"Can you tell me something of its provenance…?"

Originally posted [Posting date] by Gaye Morgan; last modified on

This is the question most frequently asked by researchers consulting our early printed collections, and there are some features of the history of the College's library which can help to explain the institutional, and often personal, history of most of the collection.

The Benefactors' Register

The college was founded in 1438, and from the first statutes, rules were laid down by Archbishop Chichele concerning the keeping of books and the recording of their donors. In Chapter 26 of the Statutes, it was stated that the details of the books and donors were to be recorded in a Register (figs. 1-2) made specifically for the purpose:

leather-bound book with All Souls College arms embossed in gilt

Fig. 1: Binding of the Register

Moreover We enact and also ordain, that all such ... books of the Chapel ... and in like manner all the books of all the Faculties belonging to the said College, be entered in a single parchment Register, which is to be bound up for this special purpose, wherein each book is to be legibly described by the commencement of its second folio, and all other the aforesaid articles by their distinct and several natures, together with the names of the givers thereof; which Register the Bursars of the said College are to keep by them in their Bursary. [Section: vi]

The accounts for the years 1601-1606 record the costs and creation of the current register:

'Ex dono reverendi in Chro patris D. Jacobi Goldwell Norwicensis Epi ac quondam huius Coll: socij elect:1441. Johannes de Turrecremata in Psalmes. Rationale Divinorum. Qucest: Quodlibet: Anonymi. Rainerius. 3bius. vol:. Aquinatis 1a. 2a. Arnoldi de Hollandia speculum conscientiae.'

Fig. 2: Example entry in the Register

and the first seventeen folios are taken up with lists that detail only books given up to that date.

Later entries often give only the number of books given, or even just amount of money intended for the purchase of books – but in neither case are the author/title of the individual books recorded. This is key to provenance research at All Souls: although there is a benefactors' register, it is not always possible to know which books were given by a named individual.

With the exception of a pair of globes (which, having printed gores, could perhaps be thought of as at least book-ish), the register only records books, or money left for the purchase of books. From 1681, when, after a period when its use seems to have fallen into abeyance, dates precede each entry, the Register begins to include details of the many other objects given to the College – a practice which continues to this day, and is still recorded in the same Register.

The Old Library (1438 to mid-seventeenth century)

Crucially, the Statutes also required the names of donors to be written into the books themselves, using a particular form of words:

They shall moreover enter on the second folio of each book, or where it can be done with most convenience, the names of the givers of the same books, with a clause of this kind — "The book of the College of all the Souls of the Faithful departed in Oxford, of the gift of N," adding the name and surname of the donor. [Section: vii]
'Liber Collegii Omnium Animarum fidelium defunctorum in Oxon. Ex dono Francisci Milles, artium ma:gistri, ac nuper ejusdem Collegii Socii. 1584.'

Fig. 3: Example College inscription in Latin.

So often the ONLY record of the donor of a particular book is this College inscription (fig. 3), in the book itself. The inscription, often with the Latin abbreviated, is entered by the fellow responsible for enacting this statute on behalf of the College. Although previous owners of books may have written their own names, in various forms, into books – this ownership inscription on its own does not prove that the book was owned by the College in this early period, unless it also bears the College inscription.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Old Library in the front quad had no more space to house books, and books presented were stored wherever there was room for them (many of them in rooms above what is now the Quod restaurant, opposite the College, on High Street) – these may, or may not, have had the inscription written into them, never having made it into the Library itself.

The practice ceased with the move of all the College's books into the newly built "Codrington" Library in the mid-eighteenth century.

If a book has in it the College inscription, it was certainly owned by the College in the "Old Library" period. If it has no college inscription, and was printed before the mid-eighteenth century, it may have been owned by the College, but never made it into the Old Library, and escaped the inscribing. Or, perhaps more likely, it only came into the Library after the collections had been moved into the new building.

Another clue (though not, on its own, a conclusive one) to a book's presence in the Old Library is evidence of chaining – often only a pair of holes towards a board edge. Of course, these could be the marks of chaining in a different institutional library, but it is less common for the kinds of books most often chained to find their way out of such collections and into the hands of individuals, to be given or bequeathed back into institutional ownership.

