Peterhouse Library, Cambridge

Peterhouse, Cambridge

The libraries at Peterhouse, Cambridge, hold significant collections of western medieval manuscripts, early modern music, and scholarly and literary papers from the seventeenth century onwards. Printed books include 76 incunables and almost two thousand titles from the sixteenth century. Many of these retain their original bindings, including several examples of the work of Cambridge bookbinders such as Garret Godfrey, Nicholas Spierinck, or John Sheres.

Peterhouse was founded by Hugh of Balsham in 1284. Although none of the books given by the founder on his death survive, several manuscripts associated with scholars who entered the College as early as the 1290s remain. A full record of Peterhouse’s books was kept from 1418 and a new library room completed by Reginald of Ely at the end of the 1440s. Printed books entered that library in or before the 1490s but remained a minority presence in sixteenth-century catalogues until the bequest of a significant part of the library of Andrew Perne (Master of Peterhouse, 1554-89). Perne’s donation of more than a thousand books also encouraged the construction of a new library and the unchaining of the College’s books. The new library (completed in the mid-1590s) was extended by John Cosin (Master of Peterhouse, 1635-44) and furnished by the mid-1650s with shelves and paneling by the local craftsman, William Ashley. Cosin’s intruded successor, Lazarus Seaman, obtained several important gifts for the library from members of the London book trade and also temporarily secured about a thousand volumes that had been sequestered from Cosin’s own library (of which approximately four hundred titles survive at Peterhouse). Records of the library, including borrowing registers, survive particularly well from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Additions of books and manuscripts by gift and purchase have continued to be made, notably through the efforts of Thomas Richardson (Master of Peterhouse, 1699-1733); Henry Cookson (Master, 1847-76); Adolphus Ward (Master, 1900-1924); and T. A. Walker (Fellow, 1886-1935). Strengths of the collection include books associated with the university curriculum of the later middle ages and the sixteenth century, including early scientific books; sixteenth-century Hebrew and Syriac printing; and books written or owned by individuals with a close association with the College.

There is a detailed catalogue of the College’s holdings of printed books available online from the College website. A blog of library news, including reports on special collections, is also maintained. Digitised collections can be consulted through the Cambridge Digital Library and the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM). The following printed books also supply information about the College’s holdings:

Scott Mandelbrote, Donors of Books to Peterhouse (Cambridge, 2005)

David McKitterick (ed.), Perne Quatercentenary Studies (Cambridge, 1991)

R. M. Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in the Library of Peterhouse, Cambridge (Cambridge, 2016)




Image (c) Sara Rawlinson, used with permission.