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Medieval Libraries

MEDIEVAL LIBRARIES During the first few centuries after the fall of the Western empire, literary activity at Constantinople had fallen to its lowest ebb. In the West, amidst the general neglect of learning and literature, the collecting of books, though not wholly forgotten, was cared for by few. Sidonius Apollinaris tells us of the libraries of several private collectors in Gaul. Publius Consentius possessed a library at his villa near Narbonne which was due to the labour of three generations. The most notable of these appears to have been the prefect Tonantius Ferreolus, who had formed in his villa of Prusiana, near Nimes, a collection which his friend playfully compares to that of Alexandria. The Goths, who had been introduced to the Scriptures in their own language by Ulfilas in the 4th century, began to pay some attention to Latin literature. Cassiodorus, the favourite minister of Theodoric, was a collector as well as an author, and on giving up the cares of government retired to a monastery which he founded in Calabria, where he employed his monks in the transcription of books.

Henceforward the charge of books as well as of education fell more and more exclusively into the hands of the church. While the old schools of the rhetoricians died out new monasteries arose everywhere. Knowledge was no longer pursued for its own sake, but became subsidiary to religious and theological teaching. The proscription of the old classical literature, which is symbolized in the fable of the destruction of the Palatine library by Gregory the Great, was only too effectual. The Gregorian tradition of opposition to pagan learning long continued to dominate the literary pursuits of the monastic orders and the labours of the scriptorium.

During the 6th and 7th centuries the learning which had been driven from the Continent took refuge in the British Islands, where it was removed from the political disturbances of the mainland. In the Irish monasteries during this period there appear to have been many books, and the Venerable Bede was superior to any scholar of his age. Theodore of Tarsus brought a considerable number of books to Canterbury from Rome in the 7th century, including several Greek authors. The library of York, which was founded by Archbishop Egbert, was almost more famous than that of Canterbury. The verses are well known in which Alcuin describes the extensive library under his charge, and the long list of authors whom he enumerates is superior to that of any other library possessed by either England or France in the 12th century, when it was unhappily burnt. The inroads of the Northmen in the 9th and loth centuries had been fatal to the monastic libraries on both sides of the channel. It was from York that Alcuin came to Charlemagne to superintend the school attached to his palace; and it was doubtless inspired by Alcuin that Charles issued the memorable document which enjoined that in the bishoprics and monasteries within his realm care should be taken that there shall be not only a regular manner of life, but also the study of letters. When Alcuin finally retired from the court to the abbacy of Tours, there to carry out his own theory of monastic discipline and instruction, he wrote to Charles for leave to send to York for copies of the books of which they had so much need at Tours. While Alcuin thus increased the library at Tours, Charlemagne enlarged that at Fulda, which had been founded in 774, and which all through the middle ages stood in great respect. Lupus Servatus, a pupil of Hrabanus Maurus at Fulda, and afterwards abbot of Ferrieres, was a devoted student of the classics and a great collector of books. His correspondence illustrates the difficulties which then attended the study of literature through the paucity and dearness of books, the declining care for learning, and the increasing troubles of the time. Nor were private collections of books altogether wanting during the period in which Charlemagne and his successors laboured to restore the lost traditions of Alcuin.


liberal education and literature. Pepin le Bref had indeed met with scanty response to the request for books which he addressed to the pontiff Paul I. Charlemagne, however, collected a considerable number of choice books for his private use in two places. Although these collections were dispersed at his death, his son Louis formed a library which continued to exist under Charles the Bald. About the same time Everard, count of Friuli, formed a considerable collection which he bequeathed to a monastery. But the greatest private collector of the middle ages was doubtless Gerbert, Pope Sylvester II., who showed the utmost zeal and spent large sums in collecting books, not only in Rome and Italy, but from Germany, Belgium and even from Spain.

