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The Early Library and the Chained Book

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The earliest libraries in the British Isles were in monasteries. In the first part of the fifth century S. Patrick landed in Ireland to convert the inhabitants there to the Christian faith, and we are told that he brought books with him "in plenty." To his influence we may ascribe the introduction of learning into Ireland, where it flourished well, for by the middle of the sixth century monastic schools and small collections of religious books were to be found in many parts. S. Columba, who had studied in Ireland's most famous schools, crossed to lona after his dispute with the King of Meath, and continued there the work begun in Ireland. At the request of a King of Northumbria, Oswald, an ascetic of lona named S. Aidan came to Lindisfarne and founded what may be described as the monastic centre of that kingdom. Lastingham, Whitby, Wearmouth and Jarrow became centres of learning in the north. Benedict Biscop of Wearmouth and Jarrow - "one monastery on two sites" - made a number of journeys to Rome, and brought thence, and from Vienne, a large number of books, and at his death left a "most noble and rich library." This library was the workshop of Bede, and it served as a model for the notable collection at York. The most famous relic of all this activity is the manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum. This manuscript was the handiwork of Eadfrith, who wrote it in about 700, and as an example of Irish illuminated work it is second only to the Book of Kells, now in Trinity College, Dublin.

Meantime, Christian learning was advancing from the south. Gregory the Great gave to Augustine nine volumes for Church purposes in the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, beyond the walls of Canterbury. But it is probable that Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, did most to found the library at Augustine's monastery. He had an able assistant in Abbot Hadrian. Theodore and Hadrian, as Bede tells us, "fully instructed both in sacred and in secular letters," on their way through England, "gathered a crowd of disciples, and rivers of wholesome knowledge daily flowed from them to water the hearts of their hearers; and, together with the books of Holy Scripture, they also taught them the metrical art, astronomy and ecclesiastical arithmetic."

Egbert, a pupil of Bede, when he became Archbishop of York followed the example set at Jarrow and founded a library in the city. Alcuin mentions some of the "infinite number of excellent books" of this library in his metrical catalogue. When he became master of a school established by Charles the Great he requested leave to bring books from England: "I have need of the most excellent books of scholastic learning, which I had procured in my own country, either by the devoted care of my master, or by my own labours. I therefore beseech your Majesty.. to permit me to send certain of our household to bring over into France the flowers of Britain, that the Garden of Paradise may not be confined to York."

In this chapter it would be impossible to tell, even briefly the story of monastic libraries in the later middle ages; and we can only give a few indications of their importance and number. Monastic catalogues and other records tell us that a library was begun at Peterborough as early as the tenth century; in the eleventh century many books were given to Evesham Abbey and made for that house. In the twelfth century we hear of good monastic libraries at Durham (370 works), Burton-on-Trent, Gloucester, St. Albans and Bury St. Edmunds. To the thirteenth century belong similar records oi libraries at Reading (228 volumes), Llanthony (486 volumes), Rievaulx, Flexley, Evesham, Glastonbury (nearly 500 books) and at Christ Church, Canterbury (about 1,850 volumes). According to a record now preserved in the Bodleian Library there were in England and south-east Scotland no fewer than 183 monastic libraries at the end of the thirteenth of the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Some of the cathedral libraries were of monastic origin, but it will be convenient to deal with them separately. We hear first of a library at Exeter about sixteen years before the Conquest, and thanks to Bishop Leofric we have in the "Mycel Englisc boc," still preserved in the library, the only source of much of our small store of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In 1327 the library possessed about 230 volumes, and it seems to have prospered until, in about 1412, a special library room was built over the east cloister. At this time payments were made for 191 chains for securing books. Two ancient book-boxes are fixed to pillars in the cathedral. One of them has a wooden bookboard nailed to the inside bottom, and evidently a book has been kept in the box for public use, because any reader could raise the lid, which does not seem ever to have been fastened.

