Tag Archives: Libraries

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library


The library, Rievaul Abbey

If I was surprised by the size of the chapter houses I’ve seen, I was dumbfounded by the size of the libraries. I had anticipated huge spaces, but they were tiny.

All monasteries had a library, but they weren’t necessarily very large, not to start with, at least. In the early Middle Ages, all of a monastery’s books could be kept in a single cupboard. Eventually, however, they needed a room to themselves. From the end of the fourteenth century in many monasteries, that room had to be quite large. By the end of the Middle Ages, even a fairly small monastery could have 1,000 books. The monastery at Canterbury had over 4,000.

Most of the monasteries I’ve visited recently are Cistercian. As you can see from the photograph of the libraries at Rievaulx Abbey above and Roche Abbey below, their libraries tended to be narrow spaces between the north transept of the abbey church and the chapter house. All Cistercian monasteries were laid out on the same plan, with some accommodation being made for the geography of the site and the size of the monastery, so they all had fairly small libraries.


The Library, Roche Abbey

In monasteries of other orders, the libraries eventually became quite large and there would be additional cupboards of books located around the monastery: in the church, the refectory and the infirmary. Like the dormitories, these larger libraries were often on upper floors.

Books were both valuable and rare, even more so in the early Middle Ages. Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, every book had to be written by hand. The books in a monastic library were either copied in the monastery’s own scriptorium or were the gifts of benefactors. The armarius was responsible for both the library and the scriptorium. Monks could borrow books for their own use from the library and there was time set aside each day for them to read. They didn’t read in the library, but, mainly, in the cloister.

Reading was an important activity for a monk. As a minimum, a monastery had books for the offices and some complete Bibles. The libraries typically held individual books of the Bible for personal study. These often had notes or commentaries written in the margins. Works of the Church Fathers (such as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome) were also held, as were histories; lives of saints; classical texts; books of sermons; meditations; and treatises on medicine and agriculture.

In the thirteenth century, Rievaulx Abbey had 225 books, of which 22 survive. Two catalogues from that time are extant and they list legal works; histories by Bede, Henry of Huntingdon and Eusebius; philosophical works by Cicero and Boethius; books by Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the founders of the Cistercian order; and works by former abbots and monks of the monastery.

Many books from monastic libraries were burned during the dissolution of the Monasteries, although some libraries were just broken up, with the books ending up in private hands. Fortunately, men like Sir Robert Cotton recognised the importance of these books and collected and preserved as many of them as they could. The collection of Sir Robert, his son and his grandson later formed the basis of the British Library.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

Books and their Readers

Chained books

There was a growth in reading books through the fourteenth century in England. At the beginning of the century books were written in French or Latin, but English passages were included in them around the middle of the century. Educated people were taught Latin and French, but everyone spoke English. Towards the end of the century books started to appear that were written entirely in English. It wasn’t until then that English was considered a literary language and it was at this point that works by Langland, Gower, Chaucer and the Gawain Poet became available.

Unsurprisingly I read fiction set in the fourteenth century and I have come across too many novels in which books are treated as small, everyday objects. They weren’t; they were large and tremendously valuable. Someone had to be very wealthy to own even one. If you owned a book, no one else had one exactly the same.

I have occasionally read novels in which the heroine wafts into her bedroom where she had earlier left an unfinished book on the bed and picks it up to read, as if it were a  modern paperback. We’ll get on to reading in a moment, but books would not have been left lying around; they were far too valuable.

A book was written and illustrated by hand. Each page was made from animal skin prepared by hand. Once completed they had to be sewn together and bound by hand. Even in a labour-intensive age, the labour of making a book was immense and this made them expensive. If a private person owned a book it was more likely to be locked safely away in a chest than left out on display.

Mention of a library in a medieval house or even a castle in a historical novel always gives me pause when I’m reading. Very few wealthy people had many books. Edward III had about 340 books and his youngest son had about half that number. There is even a picture of Edward III receiving a book as a wedding gift. It was such an extravagant present that its giving was recorded.

In my own novels I’ve occasionally used books to show the wealth or aspirations of a character. In The Winter Love, for instance, Edward owns three books when we first meet him. He appears to be wealthy. When those books disappear and Edward denies ever having owned them it’s a sign to the reader that Edward’s fortunes have changed and that he might not be what he seemed at first.

Popular literature included treatises on warfare, hunting, histories and stories about King Arthur and the deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. There were also religious books: prayer books and sermons. Few individuals owned a complete Bible, although Edward II’s queen, Isabella, had one. Bibles were the province of cathedrals and monasteries. Not all priests could read, so it’s no surprise to learn that complete Bibles were rare in churches.

The greatest concentrations of books were in monasteries and abbeys, where they were often kept chained to the shelves. Books were sometimes inscribed with curses against anyone who had the temerity to steal them.

Reading, or being read to, was a communal activity. Books would be read aloud to the household gathered in the hall (the main room) of the house. Private reading didn’t mean that someone read a book themselves, but that the book was read to the lord and his family in the solar (their private room). Reading, save for study, was not a solitary occupation. Reading alone for any other reason was considered anti-social and odd.

As illustrated in this wonderful post by Erik Kwakkel books were so valuable that they were a target for thieves and their owners had to take measures to ensure that their books were kept safe and secure. The post is worth looking at for the pictures alone.


Filed under Fourteenth Century