Sunday, July 8, 2012

Robert Cotton's Hobby

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton was born 22 January, 1570 (or 1571). Too late to be part of the Middle Ages, but still a subject for this blog; you'll see why presently. He attended the Westminster School on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in London, considered one of the finest schools in England. From there he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1585.

In 1601 he was made a Member of Parliament and started a successful political career. He helped King James I develop a new fund-raising scheme with the invention of the title/position "baronet." A baronet (like a knighthood) did not confer on the bearer a right to attend Parliament (and therefore be a potential nuisance), but it was a lovely and impressive title that could be inherited; many wealthy men would willingly pay large sums to be made a baronet, which gave them a hereditary title for their childfren but no real power.
Robert Cotton, painted in 1626.

Despite Cotton's friendship and value to the king, he began to become a concern when his views about the importance of parliament over the monarch were expressed in his published essay The Dangers wherein the Kingdom now standeth, and the Remedye. The monarchy considered this a threat, and they decided to take action to prevent Cotton from becoming the center of discontent. The monarchy had a simple solution to pull the rug out from under Cotton: confiscate his library.

The assumption was that his library held documents that might provide historical precedents for his political views. Why was his library such a concern? Robert Cotton had a hobby: for decades he had been collecting documents, manuscripts, books, records. He had an insatiable desire to collect and preserve the history of the written word in England, and he created a library with more documents (it was said at the time) than the Records Office in London. It was confiscated by the king in 1630. Cotton died in 1631. The library was eventually returned to his family; his grandson gave it to the British Library.

The Cotton Library was, of course, pre-Dewey Decimal and pre-Library of Congress. He had his own scheme for organizing documents. His library was lined with bookcases, each of which was topped by the bust of a classical figure. Each bookcase had up to 6 shelves, designated by letters. Each shelf was filled with documents, counted from left to right. Items in the library were designated by bust/shelf/#document. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (one of nine surviving manuscripts) is designated Cotton Domitian A.viii. Many works of literature from the Middle Ages, such as Beowulf (Cotton Vitellius A.xv) or Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight (Cotton Nero A.x) exist today only because they were collected and preserved thanks to Robert Cotton's hobby.

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