Piecing together Magdalen’s financial fragments

05 July 2023

‘Value’ is one of the key concepts in the field of archives and records management. The idea is a slippery one, leading both practitioners and thinkers to debate exactly what we mean by this (what one archivist considers to have archival value another may not), but it nevertheless remains central to the judgements archivists make when appraising which items we accept into an archive for permanent retention.

In the Magdalen Archives, one of the collections that has what is called intrinsic value, no matter the observer, is our near unbroken series of account books, running from the 1470s to the 1880s.

Fig. 1 A typical volume of Libri Computi from 1630

Known as Libri Computi, these books represent the main series of Bursars’ annual accounts for internal college expenses. The method by which they were drawn up varied slightly over the centuries, but the accounts were always written in Latin and almost always on parchment. The expenses they record stretch across college life, relating to things such as commons; pensions and portions to officers and scholars; alms and stipends of chaplains, clerks, lecturers and leading servants; expenditure on chapel, hall, treasury, exchequer, kitchen, library, and the President’s lodgings; and repairs and legal costs.

As a result, the Libri Computi are a treasure trove of information, without which Magdalen’s early history would be almost impossible to write. Two of our early college historians, John Rouse Bloxam (F 1835–1863) and William Dunn Macray (F 1890–1916), relied heavily on the Libri Computi to inform their work, while recent exhibitions in the Old Library have used the account books to shed light on everything from responses to plague and pestilence to the hidden (but nonetheless important) role of women in early Magdalen.

Fig. 2 Page from Macray’s Register of Magdalen members, with extracts from the Libri Computi

An archival record loses much of its value, however, if it cannot be consulted. This has long been the case with regards to the Libri Computi volumes for the first half of the 18th century, which suffered serious water damage at some point between 1845 and 1904. Left in a jumbled pile for many decades thereafter, the volumes had suffered major degradation to the extent that they had become too fragile to handle. Given their dimensions (at around 50cm in height, Libri Computi volumes fall into the ‘oversize’ category), the damaged books had in many ways become the very worst type of archival record: indispensable, yet closed to readers, rather large, and taking up space.

Fig. 3 Bundle of damaged 18th-century Libri Computi

Fortunately, after two months of painstaking work by my colleague Jess Hyslop at the Oxford Conservation Consortium, the 18th-century Libri Computi fragments can now be safely handled for the first time in what is likely more than a century. Jess’ work revealed both the extent of the damage done to some of the fragments and how 25 folios had become separated from the volumes of which they once formed a part.

Piecing such things back together would be relatively easy were dates to appear anywhere in the Libri Computi other than on their covers, but this is sadly not the case. Even page numbers would help orientate things in such a fragmented landscape, but the practice of numbering only became current after 1727. As such, each folio had to be identified using a combination of internal references, palaeography, and matching patterns of damage.

With regards to the first of these, the Register of Magdalen members published by William Dunn Macray between 1894 and 1915 was of invaluable assistance. As the image (Fig. 2) above shows, Macray peppered each volume of his Register with extracts from the sources he consulted, including the Libri Computi, from which he pulled contextualising or unusual information.

Fig. 4 Folio for 1728, with the almost illegible entry (second line) for Henry Cane

In the Register entry for Henry William Cane, therefore, who was elected a fellow in 1716, it was thanks to Macray’s note recording how Cane had been paid £1 in 1728 ‘pro supervisione Bibliothecae’ (‘for looking after the Library’) that a single, heavily-damaged folio could be assigned to that year. In other instances, it seems that Macray had himself been through the fragments in an attempt to identify them, although not always successfully. In one case, careful comparison of the damage done to folios assigned by Macray to 1719 revealed that they in fact belonged to the accounts for 1718. The process of identification also threw up interesting curiosities, such as the fragment of Hebrew (נישת) written next to a payment made that year to the lecturer in Hebrew.

Fig. 5 Hebrew text next to an entry for the lecturer in Hebrew

After much detective work, therefore, the pieces of the puzzle began slowly falling into place, such that of the 25 original fragments all but four were eventually identified and reunited with what remains of their respective volume. The resulting picture was a satisfyingly complete (if still somewhat fragmentary) run of accounts from 1700 to 1739, with the added bonus of a near complete book for 1629, of which previously only one folio had been known.

As such, while much conservation work remains to be done to make these fragmentary Libri Computi volumes available to researchers, those interested will soon be able to use them to shed light on this part of Magdalen’s history, during which the account books show how the college was battered by the great storm of 26 November 1703, nearly burned to the ground on 6 August 1719, and was visited at the President’s invitation in 1725 by an unnamed abbot of one of the monastic communities on Mount Athos in Greece.

Thanks to Jess and her skills, therefore, as well as to a little bit of patient research, the ‘value’ these financial records have for Magdalen’s rich history will be restored once again. With their eyes always on value of another kind, the Bursars who drew them up would, I hope, approve!

Written by Dr Richard Allen, Archivist and Records Manager