A peek inside a Medieval Book Coffer

Lot’s of people seem to think that reading on the go is a modern phenomenon using electronic devices to snatch a few minutes of solitude on a busy train to work.  I must say, I just don’t get it though I accept almost everyone else does.  Long before I was born, books have been inherently portable.  In fact barely anything is more portable, convenient or hardwearing to take on your travels than a good paperback and I know my books usually sell better in paper form than electrical.

However long before people would carry a book to the park or slip one in their bag for a day trip to the beach or a long train journey, most books were larger, heavier and more inflexible.  They were also incredibly precious but that didn’t mean that people didn’t still want to take their books with them when they went, especially as journeys could take many weeks, months or even a year.  Those rich enough to own books and were able to travel were usually one and the same and so it made sense that such people would look after their expensive belongings in what could be said as being a book box.

Despite there being many thousands of medieval books and manuscripts, there are only around 100 book coffers known to be in existence and one of these has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The French gothic book box, is the first of its kind to enter the libraries’ collection of medieval manuscripts, is made of wood covered with leather, with a metal lock and fittings as well as leather straps threaded on to the sides for carrying. Inside the lid, a woodcut of “God the Father in Majesty” is attached, derived from a liturgical book printed in Paris in 1491 and pointing to the coffer’s place and date of origin. The Bodleian said the print would have been intended to provide “spiritual protection to whatever mixture of books, money, documents, and even medicines the coffer may at different times have contained”.


The French gothic coffer acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

“The coffer is a remarkable item that is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context,” said Dr Christopher Fletcher, keeper of special collections. “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.”

It is not known what texts the coffer would have contained. The Bodleian suggested it could have held an illuminated Book of Hours alongside other Christian devotional books. Whatever it held would have been protected by a red canvas lining that has survived mostly intact.

According to the Bodleian, although there are thousands of surviving medieval manuscripts and printed books, only around 100 book coffers are known to be in existence, the majority of which date to the 1500s. Only four impressions of the woodcut in this coffer’s lid, which dates from the earliest days of European printing, are currently known to survive. The woodcut also features a Latin prayer – a chant for the Feast of the Trinity beginning: “Te inuocamus, te laudamus, te benedicimus …


Cristina Dondi, professor of early European book heritage at Oxford, said: “Very few original woodblock prints from this period survive and each is rich in meaning, complex and exceedingly rare. So, to be able to study one still attached to a physical object of this nature is truly exceptional. This coffer dates to a time when devotional materials were at the crossing between the medieval and the modern period, between art made by hand and by mechanical means.”

The coffer, which is part of a new display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, was acquired from a private dealer who had bought it at auction in 2007. The Weston exhibition, entitled Thinking Inside the Box, features a selection of boxes and bags that have been used to carry books through the centuries, from specially designed satchels for Qur’anic manuscripts to a palm-leaf manuscript from West Java kept inside a carved, lacquered and painted box.

If you want to see some even older literary treasures then check out my recent post on The Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library  or for an almost ancient blog post from 2012 then do have a peek inside The Mappa Mundi and the chained library at Hereford Cathedral.



About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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