Gifts and Books: audio guide

Academics and authors discuss the role of giving and receiving in objects from a medieval text to contemporary children's fiction.

This audio guide accompanies the exhibition Gifts and Books.

A1: Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Listen to Francesca explore the idea of writing as a divine gift.

A2: Nicholas Perkins

Listen to Nicholas tell the story of King Horn.

A3: Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

Listen to Ben describe how donors to the Bodleian Library have been acknowledged ever since it reopened in 1602.

A4: Ushashi Dasgupta

Listen to Ushashi reveal how the theme of giving appears in multiple ways in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

A5: Patience Agbabi

Hear how the hourglass became a central object, given and received, in Patience Agababi’s book The Time Thief.

A6: Brenda Stevenson

Listen to Brenda tell the story of two enslaved people – of a person being given as a commodity and a person given their freedom.

A7: Inge Daniels

Hear Inge tell her personal gift-giving story behind these ceramic funerary cups.


Audio transcripts


I'm Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I'm Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter and I'm going to tell you a little bit about two of the objects on display here.

One is a stone tablet inscribed in cuneiform with a dedication to the Sumerian god Ningirsu, and the other is a page from a 13th century Jewish prayer book showing God's gift of the Torah to the ancient Israelites.

Although these artefacts were produced thousands of years apart, they both offer us an insight into the ways in which writing wasn't simply an ancient technology of communication, but a material manifestation of the social bond between a deity and humans. And the gift of writing itself played a really important role in that relationship.

This inscribed stone tablet dates to the very end of the third millennium BCE. And it was richly buried in the foundations of a temple in what is now southern Iraq. The temple itself was built for the Sumerian god Ningirsu by King Shulgi of Ur. This inscription is a high-status object, but writing more generally was understood to be one of a number of civilising essences or qualities known as mes, given to humans by the gods themselves. Other mes include leatherwork, weaponry and lovemaking, but writing is especially important for us because it enabled these ancient peoples to document myths, histories and relationships that still resonate today.

The other item is a page from a Jewish prayer book dated to the late 13th century, known as the Laud Mahzor. The beautiful illustrations on this page show various scenes from biblical stories about Moses and the Israelites. At the top left of the picture, we can see a divine messenger or an angel holding in his outstretched arms the two tablets of the Torah or the law, the Ten Commandments. To the right of the page we can see the open arms of the Israelites ready to receive the gift of the Torah. But what they're receiving are not two stone tablets, but a Torah scroll.

This reflects a blurring in the biblical story of the relationship between the tablets of the law or the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the notion that Moses then wrote down all the rules and regulations surrounding the giving of the law in the Torah scrolls. When the ancient Israelites receive the scroll in their hands, they are receiving the gifts of God's teaching or law.


My name is Nicholas Perkins and I'm the curator of the Gifts and Books exhibition.

In this section, we've brought together the magnificent Horn of Ulf from York Minster with one of the Bodleian Libraries’, precious mediaeval manuscripts, MS. Laud Misc 108., a book that includes a poem known as King Horn.

The horn seems to have been given to the church at York as a way of marking a gift of land by Scandinavian nobleman Ulf Toraldsson, perhaps in the 1030s. It was common in this period to seal the transfer of land or property with a symbolic gift object. It helped everyone to remember the gift, and the object could itself generate powerful legends of its own.

King Horn is an adventure story, a romance written in Middle English verse. It’s one of the earliest romances that we have in English and was probably first composed in the late 13th century. This copy was written in the early 14th century.

In the story, the young hero Horn is cast away in a boat with some other children by enemies who've seized his father's kingdom. But God protects the children and their small boat is washed up in a land called Westernesse, ruled by King Ailmar. Horn tells the king his story and Ailmar takes him in. In fact, Horn is like a gift to the king and to the story itself, growing into a great hero. Ailmer's daughter Rymenhild falls madly in love with Horn. She gives him a magic ring that will protect him and remind him of her. Later in the story, Horn returns from another exile, this time in Ireland to rescue Rymenhild. Disguised as a poor pilgrim at her wedding feast, he drops the ring that she gave him into a drinking horn and asks her to drink too.

Here are a few lines from this climactic moment in the poem, first in Middle English and then in translation.

“Heo fulde hire horn with wyn

And dronk to the pilegrym.

Heo sede, "Drink thi fulle,

And suthe thu me telle

If thu evre isighe

Horn under wude lighe."

Horn dronk of horn a stunde

And threu the ring to grunde.

He seyde, "Quen, nou seche

Qwat is in thy drenche."

She filled the horn with wine and drank to the pilgrim, she said: Drink your fill and then tell me if you ever saw Horn in the woods. Horn drank for a while and threw the ring into the bottom of the vessel. He said: Queen now find out what is in your drink.

She finds the ring and discovers his identity, knowing that he has come to rescue her.

Earlier this year, I worked with artist and educator Dionne Freeman on a project called Creative Story Exchange. We used the King Horn story, the Horn of Ulf, and other objects from the exhibition to inspire young people and elderly hospital patients to work on creative responses to ideas about gifts and exchange. You can see some of their artwork in the area called the Transept, just as you exit the main exhibition room.

