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Early Libraries: 1100s CE

Paris, Wikimedia CommonsLet's examine the rise of university libraries, school libraries, and continued development of monasteries.

As libraries became larger, they began to outgrow the niches, cupboards, and chests used to house their collections.

Separate library rooms became more common. They were oftern built on a higher level to protect against dampness and improve light. Bookshelves were found between windows and chains were often used. The position of librarius became more common.

Book Arrangement

Librarians were seeking ways to organize these increasingly large collections. For instance, Richard de Fournival created the Biblionomia, a list of 162 volumes organized into nine categories. The collection referenced was probably the Library of Sorbonne.

The University Library

During the 12th century, university libraries emerged. Lerner (1999) notes that when the Benedictine monasteries and Christian cathedral schools began to confine their focus to their own community, universities were established to provide education for the masses.

At first, these "universitas" were scholastic guilds or corporations of students and masters.

Cities developed universities to attract and keep skilled young people.

By the 14th century the term university was used to describe a self-regulating community of students and teachers sanctioned by some authority.

University libraries differed from monastery collections. Universities needed inexpensive, mass-produced books made of cheap paper to accommodate their increasing numbers of students. "Thinner parchments, smaller pages, cramped writing, frequent use of abbreviations, more modest (and portable) bindings - all were employed in the interest of practicality" (Learner, 1999, 38).

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, theologian and teacher. Dissatisfied with the censorship of the church, he created a guild, collected texts for his students, and started an institution of higher education. This idea of creating an autonomous corporation caught on.

Material Organization

These new libraries also needed a new format for book contents. Features such as a table of contents, chapters, and subject index were essential. Even the Bible was divided into chapters and verses. Lerner (1999) notes that reference tools were provided such as underlining quotations to focus attention on authority.

Most university texts were written in Latin. While classical literature was not yet part of most collections, they did include scholarly works, scientific materials, and basic books on mathematics and other topics.

Bologna Students Wikimedia Commons

The University of Bologna

Founded in 1088, the university is known for the teaching of canon and civil law. Students hired and paid for teachers.

The image on the right shows Bologna students entering campus in the 15th century.

Around 1155, the university adopted an academic charter that guaranteed the right of a scholar to "unhindered passage" in the interests of education. This was the origin of today's academic freedom.

Proponents of academic freedom believe that freedom of inquiry is essential for students and faculty members in meeting the mission of universities. The notion of freedom of thought extends to university libraries.

University of Paris
Paris, France

Established by the Pope Gregory IX, teachers were paid for by the church. Lerner (1999, 37) notes that in 1290 it was the "richest library in Christian Europe... slightly more than one thousand books."

Paris Wikimedia CommonsParis

The library (show above) ultimately housed 2.5 millions books including 400,000 ancient books, 2,500 manuscripts, 18,000 dissertations, 17,750 periodicals, and 7,100 printing plates.

Sorbonne Today

The image above shows Sorbonne as it's seen today.

School Libraries

School libraries continued to exist during this time, however little information is available about the collections themselves. During this time period, school libraries contained books considered necessary for grammatical study as well as literature for the priest or monk.

St. Paul's School
London, England

In a letter, Richard de Belmeis stated that he confirmed to Hugh the Schoolmaster as ex officio librarian granting "him also and to the privilege of the school the custody of all the books of our church... let him also have the keys of the cupboards." (Leach, 1911, 6).

English Benedictines

English benedictines continued to keep and copy books.

Benedictine Library
Abingdon, Berkshire, England

In the twelfth century the duties of the Precentor or "keeper of the books" were identified (Clark, 1901):

"The precentor shall keep clean the presses belonging to the boys and the novices, and all others in which the books of the convent are stored, repair them when they are broken, provide coverings for the books in the library and make good any damage done to them.

The precentor cannot sell, or give away, or pledge any books; not can he lend any except on deposit of a pledge, of equal or greater value than the book itself. It is safer to fall back on a pledge, than to proceed against an individual. Moreover he may not lend except to neighboring churches, or to persons of conspicuous worth."

Carthusian Order

The Carthusian Order founded in 1084 followed the Benedictine rule but added the element of writing (Clark, 1901).

"He receives two books out of the press for reading. He is admonished to take the utmost care and pains that they be not soiled by smoke or dust or dirt of any kind; for it is our wish that books, as being the perpetual food for our souls, should be most jealously guarded, and most carefully produced, that we, who cannot preach the word of God without lips, may preach it with our hands."

Cistercian Order

The Cistercian Order founded in 1128 adopted the Benedictine rule with a focus on study and writing. They developed a library with a special officer in charge.

"With regard to the production and safe-keeping of characters and books, the abbat is to consider to whom he shall entrust this duty. The officer so appointed may go as far as the doors of the writing rooms when he wants to hand in or to take out a book, but he may not go inside. In the same way for books in common use, as for instance antiphoners, hymnals, graduals, lectionaries, and those which are read in the Frater and at Collation, he may go as far as the door of the novices, and of the sick, and of the writers, and then ask for what he wants by a sign, but he may not go further unless he have been commanded by the abbat. When Collation is over it is his duty to close the press, and during the period of labour, or sleep, and of meals, and while vespers are being sung, to keep it locked."

