Thomas Smith: Library as University

Informed by his knowledge of Vitruvius’ ancient Roman treatise on architecture, Thomas Smith’s Renaissance palace, Hill Hall (in Essex), was both an embodiment of his humanism and the setting for its practical application. There, magnificent facades and frescos provided the backdrop for gatherings of scholars and nobility sharing a common devotion to the latest fashions in humanist learning.

An essential feature of these gatherings was Smith’s renowned library of over four hundred books. At a time when access to books could play so important a part in the establishment of equal relationships between the nobility and scholars seeking advancement, this collection of classical and modern texts helped to establish Hill Hall as an educational centre, and perhaps even as an alternative university. An illustration of its role can be seen in a reported debate concerning Livy’s history of Rome that took place at Hill Hall between Smith and other learned and high-born ‘armchair’ protagonists as part of their planning for the doomed plan for colonisation in Ireland.

The contents of Smith’s library are known from notebooks in which Smith lists titles under headings such as ‘Historiographes’, ‘Historiæ’, and ‘Astronomica’. Having noted that none of his descendants were ‘learned’, Smith’s will bequeathed all of his ‘latin and Greke’ books to Queens’ ‘uppon condition that they chained them upp in theire library’. That these instructions were not followed to the letter is evident in the fact that the College Donors’ book records only eighty titles under Smith’s bequest. Of the sixty-five or so now known to be at Queens’ many do bear chain scars that confirm that they were indeed once attached to library shelves.

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