Shakespeare's 'First Folio', Dante's Divine Comedy, and fragments of Homer's Odyssey from the second century CE, are among the objects in our final film celebrating Lines of Thought at Cambridge University Library.

The influence that these texts have had is really quite incalculable

John Wells

Since March, some of the world’s most valuable books and manuscripts have been on display as Cambridge University Library celebrates its 600th birthday. This fortnight is the last chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime free exhibition of its greatest treasures.

The objects in Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World, which will close to the public on September 30, communicate 4,000 years of human thought through the Library’s unique and irreplaceable collections. More than 70 per cent of the exhibits are displayed to the public for the first time.

The exhibition investigates through six distinct themes how Cambridge University Library’s eight million books and manuscripts have transformed our understanding of life here on earth and our place among the stars.

In Telling the Story of History, curator John Wells traces the way in which literature has treated the monarchs and heroes of history.

Long before the development of evidence-based history, this was done through story-telling. Stories that elaborate on myths, legends and folk memories accumulate down the years, connecting successive ages with their past, and influencing writers of the present. In the Western European tradition fables inherited from classical antiquity have been passed down the centuries to inspire countless reinventions and retellings. Themes and characters from Homer’s Odyssey, for example, surface again and again in literature, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Margaret Drabble’s novel The gates of ivory.

"Homer stands at the head of the Western European tradition of narrative, and there are no epics older than the Homeric epics – the influence that these texts have had is really quite incalculable," says Wells.

The plays of William Shakespeare, gathered here in the ‘First Folio’ of 1623, are a highwater mark of imaginative literature. Their fictional depiction of real people and real events, such as Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, can shape our understanding of historical events.

"The 'First Folio' of Shakespeare, the collection of his plays which was published soon after his death by his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell, collects many plays which never saw print in Shakespeare's lifetime," explains Wells. "If it hadn't been for the work of Heminges and Condell, so many plays which are at the peak of English literary tradition would simply not be known to us."

"Shakespeare's views and interpretations of his characters really have affected the way in which we now think of historical figures," says Wells.

Fantastical fictional writings such as Dante’s Divine comedy also draw on figures of the past for their protagonists, or use allusion to pass on subtle messages. Folk stories, whether written on ancient papyri or in a modern novel, weave their way through Cambridge University Library’s collections and through our collective imaginations.

"Our line of thought, which we began with a papyrus fragment of Homer, leads right to the end of the 20th century now with Cambridge-educated novelist Margaret Drabble," says Wells.

"In her novel The gates of ivory, Drabble sets her characters against the great sweep of history, and in particular the revolution in Cambodia in the 1970s. The University Library is actively acquiring the archives of literary authors because we know that they are going to be subjects of study in the years to come - the notes and drafts which are accumulated are sources of scholarship in their own right."

Inset image: Homer, Fragments of the Odyssey, XII, ll. 250–304, Second century CE.

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