Medieval Libraries

Medieval monastic libraries

Through the evidence of surviving manuscripts, Alison Ray explores the collections of medieval libraries and how these libraries grew and changed over time.

Reading Aloud

Literacy was uncommon in many parts of medieval society. However, most monasteries were flourishing centres of learning, with monks and nuns actively encouraged to study and pray. Following a movement of reform in the 10th and 11th centuries, many religious houses in England and France adopted the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia (b. c. 480, d. c. 550). This set of practical and spiritual guidelines advised monks on how they ought to live. Part of the Rule provided guidelines on reading. Chapter 38 states that ‘the brothers’ meals should always be accompanied by reading’, and that they were to eat and drink in silence while one person read aloud. These books were not chosen at random, but rather were selected for their appropriateness for monastic life. Typical readings included biblical texts, saints’ lives and other religious works.

Rule of St Benedict

Add MS 16979, f. 21v

A depiction of St Benedict handing the Rule to his disciple St Maurus, accompanied by other monks (British Library, Add MS 16979, f. 21v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Reading in the Cloister

Holy days and festivals such as Lent were a time of spiritual reflection for monastic communities, and were observed through prayer, abstinence, and reading. In England, the Rule was supplemented by an additional set of regulations called the Constitutions, developed by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury (b. c. 1010, d. 1089). In chapters 20–22 of the Constitutions Lanfranc reiterated that Lent is a time of reading. At the beginning of Lent, monks should select a book to read throughout the coming year. The librarian was made responsible for keeping a list of readers and their books. If anyone had not read his book by the following Lent he ‘shall confess his fault prostrate and ask for pardon’ (for more about the Constitutions, see Knowles, The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (1951)).

A Medieval Library Catalogue

Several medieval library records survive, which list the works owned and used at individual monasteries in England and the Continent. One example gives a list of works held at the libraries at Reading Abbey and Leominster Priory (now British Library, Egerton MS 3031).

Cartulary of Reading Abbey

Egerton MS 3031, f. 8v

Opening page of the late 12th-century book list of Reading Abbey library (British Library, Egerton MS 3031, f. 8v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The book lists of Reading and Leominster are typical library catalogues of this period. Each is arranged roughly by subject, and includes Bibles, works of the Church Fathers, historical texts and liturgical works. Each work is listed with a short title in Latin, for example, Augustinus de civitate dei in uno volumine (the De civitate Dei (The City of God) by St Augustine of Hippo (b. 354, d. 430), in one volume). 196 items are recorded on the list of Reading books, and 49 appear on the Leominster list. Through textual evidence such as book contents and ownership marks, modern scholars have identified 35 surviving manuscripts featured on the lists, nine of which are currently housed at the British Library.

One of these books is a 12th-century commentary by the English monk and historian Bede (b. c. 673, d. 735) on the Gospel of St Luke (now British Library, Egerton MS 2204). This manuscript appears on the Reading book list as Beda super Lucam in uno volumine (Bede on Luke in one volume). A 13th-century ownership inscription inside the book confirms that it belonged to Reading Abbey. The inscription also includes an anathema, or curse. Medieval librarians commonly added curses to books in an attempt to prevent books from being damaged or stolen by readers. The curse reads ‘Hic est liber sancte [effaced] Quem qui celaverit vel fraudem de eo fecerit anathema sit’ (This book belongs to St [effaced]. Anyone who conceals or does damage to it, may he be cursed). This inscription frequently appears in surviving manuscripts from Reading Abbey. Thus, although the abbey name has been erased, it probably originally read as Hic est liber sancte Marie de Rading (the St Mary abbey of Reading).

English copy of Bede's Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke

Egerton MS 2204, f. 1v detail

An ownership inscription and book curse identifies this manuscript as having belonged to Reading Abbey (British Library, Egerton MS 2204, f. 1v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Gift giving

Monasteries furnished their libraries with books obtained in numerous ways, including receiving works from patrons and benefactors. The Anglo-Saxon king Cnut (r. 1016–1035) and his consort Emma (b. c. 985, d. 1052) made royal donations to abbeys in both England and Normandy. For example, they presented a jewelled golden cross to the New Minster in Winchester for the high altar. The royal family were also benefactors of the abbey of the Trinity, Fécamp, Normandy, and they donated several luxury books to it. One of these books was the Fécamp Gospels, a deluxe Gospel-book originally produced in Winchester in the 10th century. Its decoration features initials written in gold.

