Two Lost Libraries in London

Two Lost Libraries in London

By Peter Nowell

Graduate Student Paper, 2014

John Norden's map of London 1593

Introduction: Medieval libraries in England were assembled in many places and for different purposes. Monastic libraries supported both theological education and the advancement of learning, and provided the seeds for later university libraries. Cathedrals and their schools likewise collected books and encouraged their reading. Royal libraries gathered both practical and artistic books, with illuminated manuscripts given and received as signs of wealth and power. However, our knowledge of these libraries can be described as limited at best. The majority of manuscripts have been lost over time, their greatest enemies being fire, war or insurrection, theft and neglect. So what can we know about the manuscripts contained in these medieval libraries? And how and where were these manuscripts produced?

The first step is in reconstructing libraries from the information available to us. This includes surviving manuscripts, contemporaneous documents, and later evidence, such as inventories or descriptions by those acquainted with the collection. Neil Ker collected evidence from approximately 6,000 surviving manuscripts in Britain and highlighted information from:

  • bindings, which may be distinctive
  • contents, such as notes or marginalia
  • inscriptions, marking ownership or gifts
  • choice of script or illumination.

Obviously some details are more persuasive than others, and judgement is still required to make positive attributions. Unfortunately few works have inscriptions or scribal autographs to make identification straightforward.

The best contemporaneous evidence is from inventories of libraries. Lists of books with titles and details survive from a number of abbeys and monasteries, either as separate documents or copied in to other works. Failing that, inventories or partial lists may survive from post-medieval writers, and we may assume continuity of the collection in the intervening years. In England we are fortunate that sixteenth and seventeenth century historians compiled lists of books and sources for monastic and church histories, and their writings survived even though the books they saw did not.

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