Euclid's first English translation of The Elements of Geometrie back to the Library at Christ Church

In December 2021, the Friends of the National Libraries and two generous donors, Dr. Fiona Hollands (1985) and Ethan Berman, provided generous financial assistance to enable the acquisition of a copy of Euclid, The Elements of Geometrie by Christ Church Library.  Translated into English by Sir Henry Billingsley, with a preface by John Dee (London, 1570), this book is the first edition of the first complete English translation of Euclid’s Elements.  Euclid compiled the thirteen books of The Elements while working in Alexandria in the third century B.C. His work describes the foundations of Mathematics and dominated the subject for over two thousand years. He developed the concept of logical proof, in which theorems are proved, directly or indirectly, from axioms.  The work was transmitted through the medieval world in languages including Greek, Arabic and Latin. Nearly three hundred editions of the text appeared between 1482 and 1700.

This first English translation of Euclid was brought out by the printer John Day (1522-1584) and the translation was made by Henry Billingsley, (d.1606), a rich merchant who served as Lord Mayor of London.  Billingsley drew on the work of two earlier editors, Campanus Novara and Bartolomeo Zamberti, and also benefited from the involvement of the mathematician and astronomer John Dee (1527-1608) who wrote the "very fruitfull preface" and contributed many annotations and additional theorems.  Dee’s preface states that the translation was intended to help ‘common artificers’ and stresses the utilitarian aspect of geometry and the importance of experiment.  The printing by John Day of such a large folio, complete with its folding overslips, was a monumental task.

In addition to its significance as the first edition of the first complete English translation of Euclid’s Elements, Christ Church was keen to acquire the volume for its rich provenance and the opportunity to bring the book home.  The volume was given to the Library in 1587 by a group of nine students on receiving their Master of Arts degrees and the verso of the title-page records the names of the students.  The group includes James Calfhill, headmaster of Durham Grammar School, Edmund Gwyn, Vicar of Market Lavington (and grandfather of Nell Gwynn), and George Limiter, civil servant and solicitor to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.  Christ Church was the first Oxford college to introduce a system of encouraging those graduating to give either a book or money to the Library, but there is much research to be done on how that practice was organised.  The practice of students giving books to the Library upon receiving degrees was not codified until the first statutes were written in 1614.  Three other examples of books containing group inscriptions (donated in 1583, 1584 and 1585) are still in the Library and the acquisition of this volume provides material evidence of the tradition of group donation and many opportunities for research on library history and the history of collecting, as well as on the content and the circulation of the text itself.  The book had been held by Christ Church Library until some point in the 18th century when it was unfortunately sold as a duplicate and purchased for the Spencer Library by George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), the foremost bibliophile of his era and creator of perhaps the greatest library then in private hands. The agricultural depression of the 1880s compelled his grandson John Poyntz, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910), to sell the collection in 1892, when Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands purchased the collection almost in its entirety for the John Rylands Library.  The volume was sold in the John Rylands sale as a duplicate in 1988.

The book is also a witness to the history of mathematical teaching at Christ Church.  The Library already holds extremely rich rare book holdings in the field of early mathematics, but mathematical education at Christ Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is quite understudied, partly due to the lack of archival records.  The donation of the 1570 Euclid in 1587 might suggest that the group who donated it felt that it was time the College started teaching mathematics in the vernacular, rather than in Latin.

Dr Philip Beeley (Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology) says of the acquisition: “Until recently very little was known about the way mathematics was taught in early modern Oxford. Now, through research in college libraries, more details are slowly emerging. Particularly valuable are books which have been visibly used or which contain ownership details, because they provide important clues enabling the creation of a historical narrative. The recent acquisition by Christ Church of a copy of the 1570 Billingsley edition of Euclid’s Elements in the vernacular, donated to the College by nine contemporary undergraduates, is a wonderful  resource and will be avidly scrutinized by historians pursuing such investigations further.”

We are very grateful to the Friends of the National Libraries, Dr. Fiona Hollands and Ethan Berman for making it possible for us to acquire this sumptuous book and look forward to making this book available for research, enjoyment and public engagement.

Gabriel Sewell
College Librarian

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