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Norton, Frederick John, 1904-1986 (author)



From: Cambridge University Library Staff Bulletin, No. 463, 11 March 1986

Mr Norton, who died on 28 February aged 81, was educated at Alleyn's School and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, which he entered as an exhibitioner in modern languages in 1924. His last year as an undergraduate brought him not only a first class in his tripos but also a Foundress Scholarship at his college, the University's Gibson Scholarship for advanced study in Spanish, and (as he would in later years, if taxed with it, admit) the Chancellor's Medal for English Verse. In 1930, after a period of literary research in Spain and an unsatisfying attempt at schoolteaching, he found his métier in librarianship and was appointed to our (Cambridge University Library) staff. He remained here until his retirement in 1972, presiding over the Foreign Books Department and bringing to his work not only a wide-ranging knowledge of languages and literatures but also an undeviating regard for the highest standards of accuracy and scholarship. The only break was during the War, when his methodical scholarship enabled him to do useful work for a department of the Foreign Office. Mr Norton was elected a Fellow of University College (now Wolfson) in 1966 and was appointed Reader in Bibliography in the University in 1970. He served loyally for many years on the committee of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society and was recently elected one of the few honorary members in the Society's history.

While he found his personal satisfaction in work amongst books which were mostly modern he also developed an interest, which began during his undergraduate years, in older books. In the 1930's he turned especially to books printed between 1501 and 1520, and eventually built up, by wise buying at a time when such books were within the means of ordinary men, a quite remarkable personal collection which was recently purchased by the Library. Though he collected with the discrimination of a true bibliophile he also studied his books, for their content as well as their typography, which he minutely examined in the tradition of Bradshaw and Proctor. His Italian Printers, 1501-1520 (1958) and his Printing in Spain, 1501-1520 (1966), which formed his Sandars Lectures in Cambridge in 1963, brought him an authoritative reputation to which the publication in 1978 of his Descriptive Catalogue of surviving Spanish and Portuguese books 1501-1520 set a final seal. This outstanding achievement in the field of Spanish bibliography was recognised by the King of Spain with the award of the Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso X the wise. He also published, in collaboration with his friend Professor L.C. Harmer, a successful Manual of Modern Spanish, and with another friend, Professor E.M. Wilson, edited Two Spanish verse chapbooks. He had a more than amateur knowledge of butterflies, folk-tales, riddles, Romanesque architecture, and the parish churches of England. He formed a collection of transcripts of British Folk-tales in six volumes which is acknowledged as a major source in the Dictionary of British Folk-tales in the English Language incorporating the F.J. Norton Collection by K.M. Briggs (4 volumes, 1970-71).

He was a bachelor, and formed few close friendships. He was a silent man and sometimes ill at ease in strange company, when shyness concealed his true qualities. He was, however, an ambitious traveller (though he never learned how to pack a suit-case) within the continent of Europe, still exploring new routes to Spain in his late seventies, and he exhibited on foreign soils and in foreign tongues a confidence which he altogether lacked at home. Those who travelled with him remember him as a wholly delightful and wonderfully well-informed companion.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


Description of and correspondence relating to the manuscripts collection of F. J. Norton, 1930-1978

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.10304/23
Scope and Contents

Ten items in an initialed folder. Includes correspondence from Paul Oskar Kristeller and Professor Sesto Prete.

Dates: 1930-1978
Conditions Governing Access: From the Fonds: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (