The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIX. The Foundation of Libraries

§ 2. Monastic libraries

In monasteries, and especially in those of the Benedictine order, libraries gradually assumed a more important character, and the practice of lending volumes began to come into vogue. A limited number would be distributed among the members of the house for temporary personal use, while the larger and more valuable portion would be kept in safe custody in a separate chamber. Then it became not unusual for one house to lend a volume to another community, and, in this manner, volumes have occasionally been found among collections belonging to various houses, which, by the character of the ornamentation, or by the binding, could be shown to have originally belonged to another house, although it by no means follows that they had been purloined.

The library of the monastery at Durham, a Benedictine house, appears, from a catalogue drawn up in the twelfth century, to have possessed 366 volumes; that at Croyland, if any credit attaches to the fifteenth century writer who wrote under the name of Ingulphus, possessed, at the time of its destruction by fire (1091), 300 volumes and some 400 tracts; that of the neighbouring monastery of St. Peter at Peterborough (where the original library had been destroyed by the Danes in 870) received, through the good offices of abbot Benedict, secretary of Thomas Becket, some eighty different works especially transcribed for its enrichment. At Glastonbury, the collection, at first of but small importance, contained, in 1247, 500 works in 340 volumes.

The fact that abbot Benedict’s gift to Peterborough consisted entirely of transcriptions, reminds us that another stage had been reached in the history of monastic libraries; and it is at about the same time that we find one Henry, a monk of the Benedictine abbey at Hyde, near Winchester, becoming known for his industry as a copyist—his transcripts including Terence, Boethius, Suetonius, Claudian and other classical authors. It is, indeed, to such labours, far more than to the growth of new literature, that we must attribute the great increase in the numbers of volumes, in the catalogues of monastic and cathedral libraries alike, which becomes observable throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the transcriber’s toil, from time to time, receiving an abnormal stimulus from some fire which may have resulted in the entire destruction of a library in a single night. At Canterbury, the catalogues of its two monasteries, that of Christ Church, compiled about the year 1300, and that of St. Augustine’s, nearly two centuries later, afford valuable evidence: the former contains nearly 3000 titles (or about 1850 volumes), and, while abounding in patristic and scholastic literature, is characterised as also “respectable in science and rich in history”; the latter numbers over 1800 volumes, including a large collection of French, and more especially Romance, writers. Here the numerous duplicates are another noteworthy feature, attributable, doubtless, to the desire of enabling several members of the community to study the same author concurrently, and also attesting the increasing activity of the copyists. The St. Augustine’s catalogue, however, is obviously incomplete, and the same may be surmised to be the case with the catalogue at Peterborough, which, in 1380, contained no more than 300 volumes. The society at Worcester, although 280 volumes still remain, is conjectured to have lost more than double that number, and no contemporary catalogue exists. The Benedictines at Dover possessed in 1389 some 449 volumes; and their house at Bury St. Edmunds, at the close of the same century, as many as 2000. At Durham, to which, after the Danish invasions of the ninth century, the devastated monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow had become affiliated as “cells,” the “reserved” library, by which we are to understand, probably, the collection kept under especial surveillance in the spendimentum (or bursary), contained, in 1416, 500 volumes.

A brief account may here be given of a library remarkable alike for its character and its history. The foundation known as Syon monastery, some twelve miles from London, at Isleworth, was one of the Brigittine order, the only one of its kind in England, its rule being “planned to suit the needs of religious men and women serving God together in one church and dwelling in adjoining houses.” There were, however, separate libraries for the two sexes, and the catalogue which has come down to us (now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) appears, by internal evidence, to be that of the library for men. The value attached to its maintenance and increase is indicated by the fact that there was a rule enjoining that masses should be said for the souls of all donors, even of a single book, and the librarian himself was charged with the duty of offering up such intercession or seeing that it was made. The extent to which the practice of lending books had, by this time, obtained among monasteries partially accounts for the numerous losses which the collection had sustained prior to the dissolution. The binding appears to have been executed without regard to contents—a Horace, for example, being bound up with a life of Thomas of Canterbury, and a Rabanus Maurus with a Latin translation of Homer. No less than 1421 titles were duly entered in the catalogue, and, of the entire collection, only six volumes have as yet been traced.

