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The Destruction of Medieval Manuscripts

By Kathryn Walton

Today medieval manuscripts are (usually) protected as the precious objects that they are. But medieval manuscripts were not always treated with this level of respect. Thousands of manuscripts have been destroyed across history: here are some of the reasons why.

The medieval literary world survives in manuscript form, and, in my opinion, it is this form that makes medieval literature so unique and interesting. Because medieval literature survives only in manuscript form, no two texts are the same. When I say that no two texts are the same, I don’t mean that different authors produced different works; this is true across literary history. What I mean is that every single version of any text (even the same work by the same author) is different. Every copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, for example, is different. Every time you encounter any text in a medieval manuscript, it’s different.

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This is what makes medieval manuscripts so precious. Today, published works tend to exist in stasis. The book will be published. Thousands or millions of copies will be produced, and they will all be exactly the same. In the Middle Ages, a text was written and then it was transmitted by a scribe who quite literally sat down and wrote it out. This meant that small changes – whether they were unintentional errors or intentional revisions – appeared everywhere.

And so, every single medieval manuscript provides unique insights into the medieval world. That’s what makes them so amazing.

The partially destroyed page of a 14th-century manuscript – British Library MS Harley 2484 f. 1

Today, we tend to treat medieval manuscripts with the reverence that I think they deserve. They’re stored in secure, temperature-controlled conditions. If someone wants to go and look at one, they usually need permission and must do so under strict supervision.

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This was not, however, always the case. Countless manuscripts have been destroyed across history for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. Here are just a few examples.

Household Fires

One of the biggest hazards to medieval books is fire. It is actually quite a bit harder to destroy a medieval manuscript than a contemporary book. Medieval manuscripts were composed of vellum or parchment, which means that they were made from the skins of animals. These skins would be boiled and scraped and treated until they produced a nice writing surface, and that writing surface was actually extremely durable.

Fire, however, was as much of a hazard to books in the Middle Ages as it is today, and countless medieval manuscripts have been lost to fires in the past thousand years. These fires could be caused by human carelessness or error and could result in the destruction of hundreds of manuscripts at a time.

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The burning of the library of Sir Robert Cotton is one such example.

Sir Robert Cotton lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He was an antiquarian, meaning that he was interested in old books. He collected hundreds of medieval manuscripts over the course of his life: in many cases saving them from destruction by some of the other means mentioned below. He collected some of the most famous medieval books: the Magna Carta, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, all surviving because of him. More would survive, however, had his library not burned.

The Beowulf manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham house fire – afterwards its pages were bound into a new manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

One night in October of 1731 a fire broke out at Ashburnham house where his famous library was housed. The devastating fire is thought to have spread from the hearth below the library, no doubt due to human carelessness of some kind or other. While the librarians and staff in the house heroically attempted to save the books by chucking them out the windows, the fire itself, and the water used to extinguish the flames, resulted in devastation. Many unique and precious volumes were lost. In the morning local schoolboys are reported to have caught fragments of charred parchment flying through the air. Many of the manuscripts that survived the fire were heavily damaged: the edge of the Beowulf manuscript, for example, was singed by the fire.

This fire has since achieved quite a bit of fame and notoriety both for the destruction it wrought and for the heroic efforts of the library staff to save the material, but it was by no means the only instance. It is one of many examples of the devastation that can be wrought on a medieval library thanks to a poorly attended fire.

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Political and Religious Shifts

Political and religious shifts could also result in the destruction of medieval manuscripts. The destruction of books thanks to a change in regime is a common occurrence across the history of the world, but the loss of medieval books during a political shift seems to me to be somewhat more poignant because of the unique nature of medieval manuscripts – once that individual text is gone, it’s gone.

Some of the worst destruction of medieval manuscripts happened as a result of the Reformation. This was when Henry VIII split the church of England from Rome, dissolving many religious institutions in the process: most significantly, for my purposes, the monasteries.

Monasteries were one of the biggest housers of books in the Middle Ages. They would almost always have large collections of manuscripts both for the edification of those who lived there and because many monasteries produced manuscripts.

