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The Libraries of the Byzantine World

The Libraries of the Byzantine World

By Nigel G. Wilson

Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1967)

byzantium libraries

Introduction: To discuss so large a subject as the libraries of the Byzantine world within the limits of a single paper may seem unduly ambitious. The chronological and geographical range of the topic is enormous. But despite the great advance of Byzantine studies in this century the amount of primary source material on this subject remains modest, one might well say disappointing, since the references are normally brief and difficult to interpret with any confidence. A short but reasonably comprehensive survey is not out of the question, especially if the scope of the essay is restricted in two ways. Unfortunately a chronological limitation is imposed by the nature of the sources: comparatively little is known of the earlier periods of the empire, and in consequence nearly all my material relates to the ninth century or later. The second restriction is that my concern will be the libraries of institutions, mostly monasteries, rather than those of private individuals; there were of course collectors who had the means to build up substantial private libraries, but the cost of collecting on this scale ensured that it was a hobby reserved for a few rich men, and with the one notable exception of Arethas the details of their activities cannot be traced.

This is of course not the first time that the topic has been discussed. There is a most useful and learned survey by Dr V. Burr in the Milkau Handbuch der Bibliothekswissenschaft, ed. 2 (Leipzig 1955), and part of the subject is covered by Dr O. Yolk’s 1955 Munich dissertation on the monastic libraries of the capital and Asia Minor, which I have been able to consult on microfilm. When such competent work exists already it may be thought that any addition to the literature requires justification. This I would offer by saying that the aim of the present essay is threefold: to ask certain general questions about the nature and functions of the leading libraries, matters that have perhaps received too little attention hitherto; to consider in more detail the implications of some individual pieces of evidence; to attempt a selection of the more relevant sections of the evidence, which entails leaving out of account a number of isolated facts about small libraries, provided that they do not run counter to the general picture and would add nothing to the argument by being included here.

To begin with the libraries of the capital: there were four major collections. First place must go to the emperors’ library. The date of its foundation is not known, but may be not much later than the transference of government to Constantinople in A.D. 330. It so happens that we possess a description of the physical appearance of the library at a very late stage in its history; to the best of my knowledge this is the only such description of a Byzantine library surviving. In the last years of the empire the Spaniard Pero Tafur visited Constantinople, and this is how he began his description of the palace as he saw it in the year 1437:

At the entrance to the palace, beneath certain chambers. is an open loggia of marble with stone benches round it, and stones like tables raised on low pillars in front of them, placed end to end. Here are many books and ancient writings and histories, and on one side are gaming boards, because the emperor’s house is always well supplied. 

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