Saturday, October 31, 2009

Day 24: All Souls

All Souls College is spoken of in Oxford with reverent tones.

Since its founding, All Souls has been an all-fellows college. There are no students.* You cannot apply to be a fellow at this college; like God, they call you. However, once you are nominated from within and invited to become a fellow at All Souls, you have funding for life to do, well, whatever one likes. There is no teaching requirement, no publishing requirement, and room and board plus a salary provided...for life. It's essentially academic happy hunting grounds.

One very prominent character in Constitutional Legal History was a fellow at All Souls, Sir William Blackstone. He wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England, adapted from lectures he gave for Oxford gentleman (there were no ladies) undergraduates aiming to one day become members of parliament.

These Commentaries are Blackstone's only major writings, which were widely read by the Founders of the American Constitution, and, by of the 1780s, were published just as often in the U.S. as they were in England (and remain the #1 most- quoted source of any Founding or Enlightenment-era source by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Federalist Papers). He was famous to the world for these Commentaries alone. But at All Souls, he was famous for also finishing the library, which had run out of money and steam in the early 1700s.

I discovered this on gaining access (very lucky!) to the library due to the nature of my research. Not only was I thrilled to have received a letter from my supervisor recommending me to gain access to the library (such a letter is a requirement to get into libraries here if you are not a natural member), but I was thrilled I successfully convinced the porters to give me the access code, and, moreover, convince the librarians that I should receive a library card (complete with passport-photo ID - serious stuff!). It was well worth the effort - I had the scene above to greet me, and an eager head librarian whose expertise was Blackstone to guide me to relevant manuscripts and commentaries on the Commentaries.

I admit to being a bit overcome and overawed by my surroundings (and my luck) as I sat in one of the 1760s desks Blackstone helped to secure for the library. I had applied to Oxford to have and anticipated enjoying this chance for over a year and a half. It's realization was sweet indeed.

* They may or may not choose to admit one doctoral or post-doctoral student a year who has succeeded passing a series of very rigorous exams required by the college. They then gain all privileges of the college for seven years.


  1. Wow, Lorianne! Of all the places you've been and documents I'm sure you've seen with your work on the Constitution project ... this has got to be, by far, one of the most intense experiences! Congratulations!

  2. Thanks. Yes, it has been wonderful to be able to have access to Blackstone's archives and library. A highlight of my Oxford experience thus far.