The Lower Library contains the College’s special collections of around 26,000 incunabula and early printed books, and 900 manuscripts.
More than 350 manuscripts survive from the medieval library, some in their original bindings. This is the largest surviving medieval college library in Cambridge, and it is especially rich in the discipline of Roman law. Most of these manuscripts were given or bequeathed to the College by its earliest Fellows. The whole collection was consolidated and expanded following the College’s re-founding by Dr Caius in 1558. John Caius was an ardent humanist whose contact with Italy enabled him to acquire many examples of the new learning, including medical works in Greek and a Hebrew Bible. We now possess over 700 manuscripts, most dating from before 1500, including illuminated Books of Hours and Psalters.
Early printed books
By 1500 the Library held 300 books, principally in the disciplines of theology, law and medicine, demonstrating our early commitment to the learned professions. Further important bequests came from William Branthwaite, Master 1607-1619, whose fine library on theology, philosophy and classical literature included sixty books printed before 1520 and James Burrough, Master 1754-1764, who bequeathed over one hundred books. The Library now holds 100 incunabula (books printed before 1501).
The Lower Library collections are still being expanded, principally in the purchase of material relating to the history of the College, its alumni and the wider University; also histories of the city of Cambridge, the surrounding area and East Anglia.
Individual items from the Special Collections are explored further in the Library’s Featured Books blog.
Visiting researchers may be interested to know that all the western manuscripts in the Library have been fully described in the published catalogue: James, M.R. A descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of Gonville and Caius College. (2 volumes and supplement) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907-1914.
The collection of incunabula in the Library has likewise been described in: Schneider, G.A. A descriptive catalogue of the incunabula in the library of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928.
The early printed books in the historic collections have been alphabetically listed by means of brief author-title-place-date entries in the Library’s own guard-book catalogue, which may be consulted in the Lower Library. A project is underway to provide in-depth online catalogue records for all the Library's early printed holdings; so far all of our incunabula and imprints dated between 1501-1600 have been completed. We are currently working on those dated 1601-1650 and the online catalogue iDiscover is constantly updated with these records.
For those interested in the history of the College there is the revised edition of: Brooke, C.N.L. A history of Gonville and Caius College. Cambridge: Boydell, 1996.