Fécamp Gospels

Latin 272, f. 10v

St Jerome’s Prologue from the Fécamp Gospels (BnF, Latin 272, f. 10v)

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Borrowing Books

Monasteries frequently borrowed exemplars from other institutions to make copies of texts. Works travelled between religious houses in England and on the Continent, often over great distance. Evidence for the borrowing of books survives in letter collections and other communications between monasteries.

For example, the Benedictine monk Lupus of Ferrières (b. c. 805, d. c. 862) frequently wrote letters to scholars and heads of religious houses requesting books for copying. Between 830 and 836 Lupus studied at the abbey of Fulda, in modern-day Germany. Around 835 he wrote to Einhard (b. c. 775, d. 840), a renowned Frankish scholar and the biographer of Emperor Charlemagne (r.768–814) asking for permission to copy several classical works, including a copy of the De Oratore (On the Orator) by the Latin author Cicero (b. 106 BC, d. 43 BC). Lupus probably received this permission, as his copy of the work still survives (now British Library, Harley MS 2736). Based on script evidence, it was identified as having been written by Lupus himself.

Cicero, De Oratore

Harley MS 2736, f. 1r

Opening page of Cicero’s De Oratore (On the Orator) copied by Lupus of Ferrières (British Library, Harley MS 2736, f. 1r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

As well as the evidence of letter collections, signs of book-borrowing sometimes are found in books themselves. An example is a book from the abbey of St Peter in Peterborough. The Abbey was devastated by a fire in 1116, and work began soon after to rebuild it and replace the lost texts. The content of a 12th-century collection of scientific works now surviving in two separate parts (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I and Harley MS 3667) is probably one of those replacement volumes.

Computus collection including Byrhtferth of Ramsey's diagram

Harley MS 3667, f. 1v detail

A record of the Peterborough fire of 1116 is written in the upper margin of these annals (Harley MS 3667, f. 1v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

One part of the composite manuscript contains the Peterborough abbey annals, or notes of important events arranged by year, to the year 1122 (British Library, Harley MS 3667). An annotation in the upper margin of the annals describes the 1116 fire:

Hoc anno monasterium verum cum magna parte villae adiacentis validis ignium flammis accensum, totum consumptum est. ii. Nonas Augusti. die quoque, veneris.

In this year strong flames of a blazing fire completely consumed the monastery and a large part of the adjacent town, on the second day before the Nones of August, a Friday [4 August 1116].

The second part of the book (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I) includes a copy of Cicero’s Aratea, a Latin translation of the Phaenomena (Appearances), a work on the constellations by the Greek poet Aratus (b. c. 310 BC, d. c. 240 BC). The text is accompanied by representations of the constellations as human and animal figures formed of quotations from De Astronomica (‘On Astronomy’) by the classical author Hyginus (b. c. 64 BC, d. 17).

Cicero, Aratea with scholia

Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

Text-picture illustration of Sirius the Dog Star, Cicero’s Aratea (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The illustrations and layout of the text are an exact copy of a ninth-century manuscript produced in Fleury (now British Library, Harley MS 647). By the 12th century, the Fleury copy of the Aratea was in the possession of the abbey of St Augustine at Canterbury. From the dating of the annals in the Peterborough manuscript and the striking similarities between the Fleury and Peterborough copies of the Aratea, it seems likely that the Peterborough community borrowed the Fleury manuscript from Canterbury to replace texts lost in the fire.

The Library of Bury St Edmunds

Manuscript evidence demonstrates the contents of medieval libraries, and also reveals how libraries were arranged physically in monasteries. For example, surviving books from the Benedictine abbey of St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds provide a detailed insight into the layout of the library of this monastery and important centre of book production. They also give a glimpse of how the library grew and adopted new practices over time.