The "New" Library (1756 onwards)

Gilt stamp of arms (Chichele/All Souls College)

Fig. 4a: College arms: Chichele

Gilt stamp of arms (Chichele impaling Codrington)

Fig. 4b: College arms variant: Chichele impaling Codrington

The use of the Benefactors' Register continued, but as it had done previously, the author/title details of each book was no longer recorded, unless they were considered to be very significant.

The College was marked as the owner by the newly commissioned bookplates, and/or by the stamping of the college arms, in gilt, on either the spine or the boards. (figs. 4a and 4b)

Inside board of book with pasted in bookplate with the text 'Ex legatis Radvlphi. Freman. S.T.P. De. Hammels. In. Com. Hert. Et. Coll. Omn. An. Qvondam Socii. M.DCC.LXX.II.'

Fig 5: Printed bookplate for bequest by Ralph Freman, 1772.

In the case of larger donations of books, often bequeathed rather than presented, the College had bookplates printed (fig. 5); books in these collections too were often acquired second-hand by their collectors, so again, any name written into the book may have no association with the College, or any of its fellows.

'Christopher Codrington His Book 1681 October 1th

Fig 6: One of Codrington's books which he did inscribe.

Of the pre-1710 books, without the College inscription, it is possible that the book may have been part of Codrington's collection (fig. 6). He bequeathed his own library, of some 12,000 volumes, and although a list was made of "Colonel Codrington's books" this list no longer survives in the Library. Codrington did not write in most of his books, so the provenance cannot be confirmed for more than fourteen books out of the twelve thousand.

It is known that he and his agents acquired books second hand, and those printed long before his birth – so any marks of ownership in these [unidentifiable] books do not prove any association of their owners with the College; and often it is necessary to search other archival sources to know whether any named person was a fellow, or not.


The first bookplate was commissioned c.1733, while the new library was still being built, and a succession of designs followed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although these designs have been dated, implying dates of presentation or acquisition of the books that bear any particular plate is not possible as it is clear that some plates were pasted over others, in some books there are two plates with no clear indication which came first, and undoubtedly, stocks of older style plates were used up long after they had been superseded by more recent designs. For more information, see this article on bookplates.

Current practice

Bookplate: Chichele's arms, mitre above and 'Collegium Omnium Animarum in Univer. Oxon.' below.

Fig 7: Bookplate.

Bookplates are still used, and until 2020 a reprint of no. 2 was in use for both purchased, and presented books. When the College decided to cease to refer to the Library as the "Codrington", a new bookplate not incorporating Codrington's arms, was required. According to Henderson, the first bookplate, showing only the arms of Chichele, had never been used; and as the plate itself, though damaged, was still in the Library, it has been used to create a print that could be used for the first time in almost three hundred years. (fig. 7)

Books that are presented have the donor's details added to the printed bookplates – usually their name, and category and/or dates of their fellowship(s); the date on which the book is received by the Library being stamped on the verso of the title page.

Electronic cataloguing

In addition to the bookplate, names of donors are now added to the copy specific notes in the electronic record, in the authority/standard form of their name. This allows anyone to search for all the books presented by an individual. A full transcription of the inscription is also included, so if there are variations in the way in which a name was spelled or written, this can be found, and the standard form of the name discovered. For early printed books, including the provenance details has always been part of the catalogue record; but most books given between c.1830 and 2000 have not yet had these details added to their records. Since 2017, in addition to names of individual donors, records are now tagged with a date that allows a list of donations for any particular year to be browsed (for example, here is the list for presentations received so far in 2021-22: asc-2021-22-pres

A Modern Benefactors' Register

Although the original volume, made in the early seventeenth century is still used for significant gifts to the College, individual books are no longer recorded here. Details have, throughout the twentieth century, been recorded by the Library in either manuscript lists, or electronic files, with significant presentations being included in the Library's Annual Reports and termly Library Committee papers.

Nevertheless, if a researcher wishes to know the identity of a donor, the single consistent, reliable and often only primary source of this information is on the book itself.