Just before the monasteries were dissolved, the antiquarian and bibliophile John Leland travelled around England on the orders of Henry VIII cataloguing some of the collections in the monasteries. During his travels, Leland recorded an enormous collection of manuscripts in each institution.

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John Leland, by Thomas Charles Wageman after Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia Commons

But then, King Henry VIII officially dissolved the monasteries. The monasteries themselves and all their wealth and possessions (including their books) were taken by the King and given to his favourites. Some of the manuscripts entered the royal library, some were saved by antiquarians like Leland, but many, many more were lost.

Some of the books were even intentionally destroyed. When the king imposed his new religious doctrine on the country, books that adhered too closely to the old conventions were destroyed. This happened most consciously in 1551 when King Edward VI passed an act insisting on the purging of “Superstitious Books.”

So, thousands of manuscripts were probably lost in the initial institutional changes that came from the Reformation and in the religious reforms that followed. The number of manuscripts that Leland records in his catalogues of monastic libraries is nowhere even close to near the number of manuscripts that survive today. It’s easy to see that a huge body of knowledge and literature was lost as a result of this particular political change.

Binding Material

Medieval manuscripts were also destroyed in the early modern period for much less significant/political reasons. Early modern bookmakers would frequently cut up medieval manuscripts to use the materials to make new books.

As I mentioned earlier, the materials used in medieval manuscripts were very durable, and so the bindings of early modern books were frequently reinforced with that material. Bookbinders would cut up a manuscript and glue strips of the parchment or vellum inside the binding. Often, when librarians or scholars today take apart early modern books, they will find bits of medieval texts hidden within.

Fragments of 12th century glossed Bible reinforcing book spine (outer cover removed), Yale Law School library / Wikimedia Commons

This is exactly what Tamara Atkin recently found in the binding of a book published in 1528. Its cover was reinforced with strips from a famous romance by Béroul the Roman de Tristan. This romance was thought lost, but Dr Atkin found a piece of it glued into an early modern book. You can read the full story here.

The fact that this manuscript was cut up to be used as binding material shows the lack of respect often afforded to medieval manuscripts in the early modern period. Apart from a few antiquarians like John Leland or Robert Cotton, most in that period saw medieval manuscripts as old-fashioned and archaic. So, they would happily cut them up to reuse the parchment with little thought to the unique literary artefact they were destroying. Obviously, their choice was way more significant than they probably thought. The binder who cut up the Roman de Tristan was responsible for the almost complete loss of an entire literary work. Countless of other manuscripts and texts have been lost for a similar reason.

Manuscript Cuttings

The final way (that I will mention here) that medieval manuscripts have been destroyed across history is through the practice of taking cuttings.

Many medieval manuscripts contain spectacular illuminations. It’s one of the things for which they’re most famous. So, throughout history, people have cut up manuscripts to extract images. They would use a knife to extract a single image or cut out whole pages to display or sell.

While this practice comes from a place of appreciation, it results in the destruction of the surrounding text and sometimes the whole manuscript because whatever text is on the back of that image or whatever text surrounds that image is lost.

So, an entire chunk of a significant medieval text can be lost because someone, at some point, liked the picture and cut it out. This happened to one of the most famous surviving manuscripts of medieval romance – the Auchinleck Manuscript. It is missing many chunks of text because someone at some point went through and cut out all the images.

Cut out portion of the Auchinleck Manuscript

This practice is even common today. At a conference one time, I saw images of a lampshade that someone had made from cut-up medieval manuscript pages. Needless to say, I was horrified!

It can be quite disheartening to think about all the manuscripts that have been lost across history. A huge portion of the medieval literary world is missing simply because manuscripts were not always treated with the respect that they deserve. At the same time, I am endlessly thankful that due to the efforts of a few individuals, we do have a big enough body of these unique artefacts to have a good sense of what the medieval literary world would have been like. Thanks to them, at least, we can appreciate what has been lost.

Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.

Click here to read more from Kathryn Walton

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