The hopes of a revival of secular literature fell with the decline of the schools established by Charles and his successors. The knowledge of letters remained the prerogative of the Benedict, church, and for the next four or five centuries the collecting and multiplication of books were almost entirely confined to the monasteries. Several of the greater orders made these an express duty; this was especially the case with the Benedictines. It was the first care of St Benedict, we are told, that in each newly founded monastery there should be a library, " et velut curia quaedam illustrium auctorum. " Monte Cassino became the starting-point of a long line of institutions which were destined to be the centres of religion and of literature. It must indeed be remembered that literature in the sense of St Benedict meant Biblical and theological works, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and the lives and writings of the fathers. Of the reformed Benedictine orders the Carthusians and the Cistercians were those most devoted to literary pursuits. The abbeys of Fleury, of Melk and of St Gall were remarkable for the splendour of their libraries. In a later age the labours of the congregation of St Maur form one of the most striking chapters in the history of learning. The Augustinians and the Dominicans rank next to the Benedictines in their care for literature. The libraries of St Genevieve and St Victor, belonging to the former, were amongst the largest of the monastic collections. Although their poverty might seem to put them at a disadvantage as collectors, the mendicant orders cultivated literature with much assiduity, and were closely connected with the intellectual movement to which the universities owed their rise. In England Richard of Bury praises them for their extraordinary diligence in collecting books. Sir Richard Whittington built a large library for the Grey Friars in London, and they possessed considerable libraries at Oxford.

It would be impossible to attempt here an account of all the libraries established by the monastic orders. We must be content to enumerate a few of the most eminent.

In Italy Monte Cassino is a striking example of the dangers and vicissitudes to which monastic collections were exposed. Ruined by the Lombards in the 6th century, the libraries, monastery was rebuilt and a library established, to fall a prey to Saracens and to fire in the gth. The collection then reformed survived many other chances and changes, and still exists. Boccaccio gives a melancholy description of its condition in his day. It affords a conspicuous example of monastic industry in the transcription not only of theological but also of classical works. The library of Bobbio, which owed its existence to Irish monks, was famous for its palimpsests. The collection, of which a catalogue of the 10th century is given by Muratori (Antiq. Hal. Med. Aev. iii. 817-824), was mainly transferred to the Ambrosian library at Milan. Of the library of Pomposia, near Ravenna, Montfaucon has printed a catalogue dating from the 11th century (Diarium Italicum, chap. xxii.).

Of the monastic libraries of France the principal were those of Fleury, of Cluny, of St Riquier and of Corbie. At Fleury Abbot Macharius in 1146 imposed a contribution for library purposes upon the officers of the community and its dependencies, an example which was followed elsewhere. After many vicissitudes, its MSS., numbering 238, were deposited in 1793 in the town library of Orleans. The library of St Riquier in the time of Louis the Pious contained 256 MSS., with over 500 works. Of the collection at Corbie in Picardy we have also catalogues dating from the 12th and from the 17th centuries. Corbie was famous for the industry of its transcribers, and appears to have stood in active literary intercourse with other monasteries. In 1638,400 of its choicest manuscripts were removed to St Germaindes-Pres. The remainder were removed after 1794, partly to the national library at Paris, partly to the town library of Amiens.

The chief monastic libraries of Germany were at Fulda, Corvey, Reichenau and Sponheim. The library at Fulda owed much to Charlemagne and to its abbot Hrabanus Maurus. Under Abbot Sturmius four hundred monks were hired as copyists. In 1561 the collection numbered 774 volumes. The library of Corvey on the Weser, after being despoiled of some of its treasures in the Reformation age, was presented to the university of Marburg in 1811. It then contained 109 vols., with 400 or 500 titles. The library of Reichenau, of which several catalogues are extant, fell a prey to fire and neglect, and its ruin was consummated by the Thirty Years' War. The library of Sponheim owes its great renown to John Tritheim, who was abbot at the close of the 1Sth century. He found it reduced to 10 vols., and left it with upwards of 2000 at his retirement. The library at St Gall, formed as early as 816 by Gozbert, its second abbot, still exists.

