Library and Archives Blog

St Hilda's Library's Oldest Printed Book

Gualtherus Burlaeus, Expositio in artem veterem Porphyrii et Aristotelis (Venice: Bonetus Locatellus, for Octavianus Scotus, 8 July 1488)

The oldest printed book in St Hilda’s special collections is treasured not only because of its age, but because it came from the collection of the College’s founder, Dorothea Beale.

Originally written c.1337, this work by the prominent fourteenth-century philosopher, Walter Burley, would have been as much if not more valuable to early St Hilda’s students for its form as for its content. It exemplifies how printing might be seen as a continuation of the manuscript tradition, another way of disseminating works which had previously been copied by hand before.

Texts printed in the 15th century like this one are referred to as incunabula i.e. coming from the “cradle” of early European printing. According to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), an international database of 15th-century European printing, it is the only copy of this edition in the British Isles.

As you can see in the image from the first surviving page, the work is printed in two columns (which continues throughout), with spaces left blank for initial letters to be added by hand later. The Hilda’s copy does not have any of these spaces filled in, but it does have lots of late 15th/early 16th-century annotations throughout in three or four different hands. This exemplifies the long history of this copy even before it entered Beale’s collection. Whereas in the era of Beale’s book collecting these annotations may have lowered the price of the work, it is this kind of evidence of use which excites researchers today. 

The image of the final page includes information about where and when the book was printed (the colophon) and also shows some of the woodblock diagrams which appear throughout. This gives yet more to talk about when the book is used as an example in current teaching.

The Special Collections at St Hilda’s (around 700 titles) mostly pre-date the foundation of the College (1893), thus have some interesting stories to tell about where they’ve been and how they came to be here. Dorothea Beale gave at least 30 of her books to the College, and we look forward to discovering more about the works she thought women at the College should have access to in the late 19th century.


Book plate of the oldest printed book in St Hilda’s special collections , First page from the oldest printed book in St Hilda’s special collections , Final page of the oldest printed book in St Hilda’s special collections

Student theatrical productions: From paper to USB stick

In the summer of 1906, St Hilda’s students staged a performance of the 16th-century play, The Arraignment of Paris, in the Hall grounds. This production is particularly significant because of the range of historical documents we hold about it. Alongside photographs and theatrical programmes, we also hold annotated texts of the play, music scores and notes about the songs, a number of which are currently on display in the Kathleen Major Library at St Hilda's.

The first image shows the cast in costume in the College grounds. The second shows the text of the play, The Arraignment of Paris, by George Peele and edited by Oliphant Smeaton, London, Dent, 1905. The book was donated by St Hilda's first Principal, Esther Burrows (Principal 1893-1910). The inscription reads, 'This play was acted in the garden of St Hilda's Hall, Oxford (now called 'Old Hall') in Trinity Term 1906. This is now followed by the list of the cast.' [EPHEMERA: Arraygnment of Paris 1]

In February 2020, a former student deposited to the archive a USB stick of fascinating student theatrical materials dating from 2011. The files include JPEG images, Word documents, audio files and films. How we store and preserve these digital documents so we can open them for research and display is the great challenge facing the archival profession today. The third image shows the file structure for the digital materials in our archives.


Performance of Arraingnment of Paris, in the grounds of St Hilda's, c. 1906, Text of the play 'The Arraignment of Paris', edited by Oliphant Smeaton, London, Dent, 1905. Donated by Esther Burrows [Principal 1893-1910]. , File structure for digital materials in St Hilda's College's archives

Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Peace was signed on 28th June 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France. Commonly referred to as the Treaty of Versailles, it came into effect on 10th January 1920 and officially marked the end of the First World War. Printed copies were published and printed by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1919, and St Hilda’s Library purchased its copy soon after, in 1920.

The treaty begins:

'Bearing in mind that on the request of the Imperial German Government an armistice was granted on November 11, 1918, to Germany by the Principal Allied and Associated Powers in order that a Treaty of Peace might be concluded with her,


From the coming into force of the present Treaty the state of war will terminate. From that moment and subject to the provisions of this Treaty official relations with Germany, and with any of the German States, will be resumed by the Allied and Associated Powers.’

The Treaty imposed many territorial, military, and economic sanctions on Germany, and negotiations were led by the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. Facsimiles of their representatives’ signatures were printed inside the copies the Treaty, including those of David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.

Treaty of Versailles, Signatures of UK Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and President of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, on the Treaty of Peace

St Hilda's in the (not so) bleak midwinter

The College grounds and proximity to the Cherwell river has long been a source of winter entertainment for our community. Ethel Collinson (St Hilda’s, 1917-1920]) wrote in a letter home to her mother in February 1919:

“Today and yesterday have been brilliantly fine, though frosty.  The meadows are frozen and everyone who knows how is skating… Meadow skating is ideal for beginners, as there is nowhere more than a foot of water - mostly the ice is just a thin sheet over the ground itself.  The river has gone down, so we expect the return of the punts and canoes tomorrow.” [St Hilda’s Archives/PP 13/51]

During the great freeze of 1963, some College Fellows’ literally went one step further and walked down the river Cherwell outside the Milham Ford Building. This is not a recommended course of action by the way…

St Hilda’s College has a rich tradition of celebrating the festive season. ‘Carols on the Stairs’ has been a cherished feature of College life since at least the 1930s. Scout, Madge Bootes, who worked at St Hilda’s between 1947-1973 recalled the following in her 1970s MS recollections:

“ The carols which are sung by St Hilda’s choir… are sung in South Building a few days before Michaelmas Term ends. The Hall and Staircase are decorated with evergreen and people sit in the hall, the landing and also on the wide staircase. By candlelight, the singing of old, as well as new carols is really lovely and at the interval, mulled claret is served.” [St Hilda’s Archive/Reminiscences: 2nd sequence Bootes M]

St Hilda's Fellows walking on the frozen river Cherwell, c 1963, Snow-covered grounds of St Hilda's in 1922

Greek vase living in St Hilda's Library

October's 'Treasure of the Month' has been chosen by Maria Croghan, who retired from St Hilda's in September 2019 after 35 years as our Librarian. Maria's career here began when she was a Classics undergraduate and her favourite treasure captures both aspects of her time at St Hilda's.

Relatively little is known about the the greek vase that resides in the library, but it is thought to depict a scene from the Trojan war, when Achilles is obliged to give his concubine to Agamemnon. It was a gift to College from Mary Bennett (1965-1980), Principal of St Hilda's 1965-1980. It came to Maria when she took up her post as Librarian with a note from her predecessor, Ms Hampshire, giving strict instructions that it was to be kept in the Library.

We wish Maria a wonderful retirement as the vase passes to the care of our new Librarian, Dr Jill Dye.

Greek Vase