|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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|LIBRARIES IN MEDIEVAL TIMES.
During the rule of the Arabs in Northern Africa and in Spain, thousands of manuscripts were gathered
together in their chief cities, such as Cairo and Cordova, and many Arabic-Spanish and Moorish writings
have been preserved in the Escurial Library, though a large part of this library was burnt in 1671.
With these exceptions, the collections of books belonging to the various religious houses were practically
the only libraries of early medieval times.
These collections, to begin with, were very small; so small, indeed, that there was no need to set apart a
special room for them. Library buildings were not erected till the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, when
the accumulation of books rendered them necessary, and those which are found in connection with old
foundations will always prove to have been added later. It is said, however, that Gozbert, abbot of St.
Gall in the ninth century, who founded the library there by collecting what was then the large number of
four hundred books, allotted them a special room over the scriptorium. But as a rule the books were kept
in the church, and then, as the number increased, in the cloisters.
The cloister was the common living-room of the monks, where they read and studied, and carried out
most of their daily duties. The books were either stored in presses, though no such press remains to
show us upon what pattern they were built, or in recesses in the wall, probably closed by doors. Two of
these recesses may be seen in the cloisters at Worcester. In Cistercian houses, says Mr. J. W. Clark, to
whose Rede Lecture (1894) I am indebted for these details, this recess developed" into a small square
room without a window, and but little larger than an ordinary cupboard. In the plans of Clairvaux and
Kirkstall this room is placed between the chapterhouse and the transept of the church; and similar
rooms, in similar situations, have been found at Fountains, Beaulieu, Tintern, Netley, etc."
The books were placed on shelves round the walls. When the cloister windows came to be glazed, so as
to afford better protection from the weather for the persons and things within the cloister, they were
occasionally decorated with allusions to the authors of the books in the adjacent presses.
Sometimes carrells were set up in the cloister, a carrell being a sort of pew, in which study could be
conducted with more privacy than in the open cloister. The carrell was placed so that it was closed at one
end by one of the cloister windows and remained open at the other. Examples still survive at Gloucester.
The arrangement of the libraries which were subsequently added to most of the larger monasteries in the
fifteenth century is unknown, as none of the furniture or fittings seem to have come down to the present
day either in this country or in France or Italy.
But Mr. Clark thinks that the collegiate libraries will give us the key to the plan of the monastic libraries,
since the rules relating to the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge were framed on those which obtained in
the" book-houses" of the religious foundations. From these collegiate libraries we gather that it was
customary to chain the books, so that they might be accessible to all and yet secure from those who
might wish to appropriate them temporarily or otherwise. The shelf to which the volumes were fastened
took the form of an "elongated lectern or desk," at which the reader might sit. Pembroke College and
Queen's College, Cambridge, had desks of this type, which was also in use on the Continent. In some
places the desks were modified by the addition of shelves above or below.
Mr. Falconer Madan, in his Books in Manuscript, quotes the following account, which he translates from
the Latin register of Titchfield Abbey, written at the end of the fourteenth century, and which shows the
care and method with which the books were kept: "The arrangement of the library of the monastery of
Tychefeld is this :- There are in the library of Tychefield four cases (columnæ) in which to place books, of
which two, the first and second, are in the eastern face; on the southern face is the third, and on the
northern face the fourth. And each of them has eight shelves (gradus) marked with a letter and number
affixed on the front of each shelf. . . . So all and singular the volumes of the said library are fully marked
on the first leaf and elsewhere on the shelf belonging to the book, with certain numbered letters. And in
order that what is in the library may be more quickly found, the marking of the shelves of the said library,
the inscriptions in the books, and the reference in the register, in all points agree with each other. Anno
Then is shown the order in which the books lie on the shelves. Briefly, the sequence of subjects and
books is as follows :-Bibles, Bibles with commentary, theology, lives of saints, sermons, canon law,
commentaries on canon law, civil Jaw, medicine, arts, grammar, miscellaneous volumes, logic and
philosophy, English law, eighteen French volumes, and a hundred and two liturgical volumes. Titchfield
Abbey owned altogether over a thousand volumes.
The monastic librarian, as we should call him, was known as the armarius, since he had charge of the
armaria or book-presses. He frequently united this office to that of precentor or leader of the choir, for at
first the service-books were his chief care. It was his business to make the catalogue to examine the
volumes from time to time to see that mould or book-worms or other dangers were not threatening
them, to give out books for transcription, and to distribute the various writing materials used in the
scriptorium or writing-room. He had also to collate such works as were bound to follow one text, such as
Bibles, missals, monastic rules, etc. To these duties he often added that of secretary to the abbot and to
the monastery generally.
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