Treasure in Earthen Vessels

Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Treasures from Lambeth Palace Library

by Colin Gale

Among the many scholarly treasures of Lambeth Palace Library, perhaps my favourite is its MS no 59, a twelfth-century manuscript from Christ Church Canterbury which brings together the archiepiscopal correspondence of St Anselm, scholar and doctor of the Western Church and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to his death in 1109. Though (like all twelfth-century Canterbury manuscripts) it is a beautifully executed work, it does not boast the lavish illumination and illustration of the Lambeth Bible or Lambeth Apocalypse. Its significance lies not in its visual impact but in its textual witness.

Some scholars have argued that Lambeth MS 59 bears witness to Anselm’s attempts to collect and edit his own archiepiscopal correspondence in such a way as to manage his reputation as a scholar-saint and to downplay his involvement in the messy, murky world of ecclesiastical politics.1 Others have ventured the related idea that behind a carefully nurtured image of simple holiness and profound thinking lay a deceptively astute political player.2 Yet these re-readings are resisted in the late Richard Southern’s magisterial biography of Anselm, according to which he was motivated to the service of God by love and by principle, certainly, but was hardly adept in administrative and stragetic practice, and in fact nursed a deep-seated horror of worldly advancement – a genuinely reluctant Archbishop. Oh, and he had no hand in shaping the form his achiepiscopal correspondence took in MS 59.3

MS 59 is not among the items on show in the Treasures of Lambeth Palace Library 400th anniversary exhibition (information and booking at – although, interestingly, another early manuscript containing letters and works of Anselm is on display. So too is the aforementioned Lambeth Apocalypse and Bible, the latter being one of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ favourite books, as he himself tells visitors via a pre-recorded audioguide. It is a notable exhibition, more ambitious than the Library’s last full-scale attempt, Successors of St Augustine. (Here I must declare an interest, as a erstwhile member of Library staff and a steward on that 1997 exhibition.) Still, I wish that a place could have been found for both MS 59 and a report of scholarly debates like this one over the motivations, role and reputation of the medieval Archbishop. For then the exhibition would have addressed a quite specific theme, one which could have been traced down the centuries to the present day.

As it is, the exhibition does what it says on the tin – it puts (some of) the Library’s many treasures on display for all to see. They are presented by provenance rather than in illustration of particular themes. One case is devoted to ‘Monastic Books’, another to ‘Archbishop Bancroft’s Books’, another to ‘Books owned by Royalty and Nobility’, still another to ‘Books from Sion College Library’, part of which was assimilated by Lambeth in 1996. Granted, there is a case illustrating ‘The Troubled Seventeenth Century’, though curiously not one devoted to the equally troubled (and for the Church of England surely more formative) sixteenth century.

Yet the exhibition does not appear to promote any take-home message other than the one it headlines: Lambeth Palace Library holds many treasures. While this is true enough, it seems to invite a conclusion about the historic and ongoing significance, spiritual and temporal, of the archiepiscopal office (which, after all, still maintains a Palace and a treasure-filled Library). Such a conclusion, while probably unanticipated by the exhibition curators, is hardly helpful in the current ecclesiological climate. I suppose that one possible means to rescue this theme – to protect from any charge of Lambeth ‘triumphalism’ – might be to reach for the biblical metaphor of “treasure in earthen vessels”.4 However, doing so would put this metaphor under considerable strain, the title of this review article notwithstanding. St Paul did not have books in mind in writing of “treasure”, nor libraries or palaces in writing of “vessels”.

The exhibition is supported by a fine catalogue featuring contributions from a range of scholars. Here MS 59 does at last turn up. Richard Sharpe of Wadham College, Oxford, notes that whereas its “distinctive Christ Church handwriting and the evidence of access to Anselm’s papers” once persuaded the twentieth-century editor of his correspondence that MS 59 was “a prototype of the letter collection made under Anselm’s own direction”, “greater understanding of the development of the Christ Church hand and comparison with other copies now shows this belief to be incorrect”.5 So there we have it. The letters preserved in MS 59 cannot be shown to have compiled in Anselm’s lifetime, and (by implication) revisionist accounts of the Archbishop as an effective politician who hid his wheeler-dealing behind a carefully ‘spun’ reputation for saintliness are overdue for critical reassessment.

In this tale, I suggest, lies the germ of a possible alternative take-home message for Lambeth Palace Library’s exhibition. It is one not of ‘treasures’ but of scholarship – or, if you like, the careful study and fair-minded reflection that informs wise judgment. This is a theme which reaches back to the polemical times which saw the inception of Lambeth Palace Library as a “literary arsenal” to defend the Elizabethan settlement from attack “on the one hand from militant Roman Catholicism and on the other from the Puritans, who sought a more radical reformation of Church discipline”.6 And it is one which finds contemporary expression in the words of Archbishop Rowan which close the audioguide tour (and, incongruously, forms part of a commentary on a case containing the shell of a tortoise once owned by an Archbishop, and a pair of gloves which Charles I might, or might not, have worn to the scaffold). At their best, says the Archbishop – here I am paraphrasing from memory – libraries preserve the considered reflections, and chequered record, of the centuries. These are bequeathed to the present and to the future, and we ignore rich resources like them at our peril.

Treasures from Lambeth Palace Library continues until 23 July.


1 So Walter Fröhlich (trans.), The Letters of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, vol. 1 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990), especially pp. 37-52, following Dom Schmitt.

2 Sally Vaughn, Anselm of Bec and Robert of Meulan: The Innocence of the Dove and the Wisdom of the Serpent (Berkeley, 1987).

3 Richard Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 1990), especially pp. 459-481.

4 2 Corinthians 4:7.

5 RichardPalmer and Michelle P. Brown (eds.), Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London: Scala, 2010), p. 38.

6 ibid. pp. 12-13.

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