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Keble Manuscript 24
A Problematic Provenance

Keble College Library has been the recipient of many gifts of manuscripts and printed books during its history, and its collection of manuscripts is particularly notable. This collection includes 29 manuscripts from places outside Europe. These received little or no attention until 2021, but are now being explored further.

Keble Manuscript 24 before conservation

Most of the Keble manuscripts, European and otherwise, were bought by book collectors in the nineteenth century from rare books dealers and then bequeathed to the College. In contrast to today, when the ownership history and evidence of previous readers is considered an added interest, Victorian booksellers often erased the details of previous owners in an attempt to offer attractively ‘clean’ copies to their buyers. There may also be broader questions to be asked about the Victorian market in rare books and how manuscripts reached these booksellers, but as far as we know, our collectors bought all the items that they or their heirs gave to us in good faith, with one exception: Manuscript 24.

Manuscript (MS) 24 contains an anonymous exposition in Persian and Arabic of the 12th juzʾ of the Qurʼān, preceded by a short text describing various Prophetic traditions about prayer. It is written in several different non-professional hands, and is probably from the mid-nineteenth century, so appears to be a personal compilation for domestic use.

It is accompanied by a note that reads “Taken from a native house at Bagh in the Afridi Tirah in December 1897, and presented in 1899 by Rev. R.M. Kirwan, Commoner of the College, 1880, Chaplain to 1st Division, Tirah Expeditionary Force, 1897-8.”

The Afridi people were paid by the British in India to guard posts in the strategically important Khyber Pass, but when they rose up and took over the posts on their own behalf in 1897, the Tirah Expeditionary Force was sent to retake them. The Tirah Valley is now in Pakistan.

Keble has no further information of the background of this manuscript, so it is impossible to know any more about the exact circumstances of the acquisition, for example, whether the ‘native house’ was occupied or abandoned, or whether Kirwan or someone else did the ‘taking’. The Keble Record of Gifts and Benefactions for the period does not record Kirwan’s gift in its list of donors to the college, nor are we aware of any other items given by him. Robert Mansel Kirwan was an Army Chaplain in various parts of India between 1891 and 1914, and died whilst serving in the same capacity in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in May 1916. [1]

The note itself was written by the person who had care of the library and donations at the time, rather than the donor himself, so has an element of being at second-hand. Nevertheless, the phrase ‘Taken from a native house’ is inescapably suggestive of theft, rather than gift or purchase. One contemporary account of the Tirah Campaign describes what would today be called looting; ‘foragers not infrequently find odds and ends of booty which they annex for themselves – to wit, old jezails, swords and daggers, and Korans. These are retained by the finders as mementoes of the campaign. Of Korans there are two kinds – the one printed … the other handwritten, and generally illustrated and illuminated. These are rare, and are very precious finds indeed.’ [2] Although MS 24 is not a Qur’an, or of significant artistic or literary value, this passage suggests the potential circumstances and mindset behind its acquisition.

Keble has approached the problematic provenance of this manuscript in two ways.

The first is through giving it the highest standards of care. It has been stored in stable and climate-controlled conditions at Keble for a long time, but appears to have arrived here in poor condition. Although it had an integral protective canvas chemise, the manuscript’s binding had almost disintegrated, leaving the pages mostly loose. Intriguingly, the edges of all the leaves appear to be singed, and the paper itself is very brittle and brown, suggestive of proximity to intense heat, perhaps from being read too close to a fire.

Keble is a member of the Oxford Conservation Consortium, and in August 2022 we had the manuscript professionally conserved. Its condition was so poor that, unfortunately, there was not a lot that could be done.  Rather than try to return objects to something like ‘new’, conservation best practice is to use minimal intervention to stabilise objects, and not to try to hide what repairs have carried out.  Some repairs were made to torn and especially brittle areas of the paper, and to parts of the spine to make it easier to handle and less likely to deteriorate further.  These repairs also made it stable enough to be photographed.  The binding had disintegrated so completely that the best way to preserve it was to remove the textblock from the binding and the cloth outer cover.  These three parts will remain separate, but a custom box has been produced to keep them together and in the optimum conditions.

Keble Manuscript 24 after conservation with its custom box

The second way that Keble has approached this manuscript’s past is to make it more visible and available for research, in the hope that others can discover more about its context and history.

Although MS 24 has a summary description in Malcolm Parkes’ printed catalogue, The medieval manuscripts of Keble College Oxford (1979), it does not seem to have received any scholarly attention. Thanks to the Bodleian Libraries’ FAMOUS Project (Finding Archives and Manuscripts in Oxford University’s Special Collections), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, MS 24 was thoroughly catalogued and is now discoverable online via the Fihrist Union Catalogue of Manuscripts from the Islamicate World.

It was also fully digitised as part of the conservation process, and those images are freely viewable, along with some other Keble manuscripts, on the Digital Bodleian platform.

Keble Library welcomes any enquiries about the manuscript, which can be sent to

[1] Drennan, B. St.G., ed., The Keble College Centenary Register, 1870-1970 (Oxford, 1970).

[2] Hutchinson, H. D., The Campaign in Tirah, 1897-1898 (London, 1898).


Written by Fiona Wilson, January 2022, updated June 2024