Merton College was founded in 1264. It was established by England’s chancellor Walter de Merton as a charity to support a community of scholars, the fellows, who were, and are, teachers of the University of Oxford and who also form the governing body of the college under the leadership of a warden. The college expanded in the 14th century to include undergraduate students, and today there are approximately 300 undergraduates and 300 graduates.
Merton College Library has its origins in the 1270s when the college began building a collection of shared manuscript books for use by the fellows. Through donations, bequests, and purchases the number of books grew to over 1200 volumes by 1500. These were primarily books for study rather than for display or for private devotion. Of the 328 medieval manuscripts in the Merton library today, the vast majority were already in the college before the Reformation. The collection has a special significance as reflecting the academic interests of members of the medieval university. Special items continued to be added to the college library in later centuries, including a small number of non-Western manuscripts bearing witness to scholarly interest in other cultures and traditions.
The Merton items in Digital Bodleian include the oldest manuscript preserved at the college, MS 315, a ninth-century copy of chronological tables of world history compiled by the early Christian historian Eusebius. Columns listing major events in ancient civilisations were laid out across the page so that the reader can see at a glance what was happening in each of them at any given time. The book was brought to England by John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester some time before 1470. By 1556 it was at Merton, but how it got there is unknown.
Also included is another exceptional manuscript, MS 249, which contains Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary in French with over forty marginal pen drawings of birds, beasts and insects. The Bestiary is bound with over twelve other texts in volume given to the college in 1374 by William Reed who also supported the building of the medieval library still standing in Merton’s Mob Quadrangle.
The college aims to add gradually more manuscripts and other items of special interest to the digital collections. Descriptions of the medieval manuscripts and medieval fragments can be found online at Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries.