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Early Libraries: 1400s CE

Painting depicting Caxton Wikimedia Commons PDLet's examine the incunabula, reform, Renaissance and early law libraries.

Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s marks the conclusion of the early library period. By the end of the 1400s, printing technology was rapidly spreading throughout the world making access to books cost-effective and the expansion of libraries possible.

In a letter from Giovanni Andrea Bussi to Pope Paul II from this time period, Bussi stated that

"In our time God gave Christendom a gift which enables even the pauper to acquire books. Prices of books have decreased by eighty percent" (Hirsch, 1967)

This time period marks a transition into the Renaissance cultural movement and the modern period in library history.

Printing technology expanding availability of a wide range of texts. William Caxton was known for printing classical works and histories as well as romances and adventures stories. For instance, The Legend of King Arthur as compiled by Thomas Malory was published in 1469.

The painting by Daniel Maclise (1851) (above right) depicts printer and publisher William Caxton showing a sample of a printed book to King Edward IV in the 1400s.

Block Printing to Movable Type

Wikimedia Commons PDBlock books made from single carved wood blocks continued to be made in the 1400s because they were a cheaper alternative to books made using movable type.

A Bible picture book known as the Biblia pauperum is a good example. The example on the right was made in the 15th century from woodblock.

Johannes Gutenberg
Mainz, Germany

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) is credited with being the first European to use movable type printing around 1439. However it wasn't until around 1450 that Gutenberg (below left) put the press into operation to reproduce copies of a German poem.

His wood printing press allowed mass production of books using movable type and oil-based ink. Although the term wasn't used until the 17th century, incunabula is the word used to describe the first books printed with movable type during the 15th century.

Although Gutenberg is credited with the invention, some scholars have suggested that Laurens Janszoon Coster who was known to have experimented with metal type may have developed the initial idea. Gutenberg was Coster's apprentice in the 1430s.

The first incunabulum was the Gutenberg Bible (shown below left) created by Gutenberg in 1455 and printed on vellum.

From Mainz, Germany in the 1450s, printing spread quickly throughout Europe. The image below right shows the printing press from the 1500s.

Gutenberg Wikimedia Commons PDGutenberg Bible Wikimedia Commons PDPrinter Wikimedia Commons PD


Godefrey of Boloyne Wikimedia Commons PDWilliam Caxton
London, England

William Caxton (ca. 1415-1492) is credited with introducing the first printing press to England in 1476 and becoming the first English retailer of printed book. His first known book was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Caxton translated 26 works into English himself and printed as many as 87 different titles. He is often credited with helping to standardize the English language when it was undergoing many variations.

The image on the right shows a page of Godefrey of Boloyne printed by Caxton in 1481.


Mesoamerican Libraries

In many parts of the world, old ancient methods of book production were still in use. Written in the late 1400s by Aztec priests, the Codex Borbonicus (page shown below) is a single 46.5 foot long sheet of amate. Amate is a form of paper made in Mexico since pre-hispanic times. It was used throughout the Aztec Empire.

Learn more about the Codex Borbonicus at Wikipedia.

Codex Borbonicus Wikimedia Commons PD

Reform and Renaissance

The monastery reform of the fifteenth century increased interest in the development of libraries. In addition, the cultural movement of the Renaissance promoted works in the arts and sciences. Together it was a time for libraries to flourish.

San Marco Library
Florence, Italy

MichelozzoSometimes referred to as the first public library of the Renaissance in Europe, the library at the Dominican Convent of San Marco opened in 1444. The library was built by architect and sculptor Michelozzo (1396-1472).

The image on the right shows Michelozzo.

Niccoli's collection served as the foundation for the library's collection. Niccoli intended his collection to be placed in the open and used for the public good. Although not available to the general public, it was used by members of the institution who served the public.

