Traherne’s works, particularly the two 17th century books that were on display. Furthermore, it was clear from the interest in the items that accompanied the talk, together with lively discussion over drinks, that the audience was delighted, privileged even, to view the books and documents on display. We were very happy that Dr Smith and Nam Rao thoroughly enjoyed participating in the event.

‘It was a pleasure to be a part of an event which showcased the College’s books and its history. It was also a great opportunity for me to be able to engage with a topic that is beyond the focus of my doctoral research, but in which I have an enduring interest!’
Nam Rao

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