In England the principal collections were those of Canterbury, York, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Whitby, Glastonbury, Croyland, Peterborough and Durham. Of the library of the monastery of ChristChurch, Canterbury, originally founded by Augustine and Theodore, and restored by Lanfranc and Anselm, a catalogue has been preserved dating from the 13th or 14th century, and containing 698 volumes, with about 3000 works. Bennet Biscop, the first abbot of Wearmouth, made five journeys to Rome, and on each occasion returned with a store of books for the library. It was destroyed by the Danes about 867. Of the library at Whitby there is a catalogue dating from the 12th century. The catalogue of Glastonbury has been printed by Hearne in his edition of John of Glastonbury. When the library of Croyland perished byfire in 1091 it contained about 700 vols. The library at Peterborough was also rich; from a catalogue of about the end of the 14th century it had 344 vols., with nearly 1700 titles. The catalogues of the library at the monastery of Durham have been printed by the Surtees Society, and form an interesting series. These catalogues with many others 1 afford abundant evidence of the limited character of the monkish collections, whether we look at the number of their volumes or at the nature of their contents. The scriptoria were manufactories of books and not centres of learning. That in spite of the labours of so many transcribers the costliness and scarcity of books remained so great may have been partly, but cannot have been wholly, due to the scarcity of writing materials. It may be suspected that indolence and carelessness were the rule in most monasteries, and that but few of the monks keenly realized the whole force of the sentiment expressed by one of their number in the 12th century " Claustrum sine armario quasi castrum sine armamentario." Nevertheless it must be 1 The oldest catalogue of a western library is that of the monastery of Fontanelle in Normandy compiled in the 8th century. Many catalogues may be found in the collections of D'Achery, Martene and Durand, and Fez, in the bibliographical periodicals of Naumann and Petzholdt and the Centralblatt f. Bibliothekswissenschaft. The Rev. Joseph Hunter has collected some particulars as to the contents of the English monastic libraries, and Ed. Edwards has printed a list of the catalogues (Libraries and Founders of Libraries, 1865, pp. ,148-454). See also G. Becker, Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqui (1885). There are said to be over six hundred such catalogues in the Royal Library at Munich. In the 14th century the Franciscans compiled a general catalogue of the MSS. in 160 English libraries and about the year 1400 John Boston, a Benedictine monk of Bury, travelled over England and a part of Scotland and examined the libraries of 195 religious houses (Tanner, Bibliotheca Brit. Hibern. 1748). Leland's list of the books he found during his visitation of the houses in 1539-1545 is printed in his Collectanea (ed. Hearne, 1715, 6 vols.). T. W. Williams has treated Gloucestershire and Bristol medieval libraries and their catalogues in a paper in the Bristol and Gloucestershire Arch. Soc. vol. xxxi.

admitted that to the labours of the monastic transcribers we are indebted for the preservation of Latin literature.

