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.
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.