According to Nelles (2001), the word public library had a different meaning during this time period,

"The ideal of a public library was one treasured by humanists and their patrons. Yet the term public library meant something very different to Renaissance scholars than it does today. It did not designate a library open to all comers. First and oldest of the available meanings of the term public library was that of a common library. Many libraries and colleges of the late medieval period had public libraries in this sense, usually meaning a collection for the collective use of the institutional community. Second was the notion of a library that served the public utility or was used for the public benefit, largely in a political sense; an archive, for example, or a library meant to support the jurisdictional and diplomatic activities of the ecclesiastical or secular political body it served. Third, a library might be in a public building or within the public space of a house or palace."

Malatestiana Library
Cesena, Italy

Inspired by the San Marco Library in Florence, Malatesta Novel built this humanist commune in the mid-1400s. Known as the Malatesta Novello Library, it is a public library and the first European civic library. Scribes were commissioned to produce copies of standard classics.

In 1474, physician Giovanni di Marco da Rimini left his library of medical manuscripts to the library. The collection contains both European and Arab scientific and medical materials.

Bibliotheca Palatina
Hedielberg, Germany

An important library of the German Renaissance, the Bibliotheca Palatina was created from the core collection of the Stiftsbibliotek. The library was officially formed along with the University Library Heidelberg in the 1550s. The collection contained many important manuscripts.

Melk Abbey
Melk, Austria

Founded in 1089, the Benedictine abbey contains a monastic school, gymnasium, scriptorium, and library. The scriptorium became a major site for production of manuscripts and the library became world-renowned.

In the 15th century, the abbey was the center of the Melk Reform movement that revitalized the monastic life in Austria and Germany.

Between 1702 and 1736, the abbey was redesigned in the Baroque style. The library continues to have an impressive collection of manuscripts and includes musical manuscripts and frescos by Paul Troger.

The image on the lower left shows a view before the renovation around 1672. The image on the lower right shows the Melk Benedictine Abbey Library today.

Melk Wikimedia CommonsMelk Abbet wikimedia commons

Tegernsee Abbey
Tegernsee, Bavaria

First built in the eighth century, the Benedictine community was settled by monks from St. Gall. The community was weakened by war, raids, and secularism. Emperor Otto II re-founded it as an imperial abbey in 978 and it became a center for literature, learning, and manuscript production. However in the 13th and 14th century, it once again went into decline burning in 1410.

In the fifteenth century, it became part of the reform movement. Abbot Casper (1426-1461) restored and reorganized the library which had gone into disrepair. He restored old manuscripts, bought new codices, and hired scribes. Conrad V, his successor continued the trend with a purchase of 450 volumes. In addition he was able to secure gifts and donations.

Salzburg Wikimedia Commons wikimedia comons cc-a-sa MatthiaKabel

St. Peter's Library
Salzburg, Austria

Founded in 696 by Bishop Rupert of Worms, the monastery contains the oldest library in Austria. The collection includes 100,000 volumes including 800 manuscripts donated by Bishop Virgil in 784.

In 1768 Abbot Beda Seeauer converted the library to a Rococo style.

The image on the right shows the library today.

Scottish Monastery
Vienna, Austria

Records were kept of gifts given to the monastery. In 1453, Dr. Johannes Polzmacher left his entire library to the monastery. In some cases the library loaned out materials for a profit to the monastery. Borrowers were compelled to leave a deposit that would be lost if the item was damaged.

Cathedral of S. Thomas Library
Worcester, England

In 1463, Bishop Carpenter built a detached building on the north side of the cathedral and provided an endowment for a library. The Bishop established a comprehensive list of requirements for the librarian. The keeper must be a graduate in theology and a good preacher. He must live on-site and day daily mass. He must take care of the chained books in the library and be open every day for two hours for anyone who might want to study. He is also called to deliver a public lecture at the library.