The subject of the evolution of the arrangement of library rooms and fittings as gradually developed throughout medieval Europe should not be passed over. 1 The real origin ttcvcio - ^ lib rar y organization in the Christian world, one may meat of almost say the origin of modern library methods, library began with the rule of St Benedict early in the 6th range- cen t urv j n the 48th chapter the monks were ordered to borrow a book apiece and to read it straight through. There was no special apartment for the books in the primitive Benedictine house. After the books became too numerous to be kept in the church they were preserved in armaria, or chests, in the cloister; hence the word armarius, the Benedictine librarian, who at first joined with it the office of precentor. The Benedictine regulations were developed in the stricter observances of the Cluniacs, which provided for a kind of annual report and stocktaking. The Carthusians were perhaps the first to lend books away from the convent; and the Cistercians to possess a separate library official as well as a room specially devoted to books. The observances of the Augustinians contained rules for the binding, repairing, cataloguing and arranging the books by the librarian, as well as a prescription of the exact kind of chest to be used. Among the Premonstratensians or Reformed Augustinians, it was one of the duties of the librarian to provide for the borrowing of books elsewhere for the use of the monks. The Mendicant Friars found books so necessary that at last Richard de Bury 'tells us with some exaggeration that their libraries exceeded all others. Many volumes still exist which belonged to the library at Assisi, the parent house of the Franciscans, of which a catalogue was drawn up in 1381. No authentic monastic bookcase can now be found; the doubtful example shown at Bayeux probably contained ecclesiastical utensils. At the Augustinian priory at Barnwell the presses were lined with wood to keep out the damp and were partitioned off both vertically and horizontally. Sometimes there were recesses in the walls of the cloisters fitted with shelves and closed with a door. These recesses developed into a small windowless room in the Cistercian houses. At Clairvaux, Kirkstall, Fountains, Tintern, Netley and elsewhere this small chamber was placed between the chapter-house and the transept of the church. At Meaux in Holderness the books were lodged on shelves against the walls and even over the door of such a chamber. In many houses the treasury or spendiment contained two classes of books one for the monks generally, others more closely guarded. A press near the infirmary contained books used by the reader in the refectory. By the end of the 15th century the larger monasteries became possessed of many volumes and found themselves obliged to store the books, hitherto placed in various parts of the building, in a separate apartment. We now find libraries being specially built at Canterbury, Durham, Citeaux, Clairvaux and elsewhere, and with this specialization there grew up increased liberality in the use of books and learned strangers were admitted. Even at an early date students were permitted to borrow from the Benedictines at St Germain-des-Pres at Paris, of which a later foundation owned in 1513 a noble library erected over the south wall of the cloister, and enlarged and made very accessible to the outer world in the lyth and 18th centuries. The methods and fittings of college libraries of early foundation closely resembled those of the monastic libraries. There was in both the annual giving out and inspection of what we would now call the lending department for students; while the books, fastened by chains a kind of reference department kept in the library chamber for the common use of the fellows followed a similar system in monastic institutions. By the 15th century collegiate and monastic libraries were on the same plan, with the separate room containing books placed on their sides on desks or lecterns, to which they were attached by chains to a 1 This subject has been specially treated by J. Willis Clark in several works, of which the chief is a masterly volume, The Care of Books (1901). See also Dom Gasquet, " On Medieval Monastic Libraries," in his Old English Bible (1897).

horizontal bar. As the books increased the accommodation was augmented by one or two shelves erected above the desks. The library at Cesena in North Italy may still be seen in its original condition. The Laurentian library at Florence was designed by Michelangelo on the monastic model. Another good example of the old form may be seen in the library of Merton College at Oxford, a long narrow room with bookcases standing between the windows at right angles to the walls. In the chaining system one end was attached to the wooden cover of the book while the other ran freely on a bar fixed by a method of double locks to the front of the shelf or desk on which the book rested. The fore edges of the volumes faced the reader. The seat and shelf were sometimes combined. Low cases were subsequently introduced between the higher cases, and the seat replaced by a step. Shelf lists were placed at the end of each case. There were no chains in the library of the Escorial, erected in 1584, which showed for the first time bookcases placed against the walls. Although chains were no longer part of the appliances in the newly erected libraries they continued to be used and were ordered in bequests in England down to the early part of the 18th century. Triple desks and revolving lecterns, raised by a wooden screw, formed part of the library furniture. The English cathedral libraries were fashioned after the same principle. The old methods were fully reproduced in the fittings at Westminster, erected at a late date. Here we may see books on shelves against the walls as well as in cases at right angles to the walls; the desk-like shelves for the chained volumes (no longer in existence) have a slot in which the chains could be suspended, and are hinged to allow access to shelves below. An ornamental wooden tablet at the end of each case is a survival of the old shelf list. By the end of the 17th century the type of the public library developed from collegiate and monastic prototypes, became fixed as it were throughout Europe (H. R. Tedder, " Evolution of the Public Library," in Trans, of 2nd Int. Library Conference, 1897, 1898).