But all such collections, whether those of the monastery, the friary, or the cathedral, were exposed to special dangers. At monasteries, the traveller was wont to receive shelter and hospitality, and, if wealthy, would seek to make some return, his gratitude not unfrequently finding expression in the gift of an addition to the library. On the other hand, the opportunity thus afforded to the outer world of gaining access to the interior itself rendered the library liable to losses which not even the vigilance of the guardian of the spendimentum could always prevent. At friends, whose members were in closer touch with the laity, owing to the fact that their houses were generally within the precincts of some city or large town, and sometimes in a main thoroughfare, the risk, probably, was still greater. Thomas Gascoigne describes the house of the Franciscans, as it existed in Oxford in the middle of the fifteenth century, in the following terms:

  • They had two libraries in the same house; the one called the convent library, the other the library of the schools; whereof the former was open only to graduates; the latter to the scholars they called seculars, who lived among those friars for the sake of learning.
  • Gottlieb, in commenting on this passage, points out that such a division of libraries was, probably, a regular custom, and that it affords an obvious explanation of the fact that not a few of their catalogues, many of them very old, contain nothing but classical authors and manuals of instruction. That, among the mendicant orders, Franciscans and Carmelites were especially distinguished by their zeal for learning and energy as book hunters, is well known; and, as early as 1381, we find them sharing with the university of Cambridge the dislike of the townsmen. According to Mabillon, a like arrangement with respect to their libraries existed among the larger monasteries, especially those of the Cluniac order, on the continent, one library being that of the choir of the monastery church, the other that for the exclusive use of the monks—the libri scientifici et ascetici; and, in like manner, in the English cathdrals, the respective duties of the armarius and the praecentor (also cantor) point to the same distinction, although, at minor foundations, the duties of each were often discharged by the same individual. But, at all alike, there would generally be among the service books one or more beautiful antiphonals, richly illuminated and adorned with massively embossed covers; and an additional temptation was thus presented to the despoiler, when the dissolution came, besides that of the gold and silver chalices, censers, crosses, ewers and candlesticks which adorned the altar and the chapels. Such entries, again, as occur in the sales of the plunder which took place in 1548, of “fourteen great books in the quire, 14s.,” “four prycksong mass books of paper,” certainly bear out the view, that the love of choral song (noted by Erasmus as an interesting feature in the social life of the English), had been to a great extent fostered by those monastic or cathedral choirs of youths and boys, whom he described as “singing, to the accompaniment of the organ and with harmonious modulations of voice, their matin song in honour of the Virgin.”

    Generally speaking, however, accounts contemporary with the reformation are wanting, and we must rely on much earlier evidence, derived from inventories, for such information as the following, which relates to the chapel of the collegiate church of Windsor, where,

  • in addition to the service books there were (temp. Richard II) 34 books on different subjects (diversarum scientiarum) chained in the church; among them a Bible and a concordance, and two books of French romance, one of which was the Liber de Rose.
  • This, however, was an exceptionally wealthy foundation.

    The work of destruction that went on at the dissolution of the monasteries has been dealt with in a previous chapter of this work. Well might Thomas Fuller, as he bemoaned the havoc, more than a century later, exclaim,

  • What beautiful Bibles, rare Fathers, subtile Schoolmen, useful Historians,—ancient, middle, modern; what painful Comments were here amongst them! What monuments of mathematics all massacred together—seeing every book with a cross was condemned for Popish,—with circles, for conjuring. Yea, I may say that then holy Divinity was profaned, Physics hurt, and a trespass, yea a riot, committed on Law itself. And, more particularly, the History of former times then and there received a dangerous wound, where of it halts at this day, and, without hope of a perfect cure, must go a cripple to the grave.