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  • Lynne Shelby

Monks and Princes - A History of Libraries - Part II

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

In Roman times, a man about town might well spend his morning at the public baths, his ablutions followed by a few hours browsing and reading in the public library that was part of his town’s bath house complex (although he presumably wouldn’t be permitted to read in the actual bath itself).

Historians argue about the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century CE, but there is no doubt that its catastrophic collapse (or gradual decline, depending on which historian you agree with), and the Dark Ages that followed, saw the destruction of public libraries and their vast collections of books; scrolls – and those new-fangled vellum pages bound between wood and leather covers that were replacing them at the time – being particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire, invading armies, and the end of civilisation as the Romans knew it.

In Western Europe, it was the monasteries, and probably some convents, that were responsible for preserving at least some of the books of the classical world, as well as the concept of libraries being a repository of knowledge. The founders of monastic orders believed that reading was an essential element of the life spiritual, and monastic communities established libraries under the supervision of a precentor who performed the function of a librarian and would issue books to the monks. The era also saw the creation of new texts, usually religious. While these collections of books were not public libraries in the sense we understand them, monks did lend their volumes to other monasteries (and sometimes members of the laity) in an early example of the inter-library loan. Whether or not they imposed fines for late returns is not known, but copyists often added a curse to the final page of a book condemning book thieves to eternal damnation.

The Benedictines in particular emphasised the importance of reading, and the collection and copying of books, and many of their scriptoria - the places where texts were transcribed and illustrated – such as Monte Cassino in Italy (founded 529 CE) and Jarrow in England – became famous for their beautifully illuminated manuscripts. The earliest Benedictine scriptoria were just a corridor in the monastery cloisters, where monks sat at their desks with no protection from the cold and damp, but by the late Middle Ages, scriptoria were situated next to the ‘warming room’ – one of only two rooms in a monastery that were heated, the other being the infirmary – and had glazed windows, which may explain why so many monks became skilled copyists and illuminators.

Surprisingly, for such bibliophilic institutions, the early monasteries did not have a special room set aside as a ‘library’ but kept their books in presses in the cloisters – which indicates how relatively few books were available to them. In subsequent centuries, when enough leather-bound volumes had been collected to warrant designating a separate space as a library, books were still enough of a rare and valuable commodity for them to be kept chained to shelves and lecterns.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, the 7th Century CE saw the establishment of libraries in mosques and schools, and by political leaders. The arrival of the craft of paper-making from China in the 8th Century CE – making the production of books much easier – led to the growth of public libraries in many cities, which as well as housing the works of Muslim scholars employed copyists to translate and transcribe ancient Greek, Roman and Sanskrit works into Arabic. By the 10th Century CE, monks and scholars of northern Europe were visiting the book markets of Cordoba – then the biggest book market in the world – and returning to their monasteries with the works of the classical world preserved by this flowering of Islamic scholarship.

Skip forward a few centuries to the Renaissance, and the kings and princes of this era, including some of the princes of the church, were right at the centre of the flowering of humanist learning that took place in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, amassing vast book collections that, while they were originally privately owned, eventually became the basis of great national libraries. This was particularly the case in the Italian City States, whose princely rulers – when they weren’t hiring assassins to do away with their dynastic rivals or battering each other’s cities to pieces with the newly invented siege canon – were great patrons of the arts and sciences, and eager to collect both newly written books and the works of the ancient world.

The most notable among these aristocratic bibliophiles was undoubtedly the fabulously wealthy Cosimo de Medici – a banker, not a prince, but effectively the ruler of Florence – who employed a librarian, Niccolò Niccoli, a fellow enthusiast of the classics. Niccolò not only oversaw Cosimo’s collection, but amassed a collection of 800 books of his own. In his will, Niccolò stated that he wished for his private library to be open to the public as well as scholars, and Cosimo honoured his wishes by acquiring his books after his death, and using them for the basis of a library in the convent of San Marco – Florence’s first public library, where books could be borrowed free of charge.

Cosimo’s private collection of formed the basis of what was to become the Laurentian Library, built by a Medici Pope. Today, this is an international research library, where scholars can study rare books.

Such was Cosimo’s enthusiasm for his library, that it wasn’t unknown for him to leave the luxury of his palazzo in Florence to go on book hunting expeditions – a riskier undertaking in Renaissance Italy, than a trip to a bookshop today! More usually, he employed book scouts such as Poggio Bracciolini, who scoured Europe, Syria, Egypt and Greece for books by Romans and Greeks. With the help of a considerable number of Medici florins, Poggio brought to light many ancient texts thought lost.

For all that we often see the Middle Ages and, to a lesser extent the Renaissance, as a time when most people never left the village where they were born, it seems Medieval and 15th Century highways were packed with ecclesiastics, scholars, and the occasional prince wandering from library to library in search of books.

Next time: Reformation, Revolution and Victorians


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