headerimage headerimage headerimage headerimage headerimage headerimage

Early Libraries: 1300s CE

Let's examine the rise of chained libraries along with monastery, cathedral, and imperial libraries.

As libraries were increasingly used by the public, theft became a problem. During the middle ages, scholarly libraries were often oblong rooms with high vaulted ceilings. Often housed on the upper floors to reduce losses due to theft and damage, natural light from windows was the only source of light. Lamps were forbidden because of a fear of fire.

Library Management

To prevent theft, lecterns were placed near bookcases. Patrons stood or sometimes sat on benches. The books were chained to the lecterns and/or the bookcases. The librarian or other administrator held the key and was often responsible for any lost books.

Library Rules and Regulations

Increasingly, libraries were establishing rules for use. Examples can be found at the Library of the Sorbonne which was the largest library in Europe during the 14th century.

Rouse and Rouse (1991) identified a 1321 set of regulations regarding,

"supervision of the loaning and of the general care of the circulating books; enlargement of the collection of chained books; and the making of a new catalog of the whole collection."

"At the head of the list was the stipulation that no book was to be loaned out of the house unless a pledge of greater value, whether book or precious metal, be left in its place in the pledge chest. The responsibility for the circulating books, the libri vagantes of the parva libraria, were placed in the hands of custodians of the books who were to elected by the fellows. They were to account for books lost during their tenure, and to exercise strict control over the keys to the parva libraria."

"Having insured that adequate control would be maintained over the use and circulation of the unchained books, the statutes secondly insured that the major books would be available at all times. The legislation stipulated that henceforth the best manuscript of each work in the college was to be selected and chained in the libraria communis; all books belonging to the college were subject ot being impounded for chaining, including those which might currently be on loan to individual fellows, because the good of the community outweighs individual privilege."

"The third matter of general significance in the statutes of 1321 was the provision that a new catalog should be made of the whole collection, because many of the books previously owned by the house could not longer be found."

Ullman (1953) described the process of book circulation,

"Some professors kept out books on indefinite loan, like their successors today. Such books were appropriately called libri vagantes, 'strays' from the sacred precincts of the Library. It should be said that usually a money deposit was required of borrowers. We even have loan records of the Library during the fourteenth century. The appraisal of each book given in the catalogue was intended to facilitate payment for books lost by borrowers. Chained books were occasonally loaned but only after a faculty vote."


Catalogues were becoming an important tool in libraries. In 1338, the second catalogue of the Library of Sobronne was produced. Containing 1722 volumes, the document was divided into two parts: volumes of the chained library and volumes of the small library.

Included in the listing is the contents, name of donor, estimated value, "first words on the second leaf and the next to the last leaf" (Ullman, 1953).

Union Catalogue

Based on on-site surveys, a union catalogue was created by Oxford Franciscans of 1400 works in England, Scotland, and Wales. Organized by geographic region, the Registrum Anglie de libris doctorum et auctorum veterum would be extremely useful to those working in monastic or cathedral libraries during this time.

Around 1350, Benedictine monk Henry of Kirkestede compiled the Catalogus de libris autenticis et aposcrifis, a union catalogue of manuscripts in English libraries including 3900 works.

Ullman (1953) noted the usefulness of the union catalogue at the Library of Sorbonne,

"There was even a rudimentary inter-library loan system. And that is not all: a union list of books in the monasteries of Paris was made as early as the thirteenth century for the use of theSorbonnistes. The catalogue of the reference library is in two parts, a shelf-list and a classified catalogue"

Seal of Richard de Bury, Wikimedia CommonsLibrarianship

In 1345, writer, bishop, and Benedictine monk Richard de Bury (1287-1345) wrote Philobiblon (The Love of Books), considered to be the earliest book on librarianship.

Among other topics, the book focuses on his passion for books. Specifically, it explores the importance of preserving manuscripts, topics in collecting books, and how to build library collections.

The image on the right shows the Bishop's seal of Richard de Bury.

Skim The Love of Books by Richard de Bury.


Monastery Libraries

Many monasteries expected new monks to contribute books as they entered the monastery. Others solicited donations.

Bobbio Abbey
Pavia, Italy

CC-A-SA Abbey of Bobbio Wikimedia CommonsThe Irish missionary Columbanus (540-615CE) founded monasteries in France and Italy in the late 500s and early 600s. The image on the right shows Columbanus.

Founded in 612 CE by Columbanus, the monastery contained both a library and scriptorium. The core collection was brought from Ireland by Columbanus and Saint Dungal bequeathed 27 additional volumes. A ninth century catalog showed more than 600 volumes across disciplines.