A library was formed at Worcester Cathedral probably as early as at Exeter. In over forty of the manuscripts now at Worcester are inscriptions on fly-leaves stating where they were procured, and the dates of these inscriptions run from about 1280 onwards. When the new library was built in 1897, care was taken to preserve the ancient bookcases. One of them still has all the old chains and fittings. Every 'chain is from three to four feet long, with a ring at each end. One ring is strung on to an iron rod running the length of the case, and the other end was fixed to the fore-edge of the book cover instead of to the back. The books therefore present their fore-edges to the reader, instead of their backs, as in a modern library.

Other early libraries were those of Salisbury, Lincoln, St. Paul's, Wells and Lichfield. An idea of the extent and importance of our early cathedral libraries may be given if we recall that special library rooms were usually built for them: at Exeter, over the east cloister, in 1412-13, at Worcester in the charnel-house chantry, 1464, at St. Paul's "over the east quadrant of this cloister, was a fair library, built at the costs and charges of Waltar Sherington... in the reign of Henry the 6, which hath been well furnished with fair written books in vellum," and at Wells, over the east cloister, late in the fifteenth century, where it can be seen to-day in its original completeness.

Illuminators, bookbinders, parchmenters and a scribe are mentioned in a document recording a sale of land in Oxford at the end of the twelfth century. The university library had its first home in S. Mary's Church, where the books were stored in chests or were chained to desks. In 1327 Bishop Cobham left his books and three hundred and fifty marks to found a library; but he died in debt, and there was a long dispute about the legacy of books. One of the most generous of patrons was Duke Humfrey of Gloucester; he gave books in 1413, in 1430, books and money in 1435. 120 volumes in 1439, sixteen more a year later, and then 135 volumes, among them a fine selection of the classics. With these additions the old library room over the Congregation House became too small, and by 1488 the University authorities had arranged their books in the beautiful chamber ever since known as Duke Humfrey's Library. But this early University library was not long preserved unspoiled. Sir Thomas Bodley decided that he could not busy himself "to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students," and, after much labour, towards the end of 1602 the library was re founded with a stock of about 2,500 volumes.

The early history of the University Library at Oxford runs parallel with the history of the college libraries. The statutes of University Hall, now University College, embody the earliest regulations in connexion with books (1292). There are records of books and libraries at other colleges very early in their history: at Merton soon after its foundation, at Balliol in 1336, at Exeter in 1366, at Oriel in 1375. The old or West Library at Merton College, in plan, general appearance and fittings, is one of the most beautiful of medieval libraries.

The other old University libraries were founded in the fifteenth century, or later. Cambridge, Glasgow, King's College at Aberdeen, date from the fifteenth century; Edinburgh from 1580, Trinity College, Dublin, from 1601, and St. Andrews from 1611. The earliest collegiate libraries of Cambridge were those at Peterhouse, Pembroke, Clare, Trinity Hall and Gonville. Peterhouse had the first library in Cambridge, and by 1418 it had come to possess an excellent collection of 380 volumes, a number only exceeded probably by one other similar library, that of New College, Oxford.

Before the age of printing the production of books wholly by hand made them costly. Hence medieval libraries are small, and when books were intended to be consulted with any freedom they were usually chained, as at Hereford, chiefly so that they could not be easily removed, but partly also so that they were not misplaced. We have noted already a record of chaining books early in the fourteenth century, and the practice is probably of much earlier date. Many records of chaining books are extant: at Worcester in 1369, at Exeter in 1412, S. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster, 1443, S. Michael, Cornhill, 1475, All Saints, Derby, c. 1525, Wimborne, 1542, S. Mary, Devizes, 1636, and at Grinton, Yorkshire, even as late as 1752.

Chained Bibles are still to be found in a number of churches in England, and, in addition to the chained library at Hereford Cathedral, there are collections of books similarly chained at All Saints, Hereford - a library bequeathed in 1715 - Wootton Wawen church, Warwickshire, Kingsthorpe and Great Doddington churches in Northamptonshire, at Breadsall church in Derbyshire, and in the Grammar School in Guildford. But these are relics of the old days when books were scarce and costly.

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