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Chained Libraries in England
It took a large investment of time, labor, and funding to produce books before the development of the printing press. Locking books in chests, housing them in private collections, and protecting with supernatural curses written into the book were some of the many methods of theft protection in the Middle Ages. When other protective measures failed, a medieval book curse was intended to dissuade potential thieves with warnings of death and disaster.
One such example occurs in the 12th-century Arnstein Bible now held by the British Library. The curse states: ‘If anyone take away this book, let him die the death – let him be fried in a pan – let the falling sickness and fever crush him – let him be broken on the wheel – and hanged. Amen’ (The Arnstein Bible, British Library MS. Harley 2798, fol. 235v). There is evidence that these curses were taken seriously, at least by a few readers, with some individuals even noting their name and the purchase of a book by honest means next to a curse, as if to dispel the invisible threat.
In addition to locking, hiding, and cursing, chained libraries were an effective means to prevent theft while also allowing access for readers. The books were chained to shelves next to desks or benches where readers could consult their selection.
With the development of the printing press, which reduced cost and increased production speed, chained libraries became obsolete. Today, only a handful of such libraries survive across the world. In England, there are about twelve extant examples of chained libraries tucked away in schools, universities, and churches.
These libraries of yesteryear are intriguing time capsules for visitors interested in history and historical books and, with so few still in existence, they offer a rare tourist experience. The following is not an exhaustive list of the remaining libraries (not all are easily accessible or open to tourists). These suggestions were selected based on considerations of importance and intactness of the library, interest of the collection, and opening times for visitors.
Hereford Cathedral Library, Hereford
Perhaps the most well-known of extant chained libraries is the one located in Hereford Cathedral. This library is the largest surviving chained library in the world. The library contains 229 illuminated medieval manuscripts and 1200 early printed books. A key attraction in the library is the famous medieval Mappa Mundi dating to 1300. The Mappa Mundi is a map of the world as the medieval mind perceived it.
According to the Cathedral’s description, the map contains around ‘500 drawings depicting 420 cities and towns, 15 Biblical events, 33 plants, animals, birds and strange creatures, 32 images of the peoples of the world and 8 pictures from classical mythology.’
The description quotes an assessment by Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts, stating ‘. . . it is without parallel the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form, the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind, and certainly the greatest extant thirteenth-century pictorial manuscript.’
The chained library and the Mappa Mundi sit together in a specially constructed exhibition space designed according to the original arrangement of the library as it was from 1611 to 1841.
Hereford Cathedral has been awarded Autism Friendly status and is a participant in Disabled Access Day. Many improvements have been made to the Cathedral over the years to allow for increased access.
Phone: +44 (0)1432 374200
Opening Times: Monday – Saturday 10 am – 4 pm (last admission 30 minutes before closing)
Address: 5 College Cloisters, Cathedral Close, Hereford HR1 2NG
Cost: Adult, £6; Student, £5
Francis Trigge Chained Library, Grantham
St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham, Lincolnshire is one of the largest medieval churches in England. The Francis Trigge Chained Library known as ‘the great treasure of the church’ was established in 1598 by the Reverend Francis Trigge, Rector of Welbourn.
It is the oldest public library in England. The library is a small space, but contains 356 items, including 80 chained volumes. An incunabulum dating to 1472 is one of the oldest items in the collection.
The majority of the chained volumes are bibles, sermon collections, and theological texts, including the collected works of Aquinas and Calvin. There is a valuable copy of the Vinegar Bible, which contains a printing error: ‘The Parable of the Vinegar’ instead of ‘The Parable of the Vineyard.’
The library also has a selection of works on natural history and medicine. Isaac Newton attended the King’s School next to St Wulfram’s, and he was said to visit the library.
The Trigge Library is open April to the end of September. Before visiting, contact the Parish Office to determine opening times and further visitor information. The library is located in an upper room of the south porch in the former residence of the medieval vicar. It is accessed via a short circular medieval staircase of hand-cut stone steps. There is no lift at this time.
Phone: +44 (0)1476 561342
Address: Church St, Grantham NG31 6RR
Merton College Upper Library, Oxford
The oldest part of Merton College Library, known as the Upper Library, dates from 1373. It is one of the earliest libraries in England and the oldest continuously functioning academic library in the world. This special library makes for an enchanting experience for those with an interest in historical books and the medieval spirit of Oxford.
The collection of early printed books are divided into subjects (medieval manuscripts are now housed elsewhere). Also on display are early scientific instruments and astrolabes, 16th-century globes (of the earth and heavens), book chests, reading benches, and repurposed medieval tiles.
Originally all of the volumes in the library would have been attached to the shelves by chains. Presently, one reconstructed book chain is provided as an example of how the original chained library might have looked.
Visits are possible by booking with a college guide at specific times of the year. From July to September, tours take place starting at 2.00pm and 3.00pm daily (except for those days when the College is closed to visitors).
Capacity is limited, and advanced booking is highly recommended. Advance bookings may be made with the Tour Coordinator (up to 24 hours in advance) or with the College Lodge on the day.
The Upper Library is accessed via a short flight of 17th-century stairs. There is no lift at this time.
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Phone: +44 (0)186527631
Address: Merton College Merton Street Oxford, OX1 4JD
Cost: £5.00 per person; £3.00 for University members
Wells Cathedral, Somerset
Wells Cathedral describes itself as ‘Perhaps the most beautiful of the great English Cathedrals.’ The medieval library was built in the mid-15th century. Sadly, most of the medieval books originally housed in the library were lost during the Reformation period. Most of the 2800 volumes in the collection today were obtained by clergy in the 16th to 18th centuries.
These books largely are theological items, but there are also volumes on medicine, science, history, nature, and exploration. The earliest book is a copy of Pliny Naturalis Historiae printed in 1472. The library also contains a set of Aristotle’s works published in 1497 which belonged to Erasmus.
The library can be viewed and photographed from the reading room during the Cathedral’s opening hours. Tours of the library by the Cathedral Librarian can be arranged in advance by email with at least 2 weeks notice prior to the visit. Booked tours need to include a minimum of 8 people and a maximum of 12. Smaller groups may book into a tour date from the schedule available on the cathedral’s website. The tour takes about 1.5 hours. The library is accessed by a medieval stone spiral staircase. There is no lift at this time.
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Phone: +44 (0)1749 674483
Address: Cathedral Green, Wells, Somerset, BA5 2UE
Cost: Guided tours cost £10 per person
Wimbourne Minster, Dorset
The Chained Library of Wimbourne Minster dates to 1686. After the Trigge Library of St Wulfram’s, it is one of the first public libraries in the UK. Also, it takes the title of the second largest chained library prior to the Reformation.
The library began as a place for safekeeping of controversial religious books which were being collected and burned by authorities. The library became free and open to certain members of the town in 1695 as a condition of a donation of 90 books by a local donor.
The collection contains many theological works, as well as diverse printed books on medicine, law, nature, architecture, and etiquette. The library also holds Walton’s Polyglott Bible (1657) written in nine languages. Many of the original book chains survive. A glass case in the center of the library displays the ‘most interesting and entertaining works.’
The library is located in the former Minster Treasury and thus is accessed by a defensively-postured spiral staircase. There is no lift at this time. Guided tours can be arranged with the Parish office.
Phone: +44 (0)1202 884753
Opening Times: Daily from Easter Monday until the end of October, 10.30am – 12.30pm and 2.00pm – 4.00pm; contact the Parish Office for opening hours during other times of the year
Address: Church House, High Street, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 1HT
Chained Libraries in England was written and photographed by Erin Connelly.