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Modern Libraries: 1500-1540s CE

The Librarian by Giuseppe ArcimbaldoLet's examine the rise of the Vatican and church libraries and dissolution of monastic libraries.

While secular libraries were rising, some church libraries also expanded including the Vatican Library.

However, a wave of anti-church sentiment starting in England caused the closure of many monastic libraries across Europe.

In 1566, Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo created famous portrait called The Librarian.

The painting reflects the importance of the book culture and libraries during this time period.

The painting currently hangs at Skokloster Castle in Sweden.

Church Libraries

Sixtus IV Appointing as Prefect of the Vatican LibraryAlthough the Vatican Library was growing, smaller church libraries were threatened throughout Europe during the sixteenth century.

Vatican Library
Vatican City, Italy

In 1303 the papal library moved to Avignon and began growing to over 2000 volumes by the mid-1300s.

Bartolomeo Platina was appointed librarian. The image on the right by Melozzo da Forli (1477) depicts Sixtus IV Appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library.

In 1481, Platina produced a catalogue listing 3,500 items making the Vatican Library by far the largest library in Europe.

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V began the design for the Vatican Library. Designed by the architect Fontana, the library reflects a Roman design. The great hall with seven large windows is 184 feet long and 57 feet wide and divided into sections. The books are housed in plain wooden presses (7 feet high by 2 feet deep) on the walls beneath the windows. The floors are decorated marble and the walls are covered with frescoes exploring the great libraries of the world and the establishment of the church. It's unlikely that the room was intended for study.

The image (below left) shows the Great Hall of the Vatican Library looking west in 1901. The image (below right) shows a single press in the Vatican Library.

Vatican Clark 1901 PDVatican Clark 1901 PD


S. Walburga Church Library
Zutphen, Holland

Some church and monastic libraries began to open their doors to the public. Built in 1563, the Walburga Church Library provides a good example of how church libraries were used by the public. The library (60 feet long and 26 feet wide) is built against the south choir-aisle of the church (see floorplan below right). Windows provide light for the eighteen bookcase desks.

The books are attached to the desk by a 12 inch long chain (shown below). One end was attached to a wooden board on the side of the book, the other end contained an iron loop a loop attached to a bar.

Zutphen Library Clark, 1901, PDZutphen Library Clark, 1901, PD

Zutphen Library Clark, 1901, PDZutphen Library Clark, 1901, PDZutphen Library Clark, 1901, PD

The chain and book (above center and right) are from the Dominican House at Bemberg, South Germany during this time period.

Benedictine House of S. Germain de Pres
Benedictine House of S. Victor

The monastic libraries of the 1500s recognized the importance of making their resources available to the public. For instance, two Benedictine Houses in Paris were open to the public during certain days of the week.

Dispersal and Destruction

In some parts of Europe libraries were flourishing. However, overall "the sixteenth century was a bleak period in our library history" (Olle, 1971).

While the rise of publishing was having a positive impact on the spread of texts, it was having a negative impact on monasteries and church libraries. Scribes were no longer needed to produce manuscripts. In addition, the church was losing control over information. The printing press allowed reformers to spread their ideas quickly and efficiently.

By the late 1400s, many small monastic estates in England were being converted into educational foundations. These new foundations were often connected with universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The library collections of these monasteries were merged with the large university collections.

Change was also impacting monasteries in other areas of Europe. When Martin Luther's 1521 treatise "On the monastic vows" declared monastic life as having no basis in scripture, rulers across Europe took the opportunity to close monasteries and confiscate entire libraries. In just a few years, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland dissolved monasteries across their countries. The well-known Abbey of St. Gall was one of few to survive.

Back in England, Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn resulted in a total breakdown of relations between England and the Church in Rome. King Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Suppression of Religious Houses Act of 1536 passed by the Parliament of England set into motion the dissolution of monasteries. Specifically, it disbanded hundreds of monasteries, priories, convent, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland. Between 1536 and 1541 hundreds of religious communities were dissolved.

The dissolution of monasteries began under the reign of Henry VIII. Then, under the reign of Edward VI, the removal of Catholic institutions in England continued to have a dramatic impact on church libraries.

While this had little impact on some state sponsored university libraries like Oxford and Cambridge, some smaller college libraries were destroyed.

John Leland
London, England

John Leland Wikimedia Commons PDJohn Leland (or John Leyland) (1503-1552) was a poet, historian, and an antiquarian who specialized in the study of antiquities (things of the past). Leland became friends with Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII. In 1533, King Henry VIII authorized Leland to explore the libraries of all the religious institutions of England. Leland spent his time compiling lists of significant or unusual books from these libraries.

The image on the right is a line engraving of a bust of Leland from 1762.

After the First Suppression Act, Leland wrote to Cromwell requesting assistance in rescuing books from the monastic libraries. He stated that "The Germans perceive our desidousness, and do send daily young scholars hither that spoileth [books], and cutteth them out of libraries, returning home and putting them abroad as monuments of their own country."

Although it's unclear what role Leland took in saving books and establishing royal libraries, it's liked that in the 1530s and 1540s he was involved in providing monastic materials to Henry's palace libraries in Greenwich, Hampton Court, and Westminster. For instance, it's known that he received permissions to remove materials from the dissolved Bury St. Edmunds.

Leland felt strongly that the loss of the monastic library was tragic. In a letter written to Henry VII in the mid 1540s, he wrote:

"Never had we bene offended for the losse of our lybraryes, beynge so many in nombre, and in so desolate places for the more parte, yf the chiefe monuments & most notable workes of our excellent wryters, had bene reserved. If there had bene in every shyre of England, but one solepne lybrary, to the preservacyon of those noble workes, and preferrement of good lernynges in oure posteryte, it had bene yet sumwhat. But to destroye all without consyderacyon, is & wyll be unto Englande for ever, a most horryble infamy, amonge the grave senyours of othe nacyons. A great nombre of the shych purchased those superstycyouse mansyons, reserved of those lybrarye bokes." (Leland, 1544)

Archbishop Parker

Archbishop Parker collected many of the books dispersed by Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Glasney College Library
Penryn, Cornwall, England

Beyond the destruction of monastic libraries, other libraries were targeted during this period. In 1548, royal officials destroyed the college ending formal scholarship which helped sustain the Cornish language and cultural identify.


Leland, John (1544). The New Year's Gift. Published by John Bale as The Laboryouse Journal (1549).

Carley, Hames P. (2006). Leland, Johns (c. 1503-1552). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

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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