It’s finally here, y’all! The annual Real-Time Reading for A Discovery of Witches. Today, we meet Diana, the Book, and the Bodleian! We begin today – 18 September – with Chapter 1.
The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, ancient and worn.
When we meet Diana, the intrepid, willful, intelligent heroine of our story, she’s poring over old manuscripts in the library in order to prepare for an upcoming historical conference. The text tells us that Dr. Bishop is a historian who focuses on the history of science — specifically, on the history of alchemy. In the opening scenes of A Discovery of Witches, Diana confronts a text – Ashmole 782 – which displays curious, magical characteristics. If you’d like to learn more about manuscripts, I
recommend perusing the Digital Medieval Manuscripts Collection presented by Harvard’s Houghton Library. As a sample, check out this Treatise on the astrolabe by Geoffrey Chaucer, ca. 1400. If you’d like to see alchemical illustrations like those Diana describes in Ashmole 782, The University of Glasgow Library Special Collections Department featured The Rosarium Philosophorum (18th c., Sp. Coll. MS Ferguson 210) as an online exhibit in 2009. For palaeography resources – i.e., how to read and decipher manuscripts – see The National Archives Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800, A Practical Online Tutorial.
In the first chapter, we also learn that Diana comes from a long line of witches in New England.
More important, my life was now my own. No one in my department, not even the historians of early America, connected my last name with that of the first Salem woman executed for witchcraft in 1692.
We get a little more about Diana’s ancestor, Bridget Bishop, later in ADOW, but the text focuses more on her notoreity amongst witches than on her greater historical significance. Bridget Bishop was tried for witchcraft and hanged on June 10, 1692.
Bridget Bishop is a prominent figure in both history and popular culture. You can read more about her from History.com, the Smithsonian, the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, and NewHistorian.com.
Stamped in gilt on the spine was a coat of arms belonging to Elias Ashmole, a seventeenth-century book collector and alchemist whose books and papers had come to the Bodleian from the Ashmolean Museum in the nineteenth century, along with the number 782.
Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was an English politician, astrologer, and student of alchemy. He both wrote and collected books on alchemy. In his later life, he became a well-known collector of “manuscripts and curiosities.” His collection–bequeathed to the University of Oxford–became the first public museum in England in 1683. Part of the Ashmolean Collection does actually reside in the Bodleian, and you can actually browse some of the manuscripts online. The link will take you to Ashm. 529, Johannes Annius, De futuris Christianorum triumphis in Saracenos. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Oxford has some very fine online collections here.
From the Bodelian’s “About Us” page:
The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library with over 12 million printed items. First opened to scholars in 1602, it incorporates an earlier library built by the University in the 15th century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Since 1602 it has expanded, slowly at first but with increasing momentum over the last 150 years, to keep pace with the ever-growing accumulation of books, papers and other materials, but the core of the old buildings has remained intact.
In her Real-Time Reading Post for 18 September, Deb reveals that she first walked into the Duke Humphrey’s reading room in 1985. Apparently, it made quite the impression on her. The library was built between 1450 and 1480 in order to contain the collection of manuscripts collected by Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester, during his life. You can find more detailed photographs of the interior here.
You can catch our discussion of Chapters 1-3 of ADOW in our first episode, Vampire Boyfriend, but you should also check out episodes from our fellow podcasters covering the same material:
Don’t forget to follow Deb on social media (@DebHarkness on Twitter and Instagram) for more real-time reading updates. In the meantime, you can find us at @chamomilenclove on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.