The first conquests of the Arabians, as we have already seen, threatened hostility to literature. But, as soon as their conquests were secured, the caliphs became the patrons of learning and science. Greek manuscripts were eagerly sought for and translated into Arabic, and colleges and libraries everywhere arose. Baghdad in the east and Cordova in the west became the seats of a rich development of letters and science during the age when the civilization of Europe was most obscured. Cairo and Tripoli were also distinguished for their libraries. The royal library of the Fatimites in Africa is said to have numbered 100,000 manuscripts, while that collected by the Omayyads of Spain is reported to have contained six times as many. It is said that there were no less than seventy libraries opened in the cities of Andalusia. Whether these figures be exaggerated or not and they are much below those given by some Arabian writers, which are undoubtedly so it is certain that the libraries of the Arabians and the Moors of Spain offer a very remarkable contrast to those of the Christian nations during the same period. 2 The literary and scientific activity of the Arabians appears to have been the cause of a revival of letters amongst the Greeks of the Byzantine empire in the 9th century. Under Leo the Philosopher and Constantine Porphyrogenitus the libraries of Constantinople awoke into renewed life. The compilations of such writers as Stobaeus, Photius and Suidas, as well as the labours of innumerable critics and commentators, bear witness to the activity, if not to the lofty character of the pursuits, of the Byzantine scholars. The labours of transcription were industriously pursued in the libraries and in the monasteries of Mount Athos and the Aegean, and it was from these quarters that the restorers of learning brought into Italy so many Greek manuscripts. In this way many of the treasures of ancient literature had been already conveyed to the West before the fate which overtook the libraries of Constantinople on the fall of the city in 1453.

[2] Among the Arabs, however, as among the Christians, theological bigotry did not always approve of non-theological literature, and the great library of Cordova was sacrificed by Almanzor to his reputation for orthodoxy, 978 A.D.

Meanwhile in the West, with the reviving interest in literature which already marks the 14th century, we find arising outside the monasteries a taste for collecting books. St Louis of France and his successors had formed small collections, none of which survived its possessor. It was reserved for Charles V. to form a considerable library which he intended to be permanent. In 1373 he had amassed 910 volumes, and had a catalogue of them prepared, from which we see that it included a good deal of the new sort of literature. In England Guy, earl of Warwick, formed a curious collection of French romances, which he bequeathed to Bordesley Abbey on his death in 1315. Richard d'Aungervyle of Bury, the author of the Philobiblon, amassed a noble collectiop of books, and had special opportunities of doing so as Edward III.'s chancellor and ambassador. He founded Durham College at Oxford, and equipped it with a library a hundred years before Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, made his benefaction of books to the university. The taste for secular literature, and the enthusiasm for the ancient classics, gave a fresh direction to the researches of collectors. A disposition to encourage literature began to show itself amongst the great. This was most notable amongst the Italian princes. Cosimo de' Medici formed a library at Venice while living there in exile in 1433, and on his return to Florence laid the foundation of the great Medicean library. The honour of establishing the first modern public library in Italy had been already secured by Niccolo Niccoli, who left his library of over 800 volumes for the use of the public on his death in 1436. Frederick, duke of Urbino, collected all the writings in Greek and Latin which he could procure, and we have an interesting account of his collection written by his first librarian, Vespasiano. The ardour for classical studies led to those active researches for the Latin writers who were buried in the monastic libraries which are especially identified with the name of Poggio. For some time before the fall of Constantinople, the perilous state of the Eastern empire had driven many Greek scholars from that capital into western Europe, where they had directed the studies and formed the taste of the zealous students of the Greek language and literature. The enthusiasm of the Italian princes extended itself beyond the Alps. Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, amassed a collection of splendidly executed and magnificently bound manuscripts, which at his death are said to have reached the almost incredible number of 50,000 v ols. The library was not destined long to survive its founder. There is reason to believe that it had been very seriously despoiled even before it perished at the hands of the Turks on the fall of Buda in 1527. A few of its treasures are still preserved in some of the libraries of Europe. While these munificent patrons of learning were thus taking pains to recover and multiply the treasures of ancient literature by the patient labour of transcribers and calligraphers, an art was being elaborated which was destined to revolutionize the whole condition of literature and libraries. With the invention of printing, so happily coinciding with the revival of true learning and sound science, the modern history of libraries may be said to begin.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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