Levantine echoes in Christ Church Library

When Archbishop Wake bequeathed his book collection to Christ Church, Oxford, he opened a new chapter in the college’s history. Printed books, manuscripts, volumes of correspondence, as well as a valuable collection of coins would arrive accompanied by £5,000 towards the construction of a new library.

In volume No.26, among Archbishop Wake’s private correspondence, there are 20 letters pointing to the Levantine provenance of some of the Byzantine manuscripts and several of the printed books in his collections. These letters are currently being digitised and will soon be available in Digital Library.

The day I first stepped in the magic place that is Christ Church Upper Library, nothing would have let me guess that, on the South Wall, where the name “Wake”  presides above his book collections, some special books were waiting for me to look into their past. In a way this is my past as well, as they are the result of an intellectual dialogue between Archbishop Wake and Nicholas Mavrokordatos, a “prince” who ruled over two countries, Walachia and Moldavia, that would later became parts of Romania, the country I was born in.

As part of a scholarly family from Fanar, the Greek district of Constantinople, in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Mavrokordatos endeavoured  to show the world the greatness of Greek culture. To do this, one of the most noteworthy things he was committed to was building a magnificent library, with a collection so large and wide-ranging that it was reported as being envied by even King Louis 15 of France. Mavrokordatos was not only a great and consumate book collector. If one reads his own work, On the studies of literature and books reading (inspired by Francis Bacon’s Of Studies), one is bound to realize that the author, the prince, considered reading books one of the essential resources of a good ruler.  

The dialogue between Nicholas Mavrokordatos and William Wake was mediated by Jean Leclerc, a Suisse from Amsterdam. The correspondence preserved at Christ Church dates from 1722 to 1727. Two of the letters are in Mavrokordatos' own hand, some are written by Leclerc. There are also drafts of letters addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the prince. It is worthy of note that Wake was conducting his extensive foreign correspondence in his own hand.

Interestingly, we know that two of the manuscripts in the Byzantine collection at Christ Church (MS 26 and MS 51) are gifts from Mavrokordatos to William Wake. This is documented by papers that acknowledge their arrival, and also by scholars as Andrei Pipiddi. However, just one title of the printed books sent by the prince to Archbishop Wake is mentioned in the correspondence. This is Liber de officiis, published in 1722 in Leipzig and written by Mavrokordatos while being held as a hostage in Transylvania. Nowadays only two of the four books sent by the prince to the Archbishop remain (the shelfmarks for these are WK.4.5 and WK.4.6).
There may be other volumes presumably coming from the same source, although there is also evidence of a direct relation between the author, Dositheos, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Wake, suggested by a letter addressed  to Wake in 1725.:

Three of these volumes were published in Iasi (WK.3.7 published in 1705 , WK.3.8, published in 1698 and WK.3.9 published in 1692). One volume was published in Bucuresti (WT.3.24). The fact that the four above mentioned books were published in Iasi (Moldavia) and Bucuresti (Walahia)  could be proof of the fact that they have the same source. This however remains to be investigated further, as does the possibility that there are further similar volumes yet to be identified.

Another avenue of inquiry opened by this dialogue is a comparison between the two libraries. Archbishop’s Wake collections survived the centuries, almost untouched, sheltered by the Library at Christ Church. William Wake  was among the scholars who had the vision of the New Library. In a way, the New Library grew around his collection. In his will (dated 12 February 1731) Wake left specific instructions that his collection should be conveyed to the College “by land carriage only and not by water, to the end to avoid any damage which might happen”. He further specified that a Library Keeper should be appointed to care for the bequest.

The geopolitical context resulted in a totally different fate for Nicholas Mavrokordatos’s once magnificent book collection: It was dismantled shortly after his death in 1730 by his son, Constantin Mavrokordatos, in order to provide the funds to insure his position as a ruler in Walachia. The monastic complex designed to host the library became, in time, a prison and eventually fell pray to Ceausescu’s demolition madness. Only a few frescos from the church, saved by the students of an Art Institute, survived ... And Mavrokordatos' tombstone in a museum.


Alina Nachescu
Photographic and Special Collections Assistant

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