In order to prevent book losses, the librarian is requires to maintain a current list of the true value of each book and make copies of this list for the Bishop, another sacrist, and the librarian. On Friday after the feast of Relics (January 27) of each year, the sacrist and the keeper are to inventory all books and match them to the list. If an item has disappeared through the carelessness of the librarian, he is to replace it at the value within one month or the cost will be taken out of his salary. The keeper receives an annual salary of ten pounds and four yards of woolen cloth to make a gown and hood. The sacrist is to keep the building, books, and chains in book repair (Clark, 1901).

The images below depict libraries from this period.

Interior Clark, 1901 PDFrench Library 1480 Clark, 1901 PD

Bibliotheca Corviniana

Matthias Corvinus (1442-1490), King of Hungary and Croatia began collecting books around 1460. His library contained around 3,000 codices including a wide range of texts across content areas including philosophy, literature, law, and science. The library was known as the greatest collection of secular books in the world.

Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi
Mashad, Iran

Although the oldest manuscript is dated to 974, the library wasn't opened to the public until 1457. Although the building was moved several times, the library was always located near the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. The collection currently houses over 1.1 million volumes and is a center for Islamic research. The library system includes branches throughout Iran as well as a branch in India.


Library Arrangement

Until the 1400s, books were often scattered around the cloister or church. Increasingly additional space was needed for the library. According to Williams (1897, 16), "the number of books increased and the inconvenience of the old system became greatly felt, a separate room was devoted to books or a new one built over existing building, in the 14th and 15th centuries".

Wells Cathedral Library
Wells, Somerset, England

Prior to the thirteenth century, books were scattered around the church. In 1297, areas were established on either side of the choir area. The books were enclosed by partitions or screens and locked to prevent theft (Williams, 1897). Then in 1407, two large, long, narrow library rooms were built over the East Cloister with windows along one wall and bookcases coming out at right angles. Bars and chains were installed to protect the books.

The image below shows the Wells Cathedral library. It has changed very little since the early 1400s.

Wells Somerset Medieval Libraries


Franciscan House Library (Christ's Hospital)
London, England

Founded in 1421, the library (129 feet long and 31 feet wide) extended over the whole of one alley of the cloister and contained 28 desks.

Convent of S. Francesco
Cesena, Italy

Built in 1452, the library (133 feet 4 inches by 34 feet wide) was open to the public. The library included 29 bookcases in each aisle with a raised floor and bench. A chain system is used.

The image below shows the library and how the chain system works.

Convent of S Francesco Clark 1901 PDConvent of S Francesco Clark 1901 PD

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Singleton, Brent D. (2004). African bibliophiles: book and libraries in medieval Timbuktu. Libraries & Culture, 39(1), 1-12.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Satterley, Renae (2008). The libraries of the Inns of Court: An examination of their historical influence. Library History, 24(3), 208-219.

Law Libraries

The first law libraries emerged in London during the 15th century.

Gray's Inn Library
London, England

During the 14th century, Gray's Inn was established. In 1488 Edmund Pickering bequeathed six books to be chained in the library. Many important barristers including Francis Bacon and Elizabeth I were patrons. The Inn was both a professional group and a place providing office space for lawyer.

The library was established during the 15th or 16th century beginning as a storage area. However the collection grew with additions provided through donations and bequeaths. The first librarian was appointed in 1646 because members were concerned about theft. After much of the collection was destroyed by fire, the library was rebuilt and gained status in the 18th century.

Learn more at the Gray's Inn website.

Lincoln's Inn Library
London England

The Lincoln's Inn was established around 1422 however it existed before that time. The Library was estasblished at least by the 15th century. The original library was housed next to the Old Hall. The current library was opened in 1845.

Learn more at the Lincoln's Inn website.



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

Hirsch, Rudolf (1967). Printing, Selling and Reading 1450-1550. Harrassowitz.

Putnam, George Haven (1898). Books and Their Makers During the Middle Ages. G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Williams, Thomas Webb (1897). Somerset Medieval Libraries. Bristol. Available: http://archive.org/stream/somersetmedival01willgoog

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