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Early Libraries: 500s CE

Let's explore the church and monastic libraries of this time period.

The medieval library began with the rise of the monastery ranging from the 500s through the 1400s.

In the addition of lavish churches, libraries were also increasingly adorned. Borthius (525 CE), noted "walls of a library adorned with ivory and glass".

Benedictine Libraries

For the Romans, the work of copying manuscripts was often given to educated slaves. However for the Benedictine monks, it was a labor of love.

Abbey of Monte Cassino
Compania, Italy

The Benedictine Order established in the sixth century developed a focus on reading and encouraged the safe-keeping of books. Saint Benedict founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Saint Benedict stated:

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul; hence brethren ought, at certain seasons, to occupy themselves with manual labour, and again, at certain hours with holy reading... in these days of Lent, let them receive a book apiece from the library, and read it straight through... and the titles of those which are distributed to brethren afresh are to be noted, for which purpose a tablet is to be made of somewhat larger size than usual."

The collection was large enough to supply the community with a volume apiece and a record was kept of reading activities. In addition, an official (known as the Precentor or Armarius) was placed in charge of the library.

Vivarium Monastery School
Squillace, Italy

Cassiodorus Wikimedia Commons PDAround 538 CE, Cassiodorus (485-585 CE) established a brotherhood in Vivarium building a monastery and retreat. A believer in the study of liberal arts, his library included a wide range of classical works. Rather than a strict order, Cassiodorus created a guide to monk studies known as Institutiones that provided guidance in both Christian texts as well as secular subjects.

An image of Cassiodorus is on the right.

The idea of a monastery containing both a library and scriptorium was introduced by Cassiodorus in the sixth century, however during the seventh century the model gained popularity.

Cassiodorus is credited with creating a systematic approach to reproducing documents in the monastery. Rather than simply studying texts and using inexperienced monks as scribes, he advocated the preservation of history as an important focus of the monastic lifestyle. His program was developed to insure that both classical and sacred literature was preserved.

Clark (1901, 44-45) reports that in his design,

"a library held a prominent place in this conception of what was needed for their common life. He says little about its size or composition, but much rhetoric is expended on the contrivances by which its usefulness and attractiveness were to be increased. A staff of bookbinders was to clothe the manuscripts in decorous attire; self-supplying lamps were to light nocturnal workers; sundials by day, and water-clocks by night, enabled them to regular their hours. Here also was a scriptorium."

Book of Kells, Wikimedia Comons, PDIona Monastery
Iona, Scotland

The monastery was founded by Saint Columba (521-597) on the island of Iona around 563 CE.

One of the oldest religious centers in Western Europe, it became the focal point for the spread of Christianity for the area. Columba used Iona as a school for missionaries. It was known to have a library and scriptorium.

The famous illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells (shown on right) is believed to have been produced here around 800 CE.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Peterson, Herman A. (2010). The genesis of monastic libraries. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(3), 320-332.


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

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