November 08, 2006

Happy Birthday, Bodleian

Oxford University's Bodleian Library celebrates a birthday today -- its 404th.

Opened to the public on November 8, 1602, the Old Bodleian (photo), centerpiece of a library complex that today comprises the original institution and about a dozen other buildings, rises like a golden stone surprise from the pavement of the Old Schools Quad.

At 404 years old, the Bodleian is a relative teenager in Oxford's family of teaching institutions. An industrial city now surrounds Oxford's ancient core, but you can spend days discovering the old city's university heart, walking its cobbles, resting in its chapels, stumbling upon its myriad, enchanting Gothic quadrangles.

By 1602, when the Bodleian opened its doors, Oxford had already seen nearly 600 years of educational pursuit, teaching having existed here in some form since the 11th century. My hotel room looked into a courtyard of Merton College, founded in 1254 and one of the oldest of Oxford University's 39 official colleges.

I began my walking tour of Oxford, the English-speaking world's oldest university, by following cobblestoned Merton Street, which delivered me to one of Merton College's green lawns. I sat, soaking up the scarce spring sun of a nearly cloudless day, and contemplated the seven and a half centuries of history that the stone facades around me had witnessed.

I walked on to New College -- new in 1379 -- then poked about the yards and gates and courtyards and grand quadrangles of 13th-century University College, The Queen's College (1341), Magdalen (1448), Brasenose (1509), and Christ Church, founded in 1524 as Cardinal's College by Cardinal Wolsey, appropriated by Henry VIII in 1529 after Wolsey's tumble from power, then refounded by the much-married monarch as Christ Church in 1546.

Gothic spires everywhere. Students rushing alone down narrow alleys and main streets, or walking in pairs or groups, slowly, discussing topics I imagined were over my head. And bicycles everywhere. Old, seriously-fendered vehicles with fat tires and wicker baskets strapped to handlebars and little chinking bells and thick coats of paint upon paint in hardware store colors of ochre and cream and russet and navy blue.

As I meandered through the old city's university core, threading the labyrinth of majestic spaces, I felt the power of the place and its near- thousand years of history, architecture, intrigue, exploration, enlightenment.

Four-century-old Bodleian is a beauty, but in Oxford, just a baby.