Augustinian Order
Barnwell, Cambridge

The Augustinian Order had a similar set of guidelines for the librarian.

"The Librarian, who is called also Precentor, is to take charge of the books of the church; all which he ought to keep and to know under their separate titles; and he should frequently examine them carefully to prevent any damage or injury from insects or decay. He ought also, at the beginning of Lent, in each year, to shew them to the convent in Chapter, when the souls of those who have given them to the church, or of the brethren who have written them, and laboured over them, ought to be absolved, and a service in convent be held over them. He ought also to hand to the brethren the books which they see occasion to use, and to enter on his roll the titles of the books, and the names of those who receive them.

These, when required, are bound to give surety for the volumes they receive; nor may they lend them to others, whether known or unknown, without having first obtained permission from the Librarian. Nor ought the Librarian himself to lend books unless he receive a pledge of equal value; and then he ought to enter on his roll the name of the borrower, the title of the book lent, and the pledge taken. The larger and more valuable books he ought not to lend to anyone, known or unknown, without permission of the Prelate....

Books which are to be kept at hand for daily use, whether for singing or reading, ought to be in some common place, to which all the brethren can have easy access for inspection, and selection of anything which seems to them suitable. The books, therefore, ought not to be carried away into chambers, or into corners outside the Cloister or the Church. The Librarian ought frequently to dust the books carefully, to repair them, and to point them, lest brethren should find any error or hindrance in the daily service of the church, whether in singing or in reading. No other brother ought to erase or change anything in the books unless he have obtained the consent of the Librarian....

The press in which the books are kept ought to be lined inside with wood, that the damp of the walls may not moisten or stain the books. This press should be divided vertically as well as horizontally by sundry shelves on which the books may be ranged so as to be separated from one another; for fear they be packed so close as to injure each other or delay those who want them.

Further, as the books ought to be mended, pointed, and taken care of by the Librarian, so ought they to be properly bound by him."

Franciscan Order

The rules of the Friars established in 1260 dictated that they were forbidden to keep property, however the group maintained a library. While brothers didn't write books for sale, they did copy works for their library. Catalogs for the library were created as early as 1381.

At a meeting in 1212, a council reinforced the idea that the monastic libraries should be available to the public as well as the clergy (Clark, 1901).

"We forbid those who belong to a religious Order, to formulate any vow against lending their books to those who are in need of them; seeing that to lend is enumerated among the principal works of mercy.

After careful consideration, let some books be kept in the House for the use of brethren; others, according to the decision of the abbat, be lent to those who are in need of them, the rights of the House being safe-guarded.

From the present date no book is to be retained under pain of incurring a curse [for its alienation], and we declare all such curses to be of no effect."


In addition to books that were created by monks for the monastic library, the House often received the gift of books. In addition, monastic libraries often received endowments as part of the annual budget. Clark (1901) notes that at Corbie "the librarian received to sous from each of the higher and 5 sous from each of the inferior officers, together with a certain number of bushels of corn from lands specially set apart for the purpose." In a meeting in 1146 at the Benedictine Abbey of Fleury near Orleans, it was decided that an annual contribution be provided to repair books, prepare new ones, and purchase parchment.

Monastery Libraries

Monastery libraries contained to strive in the 1100s.

Fossa Nuova Cistercian Monastery
Terracina, Central Italy

Book Storage

Early in the development of a monastery, it's likely that books were stored in a common cloister-press inset in a wall (shown on right). The one in the image dates to 1187-1208 and was found in the Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nuova in Central Italy. It liked had a wooden shelf and wooden doors.

Press cloister, The Care of BooksBook Room, The Care of Books

Later, as the monastery was expanded a special room (shown above right) was set aside for the library. This type of arrangement can also be seen in the Abbey of Fossa Nuova.

Kirkstall Abbey
Leeds, Yorkshire

Kirkstall, The Care of BooksBuilt around 1150, the abbey library is situated between the church and the chapter house.

See the diagram on the right for the location of the library.

Abbey of Meaux of Holderness

The records of the abbey indicate that the books in the library were cataloged. The organization included shelves, divisions, and alphabetization.

Furness Abbey

Built between 1150 and 1200, the library is split into two rooms at the rear of the chapter house.

The image below shows the library of the Furness Abbey.

Furness The Care of Books

Beaulieu Abbey

This abbey contains a series of arches that are library part of the library. These were common in Cistercian life.

Beaulieu The Care of Books

The image above shows the library of the Beaulieu library as it looked in the 1800s.

Illuminated Manuscripts

Codex Calixtinus Wikimedia CommonsIn the 12th century, illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced by monks and scholars. For instance the Codex Calixtinus attributed to Pope Callixtus II was probably written by the French scholar Aymeric Picaud around 1135-1139. The 225 double-sided folios contain reports, sermons, hymns, and liturgical texts.

The image on the left shows the Codex Calixtinus.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Davies, Martin (2001). Medieval Libraries. In David Stam (ed). International Dictionary of Library Histories. Taylor & Francis.

Leach, Arthur F. (1911). Educational Characters and Documents 598 to 1909. The University Press. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=td5EAAAAIAAJ

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