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French Special Collections: Balliol College

Benefactors to Balliol College Library donating French items

Special Collections

We have quite a few early printed and rare books in French at Balliol (150 pre-1800 titles and about 250 1800-1900 titles), although no discrete French special collections. If you limit to Balliol on Aleph and search for language code = fre you can see most of what we have, although with the proviso that not all our collections are catalogued.

To give a flavour, some examples of interest from the exhibition that we put out for WESLINE are:

Paul Verlaine, Les poètes maudits , nouvelle édition (Paris, 1888).

This book popularized the idea of the poète maudit, or the ‘cursed poet’, as an artist living counter to society, often in tragic circumstances. As such, it is a work of literary theory and criticism, quoting and commenting upon the work of several French poets. This copy is from the second, expanded, edition, which was the first to include portraits of the subjects. However, this was not bought by Balliol to assist with teaching, but was part of a set of a collection of early editions of Verlaine by a collector, donated to the library in the twenties. From the bequest of William Paton Ker, 1923.

Randle Cotgrave, A dictionarie of the French and English tongues (London, 1632).

With some 48000 headwords, this was by far the most substantial French word-list of its day. Cotgrave, who was secretary to William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, presumably produced this French-to-English list to aid those translating correspondence. His encyclopedic, and often humorous definitions were definitely intended for an English audience. (have a look at ’Merci, dieu villain’, and ’Mercier’, among others!) Printed at the back is Robert Sherwood’s ‘dictionarie of the English set before the French’, which makes this volume closer to the comprehensive dual-language dictionary we know today, but that it was necessary to explain that the two were put together ‘for the commoditie of all such as are desirous of both the languages’ suggests that thoroughly learning a second modern language was still an unusual idea. From the bequest of Sir Thomas Wendy, 1677.

César Oudin, Le thresor des trois langues, Espagnole, Françoise, et Italienne (Geneva, 1617). By the seventeenth century, attitudes had changed, and more people were interested in the languages of their neighbours. As secretary for foreign languages to Henri IV of Navarre, César Oudin assisted with diplomatic missions to Germany and also translated a number of Spanish literary works into French. The first version of this work included only Spanish and French texts, but was plagiarized and expanded into three languages by Girolamo Vittori, which Oudin stole back when he produced this expanded version. Despite his own mastery of several languages, Oudin produced this ’treasury’ for an audience which he knew was more interested in reading literature or picking out the wittiest and most beautiful passages to use in their own writing or conversation, than really learning another language.

To illustrate the breadth of what we have, a couple of French books about horses and riding which I think are fun and have been used recently for dissertations:

L'instruction du Roy en l'exercice de monter a cheual, / par Messire Antoine de Pluuinel ... ; le tout enrichy de grandes figures en taille douce ... desseignees & grauees par Crispian de Pas le Ieune

Le mareschal expert. : Traictant du naturel des cheuaux, des marques de leur bonté, & remedes à toutes leurs maladies... / Par feu N. Beaugrand ...

Augmenté d'vne seconde partie, contenant plusieurs receptes tres-approuuées du sieur de l'Espiney ...

There are also several hundred C19-20 letters in French in personal and family archives, and MSS 350, 455, 458, 467 as well as 383 are partially or entirely in French. All are described online

If you wish to look at Balliol College's collections or to make an appointment to view archives and manuscripts or printed special collections please to to the Library's website at

MS 383 Ovid Heroides