The Perne Library: or, a counterfeit edition of Bookporn

by mercuriuspoliticus


Rachel over at A Historian’s Craft has a regular series of great posts on “bookporn”– in other words, special or wonderful libraries and book shops. Recent posts have focused on a number of Cambridge libraries, so I hope Rachel will forgive me for stealing her idea and posting about another Cambridge library. Perhaps a contender for “hottest library in Cambridge”?

The Perne Library was created through a bequest from Andrew Perne, master of Peterhouse from 1554 to 1589. Perne seems to have known how to stay on the right side of the law – his faith managed to fit remarkably with whatever was the requirement of the day. By 1549 he seemed to have abandoned beliefs in transubstantiation and was well regarded by Edward, only to turn under Mary and endorse the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.

Having previously been close to the reformist regius chair of divinity, Martin Bucer, later as vice-chancellor Perne would have Bucer’s bones exhumed and burnt in Market Square. Foxe in his Actes and Monuments singled this out as “shameful railing”, and there is actually a hole burnt in the middle of the relevant page in Perne’s own copy of Foxe – later in life he seems to have regretted turning on his friend.

Perne’s religious flexibility is what he is remembered for today. At Peterhouse, a weathervane Perne erected still survives – it’s now mounted on a wooden backing in the Porters’ Lodge – with the letters AP on the top. Contemporaries are supposed to have said that AP could stand for “A Papist” or “A Protestant” depending on which way the wind was blowing.

But Perne’s less widely known legacy is his library. He had an extensive collection, which covered not just theological texts but also diverse topics like medicine, civil engineering and cartography. When he died, he bequeathed this collection to the college and it has since grown by other additions into a significant collection of rare books.

The woodwork in the picture above was completed by William Ashley between 1641-8, who had also been responsible for the interior of Peterhouse’s Laudian chapel. The ear-like bench ends may be inspired by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence of the 1620s.

As both an early modernist and a Petrean (Peterhouse was where I did my undergraduate degree), I am very fond of the Perne. Peterhouse regularly sends out glossy brochures to alumni, updating them on what’s going on in college. In the most recent one, I found out that the Perne Library is in need of help. They’re trying to raise money for new bookpresses and bindings. One of the nice ideas is that you can “adopt” a book in need of restoration. Your money ensures that it’s restored in every aspect, and your name then gets to go in the inside cover for the next hundred or so years until the bindings are again replaced. I’ll certainly be trying to scrape together the cash to adopt one of the Perne’s books – I hope I get some choice in the title, though!

For more on Andrew Perne, see:

Patrick Collinson, ‘Perne, Andrew (1519?–1589)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.