Bobbio Abbey was the setting for Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose which is set in the 14th century.

Watch an excerpt from the movie Name of the Rose.

Monastery of Ely
Ely, Cambridgeshire, England

After the destruction of the original monastery, Norman Abbot rebuilt the abbey after the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 1300 an inventory shows that the monks purchased "five dozen sheets of parchment, four pounds of ink, eight calf-skins, four sheep-skins, five dozen sheets of vellum, and six pairs of book clasps."

In 1329, the Precentor was given six shillings and seven pence to purchase books. In addition, four shillings were used to purchase twelve iron chains to be used to fasten books to reading tales. (Putnam, 1898, 159)

Wikimedia Commons

Carmelite Monastery Library
Straubling, Germany

Founded in 1368 as part of the monastery, the library contained manuscripts that were later lost. Around 155 incunabular from the 1500s still exist. The library's medical collection grew in the 17th century as a result of donations.

The current library was constructed in 1697 and is shown in the photo on the right. The first catalog was created in 1768. Like many libraries, the collection was seized with the coming of secularism in 1802. The provincial government library was created in 1836.

Learn more about the Carmelite Monastery Library.

Cathedral Libraries

Increasingly, carrels were used as study areas. In others, lecterns were constructed and books were chained.

Gloucester Cathedral Library

In addition to chained materials, many libraries also built study carrels.


The south cloister at Gloucester contains twenty stone carrels (4 feet wide, 19 inches deep, and 6 feet 9 inches high) built between 1370 and 1412. Windows above the carrels provide light for reading. Not intended to hold shelves, some carrels contained chairs as well as desks to provide a place for an individual to write. These carrels would provide some level of privacy when no Scriptorium or writing room was available.

The head librarian called the Precentor and the subordinate librarian called the Succentor would have their carrels nearest the press so they could maintain control of the books.

Carrels The Care of Bookscarrells The Care of Books

Although many colleges were established in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many of these schools waited more than a century to build a formal library. Before that time, textbooks locked in chests, chained to desks, or loaned to students under a pledge. Catalogs indicate that most collections were very small.

Hereford Cathedral, Chapter Library
Hereford, England

Built in 1394, the bookcases in this library contained a system of shelves and chains.

Herford The Care of BooksHerford The Care of Books

Herford The Care of BooksHerford The Care of Books


College Libraries

Chains were used in many collegiate settings during this time period.

Merton College Library
Oxford, England

In the late 1300s, the Merton College Library was opened containing 500 manuscripts. The Upper Library was opened around 1371 and built by William Humberville as part of one of the first collegiate quadrangles.

The library bookcases contain immoveable desks with brackets (see images below). Shelves are both above and below the desk. The ironworks allow access to books on either shelf.

Merton Clark 1901 PD

Merton Clark 1901 PDMerton Clark 1901 PD

This library is one of the earliest libraries still in continuous daily operation.

The photo below shows the library in 2005. (Courtesy Tom Murphy VII).

merton college library wikimedia commons Tom Murphy VII

Queen's College Library
Cambridge, England

The Queen's College library provides an example of a collegiate library of this time period. Built in 1448, the library (44 feet long and 20 feet wide) contains eleven windows to light the room. At the end of each bookcase is a groove that supported a desk. The books were chained and a bench was provided between each desk. The image below shows a floorplan and chained lectern.

Queens The Care of BooksQueens The Care of Books


Imperial Libraries

Evidence of the use of chains has not been found in the libraries of China during this time.

Guozijian, Imperial Academy
Beijing, China

Built in 1306, the Guozijian became the national center for learning. Many of the students who were called Jiansheng studied Confucian classics. The building complex is based on the tradition that the temple is on the left and the school is on the right side as you enter the complex. The school included reading rooms.

The image below shows the location today.

Guozijian Chris Stevenson Flickr CC-A-SA

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Zhang, Wenxian (2008). The Yellow Register Archives of Imperial Ming China. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 43(2), 148-175.


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

Rouse, R.H. & Rouse, M.A. (1991). The early library of Sorbonne. Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts, 378-379.

Ullman, Berthold L. (1953). The Library of Sorbonne in the XIVth Century. The Septicentennial Celebration of the Founding of the Sobronne College in the University of Paris. Chapel Hill, February 1953. University of North Carolina.

| eduscapes | IUPUI Online Courses | Teacher Tap | 42explore | About Us | Contact Us | © 2019 Annette Lamb