A 12th-century manuscript of commentaries by St Jerome on Jeremiah and Ezekiel (British Library, Egerton MS 3776) includes clues of how the manuscript may have been originally stored in the Abbey. On the spine of the book are the words ’IERONIMUS: SUPER IEREMIAM ET: SUPER: EZECHIELEM .VI. LIBRI. J. 7 (Jerome, on Jeremiah and on Ezekiel, 6 books, J.7)’. The letter and number ‘J.7’ probably indicates its placement in the library as the seventh copy of the works of St Jerome. This may not have been stored on a shelf, but rather was probably kept together with other works of St Jerome in a chest in the cloisters of the Abbey (McLachlan, The Scriptorium of Bury St Edmunds in the Twelfth Century (1986)). The ends of the leather spine stand proud of the text. These may have functioned as tabs to assist in lifting the book out of a chest.

St Jerome, Commentaries on Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Egerton MS 3776, spine

Spine of a 12th-century commentary of St Jerome with title and ‘press-mark’ or placement location (British Library, Egerton MS 3776)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Similarly, an early 15th-century marginal annotation in the Bury manuscript states that it was ‘in armario nostro sancti edmundi’ (in the cupboard/chest of our saint Edmund). The note was written by the Abbey’s librarian, a certain John of Boston (fl. c. 1410). Similar ‘press-marks’, or indications of locations and notes have been found in other surviving works from Bury St Edmunds. Until the 15th century, the Abbey’s books were stored in several locations. Most were kept in the cloister chests, while books used for meal-time reading may have been stored in the refectory.

A 12th-century manuscript (British Library, Egerton MS 2782) is one of only two volumes from Bury St Edmunds containing a marginal label suggesting it was used and possibly stored in the abbey refectory, ‘de refectorio monochorum sanctum edmundum’ (from the refectory of the monks of saint Edmund). The volume is a copy of a commentary on Isaiah by Haimo of Auxerre (d. c. 865).

St Jerome, Commentaries on Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Egerton MS 3776, f. 159r detail

A 15th-century librarian’s annotation in the lower margin suggests this manuscript was stored in a chest (armario) (British Library, Egerton MS 3776, f. 159r detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Liturgical books used in services may have been kept in a sacristy. Other special books could be kept in the care of the custodians of St Edmund’s shrine, as was a manuscript of the life and miracles of St Edmund, the Abbey’s patron saint (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B II). A 14th-century inscription in the volume reads ‘Liber feretrariorum Sancti Edmundi’ (the book [of the keepers] of the relics of Saint Edmund).

During the 15th-century, the Abbey’s book collections may have been moved to be stored together in a central room that functioned as a library. Three links of a 15th-century chain are fastened to the binding of the St Jerome commentary, evidence that this manuscript was probably chained to the library’s shelves or desks. The buildings of Bury St Edmunds Abbey have not survived to the present day, thus books such as this commentary contain vital evidence of medieval reading practices and libraries, reflecting the rich history and intellectual life of monastic communities.

St Jerome, Commentaries on Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Egerton MS 3776, back cover

Links of a 15th-century chain remain fastened to the binding of this manuscript (British Library, Egerton MS 3776)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Further Reading:

The Rule of Benedict, translated by Carolinne White (Penguin Classics: London, 2008)

Elisabeth Leedham-Green and Teresa Webber, eds. The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Alan Coates, English Medieval Books: The Reading Abbey Collections from Foundation to Dispersal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Elizabeth Parker McLachlan, The Scriptorium of Bury St Edmunds in the Twelfth Century (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986)

The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles (Thomas Nelson and Sons: London, 1951)

  • Alison Ray
  • Dr Alison Ray received her PhD in Medieval History from University College London in March of 2016. Her research focuses on the history of the medieval book and specifically the pecia system of university book production. Her first article, examining the marginalia of English users of pecia manuscripts has been published in Pecia. Le livre et l’écrit (2016).

    From 2016, Alison worked as Digitisation Officer at the British Library for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and in 2018, she was the Web Curatorial Officer for Medieval England and France, 700–1200.