In the meantime, I hope you really enjoyed the rest of the exhibition.


My name is Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull. I'm a literary historian and part of a research project based at UCL and Oxford investigating early donations to the re-founded Bodleian Library.

The weighty first volume of the donors register displayed here was used to record the thousands of gifts donated to the Bodleian between 1608 and 1688. Sir Thomas Bodley, the driving force behind the re-establishment of the library, was an experienced and aspirational Elizabethan courtier.

Bodley, understood the significance of properly recognising the contributions of benefactors.

Donors to the library came from all walks of life. The pages of the register recalled gifts from patrons ranging from King James I himself, written in expensive gold ink, to more humble entries including books given in memory of an Oxford gardener.

In 1607, a donation of £20 from Lady Katherine Sandys enabled numerous purchases, including works of geography and exploration. The first things listed in her entry are eight volumes in Chinese, two of these are shown here.

Finding such items in an early modern collection may seem surprising to us, but Chinese books have been present in the newly refurbished library since 1604. This means the Bodleian has one of the largest continuous histories of collecting Chinese books in the world.

On one of the Chinese books, we can see that a scribe has written the gift of Lady Katherine Sandys in Latin on what Bodley thought was the front cover. But it took a Chinese scholar and Catholic convert, Shen Fuzhong, to explain that Chinese books are read in the other direction.

He visited Oxford in 1687 at the request of the Bodleian's librarian Thomas Hyde. Shen transliterated the titles of the books from Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. And may have helped translate the titles too. Shen's work enabled the creation of the first catalogue of Chinese books for the Bodleian Library, ultimately paving the way for future scholars to explore the rich literary landscape of East Asia.


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella about generosity and how a person might come to generosity.

It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish and miserly businessman who is visited by three Christmas ghosts and undergoes a complete transformation.

Many of the Christmas traditions we recognise now were crystallised in the 19th century. There were a range of social and economic reasons for this, from the rise of mass printing to the increasing power of an ideology centred around the home and the nuclear family, to the growth of consumer and commodity culture. In some ways giving and receiving gifts forms a part of this culture.

And Dickens himself played no small part in this shift in attitudes, thanks to A Christmas Carol. There are Christmas presents in A Christmas Carol - Scrooge's Turkey for the Cratchit family is the most obvious example. But the story itself is also deeply interested in another type of gift, that of reading itself.

Scrooge sees his younger self reading a lonely boy by a feeble fire, and he experiences the old delight as the characters start to come to life. Reading offers imaginative escape for the young Scrooge.

Dickens spent his whole career working through the implications of reading or writing as a form of gift. A Christmas Carol was itself designed as a gift. Dickens wanted it to be beautifully produced, in contrast to his usual monthly publications, which were portable and ephemeral. He was certainly tapping into a growing tradition of Victorian gift books. A Christmas Carol was phenomenally popular. It sold 6,000 copies, the full publication run, in the lead up to Christmas and people continued to buy it after the season had come and gone. It went through multiple editions and very quickly.

While he offered his novels to his public as a gift, the exchange also went the other way, and he expressed gratitude for their hospitality and generosity for inviting him and his characters into their homes. But a book for Dickens was also a challenge, an appeal to be as sympathetic to real people as you were to imaginary characters. To change both yourself and the world around you. In other words, Dickens wanted his readers to do something with the real and metaphorical gifts that they had received.


I'm Patience Agbabi, author of the Leap Cycle series, including the Time Thief and I'm also the owner of the hourglass that you're looking at in the case.

So the Leap Cycle series features my heroine Elle, and she was born on the 29 February, which makes her a leapling. But she's a leapling with a very special gift, which is the ability to leap through time. Not all leaplings have the gift, only a tiny percentage, but with practise their gift can get a lot stronger.

So Elle and her friends use the gift to fight crime across time, and they call themselves The Infinites.

In the second book, the Time Thief, the hourglass that’s stolen was originally a gift from Samuel Johnson to Francis Barber. They had a fascinating relationship in real life. Francis Barber was a slave from Jamaica, living in England and in 1752 he was 10 years old. And that year his owners gave Francis as a gift to Samuel Johnson to cheer him up after the death of his wife. Now, that would be shocking nowadays, clearly, but not in that era.

Samuel Johnson, however, became very very fond of Francis, treating more like a son than a man servant. And when Doctor Johnson died, he left his entire fortune as a gift to Francis Barber. And I found that a really compelling story.

And so in the Time Thief, I decided that this hourglass would symbolise the bond between Samuel Johnson and Francis Barber. And I felt that using a physical, tangible object was a great centrepiece for the story. It could speak volumes about both the giver and the receiver of the gift, and in the Time Thief, the hourglass changes hands quite a few times throughout the narrative across time also, and each time it does, it adds another kind of facet to its history and its significance as a gift.

I've always loved the shape and the style of and the materials of hourglasses, as well as the pleasure of turning them upside down and watching time flow. And so one of my main inspirations for the Time Thief was a visit to the Time and Longitude Gallery at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which houses some beautiful period hourglasses and also a section on the eleven missing days in the year 1752. So the plot kind of came together from those two elements.

And when I got back home, I needed something tangible to kickstart the writing. I went online and realised that 18th century maritime hourglasses were a little bit outside my reach. But then I came across this pirates’ hourglass on Amazon, recycled from 19th century bobbins, and it ran for an hour. It had black sand. It was absolutely perfect for my book. So I bought it. I sat it on my desk. For the two months I was writing the book, it was there every day, and sometimes I used it to time my writing for an hour before I then had a break, but other times it just sort of served as a muse, a kind of connection to the 18th century.

Gifts can be a burden, especially for children. They might feel they can't live up to certain expectations. But when I was writing the Leap Cycle, I wanted the gift to be a secret within the leapling community and their allies. So I wanted to turn that idea on its head. So the gift is presented as something ultra desirable that's open to exploitation from a small, dysfunctional minority, and the tension in the books comes from trying to keep the gift a secret.

But of course the information does get into the wrong hands, and when villains do attempt to exploit leaplings for their gift, The Infinites rise to the challenge.


My name is Brenda Stevenson and I'm the Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women's History and fellow at St. John's at the University of Oxford.

The book you see before you is one of the most important accounts of escape from enslavement that we have. It captures this moment of escape, but it also indicates what is a historical fact that many people were able to eventually escape from slavery. Not the majority, but about anywhere between 5 to 10% were able – from the colonial period through the end of the Civil War – to escape.

Enslaved people were commodities and as commodities they were quite available to be given as gifts, and they often were. And this occurred as we see in the book with Ellen Craft when she herself was given as a wedding gift. This was not unusual at all, particularly in the Antebellum South, where the wealthiest people, the most elite people, owned large numbers of enslaved people. They would often give them as a form of property as a form of wealth to their loved ones, and we see this at the times of weddings, at the times of births, at the times of deaths of course, as they're passed from one generation of ownership to the other. So, it's quite familiar, and it's quite usual for this to happen.

The odd thing, well, not the odd, but the slightly different thing about Ellen Craft is that she's given to her half-sister, and so we can see in that, even though they have the same father, there is a division between owner and owned. Between a person who has property and a person who is property. And this is one of the things of course that occurs in chattel slavery throughout the Atlantic world from the colonial period all the way to the end of the 19th century.

The other book that we see here is an amazing tale of the trajectory of a young boy who is taken from what is now southern Nigeria, taken to Barbados and then to Virginia, and then sold to someone who is going to place him in the Atlantic Ocean as a maritime worker.

Olaudah Equiano realises very early on that if he is going to survive he has got to in many ways acculturate. So he is trying to find a place for himself in this society of shifting status as a black person and as a free person – once he gains his freedom, he wants to thrive not just to survive. And in that book, he describes being given books after being given the gift of literacy, giving books to him is something that is a mark of his growing status within society as a literate Britain, African Britain.

He produces this book as a gift to those people who are still enslaved, those people who would still be transported, from Africa to the Americas, as a gift that will help them gain their freedom, perhaps, but also that will end this slave trade.


My name is Inge Daniels. I'm a Professor of Anthropology here at Oxford, and my research looks mainly at material and visual culture and people's everyday lives, particularly in Japan where I lived and worked for seven years.

And while I lived there, I became really intrigued with gifts actually because even the first few months there, people kept on giving me gifts and I was not quite sure how to respond. But actually the project I really wanted to do was studying people's homes, but it was impossible for me as a foreigner to get this kind of access and actually live with people in their spaces that was the aim of my project.

So this particular family, the Kagemoris, they were crucial for me to be able to do this project. And then they themselves, as a family, became one of the five main families that I lived with for a month each. Many photographs were taken in their house. You see their bathroom, their toilet, very intimate spaces, their kitchen where they spent a lot of time and also them and socialising around the dining table.

But then actually about 7-8 years after the book came out, I got this very urgent call from his wife. I knew Yutaka-sun by then had fallen ill.

So Yutaka-sun actually had requested a copy, a new personal copy that he could keep with him. It had all these photos of his house and his family, so it became a way of him to interact with visitors and with the doctors while he was getting treatment.

And then eventually, when he passed away, I then heard that he also wanted to be sent on his final journey, if you want, with the book in his coffin, which happened.

And then the cups come into the story that about probably 2-3 months after Yutaka-sun had passed away, they were sent to me in London - two of these cups. I was, of course, very surprised, but it turned out that he had asked his sister, who is quite a famous potter in Japan, to make 15 cups for his best friends. And the two you see here are two of the cups my husband and I, as his friends, received. So they're very special to me.

And I should perhaps explain in Japan when one has a funeral, it's very common to give the guest a gift. So they are in a way, funerary gifts, and they're often a return gift for money the visitors give when you go to funeral.

For over 100 years or so, anthropologists have been studying gift giving in societies all around the world. But much of the focus has been on ceremonial gifting and the shell arm ring you see in the case here, actually focuses more on power and prestige and exchange between a powerful men if you want. But the cups that Yutaka-sun sent me that was made by his sister is much more personal and intimate. It's all about our ongoing. Friendship that has linked us across continents for many years.