Medieval manuscripts blog

06 November 2021

Investigating the origins of the Cotton collection: call for academic partners

The British Library is pleased to invite academics at UK universities and Higher Education Institutions to collaborate with us on two jointly-supervised doctoral research projects. One research topic is entitled Investigating the origins and development of the Cotton collection; the other is Football fanzines and fan communities in the digital age. You can read more about them on the Library's website.

Both studentships will be fully funded for up to four years through the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme. The research projects draw directly on the Library's collections, expertise and resources, and are closely aligned with our vision statement, key programmes and overall purpose as a national library. Prospective HEI partners are invited in an open competition to submit proposals to further develop and bring their own expertise and perspective to our research themes.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, dressed in black and with a white collar, with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis; the inscription is in gold ink, written in Latin

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, with his hand resting on the manuscript known as the 'Cotton Genesis': courtesy of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon

We would welcome applications from academics of postgraduate status currently employed at UK universities/Higher Education Institutions, who would be interested in joint supervision of a collaborative doctoral project on the Cotton collection, beginning in October 2022. The library put together by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and his descendants was once described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual’. It contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. The Cotton collection was presented to the nation in 1702 and is one of the foundation collections of the British Library. In 2018, it was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.

A letter in brown ink written in 1630, sending Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton

A letter of Sir Edward Dering, sending to Sir Robert Cotton the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

There has been no detailed investigation of how Sir Robert Cotton and his son and grandson assembled their library. This Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project aims to address this gap, investigating for example when and from whom Cotton acquired his manuscripts, what his collecting principles were, whether there were specific networks of patronage or patterns of previous ownership, and how the creation and use of the collection can be situated within a wider historical context. Valuable information can be deduced from inscriptions in the manuscripts themselves, from the early handwritten catalogues of the collection, and from Cotton’s own correspondence, all of which are held at the British Library.

The Library’s curators are experts in book history and manuscript culture, but would be keen to collaborate with academics specialising in late Elizabethan and early Stuart politics and cultural history, and in the book collecting practices of this period. This project will also offer significant opportunities for wider outreach and engagement, ranging from blogposts for more general audiences and content creation on the Library’s website to resources or events for specialist researchers.

A page from the Gawain manuscript, showing Sir Gawain dressed in red, wielding an axe, and the Green Knight sitting on horseback, holding his decapitated head in his hand

The only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is found in the Cotton library: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Completed application forms and brief CVs must be submitted to by 5pm on Friday, 10 December 2021. Late applications cannot be accepted.

Before submitting your application, please ensure you have read the Information for HEI Applicants and are aware of the specific characteristics of the AHRC CDP scheme, the selection criteria and the envisaged timetable.

More information on the call for academic partners can be found on the Library's website.


Julian Harrison

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