Christian Library - The Later Middle Ages

The Later Middle Ages

Cassiodorus may have been aware of the inception of the library at Monte Cassino under the influence of St. Benedict (LeJay and Otten, “Cassiodorus.”) In any event, with the Imperial City increasingly under attack, the locus of library activity shifted increasingly to the rural monastic houses. Benedict supported and energized the place of the library in the community by delegating one or two senior brothers to walk on “patrol” at a set hour, to ensure that no one is engaged in idle chatter, rather than being diligent in his reading. (Thurston, “Libraries,” 228-32.)

During the succeeding centuries, such libraries played an increasingly strategic role in defending the tradition of learning from decay, pillage, and even disappearance. By the standards of the later Middle Ages, a monastery collection numbering more than a thousand would have been considered very large. Quality and utility rather than mass were most to be desired. Catalogs varied in complexity and in size, and “chained books” were common enough to indicate that security was a lively concern.

We know a little about the physical design of some libraries of the period from extant documents. Typically a large, pillared hall would serve as a reading room, with built-in cupboards to store the books. Carrels for study were often set around the perimeter to exploit available light. An additional floor might house a scriptorium.

The same period saw the flowering of monastic libraries in Britain. Once the Roman occupation ended in the mid-Fifth century, Columba founded the meditation and copying center at Iona off the coast of Scotland. A century later witnessed the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury, sent to England by Gregory the Great, and this set in motion the establishment of greater conformity to the will of Rome on the part of the English church. A side-effect of this harmony was a marked increase in monastic library development in England, and a key figure in this maturing was Benedict Biscop of Wearmouth on the North Sea Coast. In the tradition of Pamphilius and Cassiodorus, Biscop traveled far to get the works he required: “he sought where they were best to be found among the desolate remains of ancient civilization in Italy.” (Southern, 168) Most importantly, what he retrieved from the Continent contained everything that was necessary for understanding the main outlines of the Christian learning of the ancient world (Southern, 168). The perfect testimony to the value of his diligent endeavors is that they supported the scholarship of, “the greatest example of Benedictine scholarship and of the use to which a Benedictine library can be put.” (Southern, 170)

The rise of universities and their libraries was energized greatly by bequests: Bp. Robert Grosseteste to Oxford, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester to Cambridge, Robert de Sorbon to the University of Paris, etc. The emerging university libraries, small though they may have been at first, rapidly assumed a different function than the monastic libraries. Research activity, rather than copying and preservation, predominated. And it is fair to say that the advent of new technology - the printing press - in the late 14th C. helped take this distinction (the beginnings of a “demand” model) still further.

In France, prior to 1200 all of the major theological schools had all grown up in the environs of cathedrals: St. Victor, Ste. Genevieve, Notre Dame. This association of the cathedral and academy proved to have a decisive influence in determining both where and how theological research and education were to be carried out for centuries to come.

By 1500 there were between 75 and 85 universities in Western Europe. Most began without formal libraries, but over the course of time the user of private tutors’ collections in faculties of theology and elsewhere gave way to more methodical and sustainable collection schemes.

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