The English Library Before 1700 by Francis Wormald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The English Library before 1700 is an informative and exciting collection of essays about the production, dissemination and collection of books in England from the early mediaeval era to around 1700.
Chapter 3 taught me the difference between vellum (calf) and parchment (sheep). Paper was imported into England around 1300 but it wasn’t until around 1494 that domestic production began. It was fascinating to read about Abbot Trittenheim, who railed against the adoption of paper, saying that writing on paper would only last 200 years while on skin it would last 1,000 or more. He might be right, based on the beautiful condition of older manuscripts, but it was just funny to see the same argument play throughout history (tablets to scrolls, scrolls to bound volumes, paper, printing presses, and now digital). This chapter also covered the cool process by which copyists worked to produce documents: how the material was prepared, folded, written on, rotated, dried, flipped, written, dried, and then incorporated into a final book. Also, as one might expect, some of the illustrators were illiterate. Some of the mistakes in old manuscripts would easily have been noticed and corrected if the text could have been read or proofread.
Chapter 4 covers the transition of books from solely in the monasteries to universities around the 13th century. Universities demanded more books for teaching and books that could be produced quicker, cost less, and be smaller in size for easier transportation.
Chapter 5 discusses the contents of mediaeval libraries. All had religious works. All contained Virgil’s works. Most contained items from Ovid and Horace. There were pockets on grammar, logic, science, medicine, history and a few pieces of prose. Interestingly, most items were in Latin. There was little Greek or Hebrew texts at this point. I also liked that we know of some works only because they were referenced in later works. We know of quotes from Pliny’s Natural History via a 3rd century AD manuscript by Solinus.
Chapter 7 covers the preservation of the classics, which are defined as Latin profane texts that date before AD 200. These texts were widely available prior to AD 500 and again after 1400. During the intervening years, they were preserved, sometimes in single copies across Europe. Italy, Ireland and Britain helped preserve many of these works. Monasteries helped but not always as effectively as private and university collections. Sometimes works were saved by pure luck and collectors’ taste. No one ever had a project to pull together a set of all the classics (p. 147).
Chapter 8 discusses the dispersal of libraries in the 16th century. Books were moved from monasteries to colleges, starting under the rule of Henry VIII. This was part of an effort by the king to seize property and money from the churches after breaking with Rome. Some major cathedral libraries were broken up under Henry. However, it was much worse under his successor, Edward VI. Books, mostly prayer and religious service items, were destroyed that weren’t in sync with the new Book of Common Prayer that was finalized in 1550 (p. 165). By Elizabeth I, the purges had stopped and attempts to preserve and reacquire lost and destroyed manuscripts began.
Chapter 9 is dear to my heart as a bibliophile. It discusses the Elizabethan Society of Antiquarians and the formation of the Cotton library. Robert Bruce Cotton was born in 1571 and he gathered an amazing collection. There are many items that people associate with him, such as the Coronation Book of Charles V and the Lindisfarne Gospels. But there were so much more: many Greek, Latin and Anglo Saxon books. His library included the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, documents from 60 BC (Caesar’s invasion of Britain) up to 1154. It also included the only surviving copies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, and a 1215 exemplification of the Magna Carta. The Cotton library was the basis for the British Library’s collection.
Chapters 10 and 11 cover the libraries of Cambridge and Oxford, respectively. It was interesting to read about chained libraries, where books were physically chained to a wall or shelf and could only be used at that spot, and how they eventually became unchained, in Cambridge around 1627 and in Oxford by the late 18th century. As books became cheaper to produce and smaller in size, the need to chain them started to go away. Further, as the nobility and gentry started to send their children to university, these students expected and felt entitled to having what they had at home. Their families personal collections were never chained and were beautifully displayed.
Overall, an excellent book, in pieces and as a whole project.