In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Libraries in England and Wales

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Library Terminology
  • Anglo-Saxon Libraries
  • Scriptoria and Book Production
  • Library Buildings and the Housing of the Collections
  • Cataloguing and the Work of the Librarian
  • Borrowing and Lending
  • The Impact of the Universities
  • Libraries of Specific Religious Orders
  • The Libraries of Nuns and Laywomen
  • Parish Libraries and the Libraries of Parish Priests
  • Private Libraries
  • The Royal Library
  • The Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Dispersal of the Monastic Libraries

Medieval Studies Libraries in England and Wales
David Bell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0193


The period covered in this bibliography is from Anglo-Saxon England to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or, in date, from the 6th to the mid-16th century. It is limited to England and Wales because during this period both Scotland and Ireland were independent countries with their own languages, cultures, and trade routes. The only part of Ireland that was directly subject to the English king was The Pale, a small area on the west coast around Dublin. Wales had been part of England since the Edwardian conquest of the late 13th century, but the fluctuating border area had been profoundly affected by English influence since shortly after the Norman Conquest. Books in medieval libraries were acquired in three ways: by being produced in a monastic scriptorium, by donation or bequest, or by purchase. In-house production was typical of the period up to the end of the 12th century, while from the beginning of the 13th century professional book production and purchase became ever more common. Donations and bequests were always important, but because it was not possible to choose from such gifts selectively—one had to take what one was given—not all the contents were necessarily useful. It follows from this that the wealth and fame of any institution that required books would inevitably affect the size of its library, and, given the fact that books were always expensive, medieval libraries were, from a modern point of view, not large. The largest Anglo-Saxon libraries may have contained about two hundred books. In 1331 the collection at Christ Church, Canterbury, numbered 1,850, which may well have been the biggest collection in England and Wales. In 1289 the library of the university of Paris contained 1,017 volumes which, by 1338, had increased to 1,722—an increase of about 70 percent. The development of the universities affected the content, appearance, and production of books as well as their price (something that was also much affected by the use of paper rather than parchment), and the introduction of printing with moveable type in the mid-15th century was to have a profound impact on the size and content of all libraries. The effect of the printing revolution, however, was by no means immediate, and it is not until about 1500 that we begin to see its real revolutionary impact. Forty years later, the libraries of more than eight hundred religious institutions in England and Wales would cease to exist.

General Overviews

We are concerned here with what Michael Lapidge has memorably called “the burgeoning field of palaeobibliothecography” (Lapidge 2006, p. 4, cited under Anglo-Saxon Libraries), a splendid ten-syllable word meaning the study of ancient (and now lost) libraries. The first attempt at providing a comprehensive overview of medieval libraries was the work of James Westfall Thompson (b. 1869–d. 1941) whose The Medieval Library first appeared in 1939 (Thompson 1957). His work was continued and much improved by Karl Christ (b. 1878–d. 1943), whose long and detailed account in the Handbuch des Bibliothekswissenschaft was published in the 1950s and translated into English in 1984 (Christ 1984). Both volumes contain information on medieval libraries in England and Wales, but they contain a very great deal of other information as well: on book production, scriptoria, contents of book collections, librarianship, library buildings, the housing and cataloguing of collections, library administration, means of acquisition, the impact of the universities, the libraries of the nobility, private libraries, and so on. Wilson 1958 offers the best and most comprehensive account of the contents of monastic libraries in general, though it is now in need of correction in some details. Thomson 1986, Webber 2006, Bell 1999, and Bell 2006 take the story from the Norman Conquest to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For an accurate and brief survey of the subject, McCrank 1986 may be recommended. Anglo-Saxon libraries have a section to themselves: see Anglo-Saxon Libraries.

  • Bell, David N. “Monastic Libraries: 1400–1557.” In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. 3, 1400–1557. Edited by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp, 229–254. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Examines the impact on monastic book collections of the New Learning and the universities, the development of private devotion and vernacular literacy, and the development of printing. The article also considers book production, book buying, donations and bequests, and the book collections of women’s houses at this later period. Available by subscription online.

  • Bell, David N. “The Libraries of Religious Houses in the Late Middle Ages.” In The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 1, To 1640. Edited by Elisabeth Leedham-Green and Teresa Webber, 126–151. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Deals with the impact of university studies on the nature and size of books and on the content of monastic book collections, Latin and vernacular literacy, the impact of printing, the acquisition of books, the building of new libraries, and the revitalization of religious life in the late fifteenth century. Available by subscription online.

  • Christ, Karl. The Handbook of Medieval Library History. Translated by Theophil M. Otto. Edited by Anton Kern. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984.

    Translated from “Das Mittelalter,” Handbuch der Bibliothekswissenschaft, Vol. 3, Geschichte der Bibliotheken (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1957). The second edition of the Handbuch was published in five volumes between 1950 and 1965. Christ’s long section on medieval libraries is a distinct improvement on Thompson 1957 and remains a most valuable survey. It covers medieval librarianship, the history of libraries, the libraries of the religious orders, the universities, the nobility, and private libraries.

  • McCrank, Lawrence J. “Libraries.” In Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 7. Edited by Joseph R. Strayer, 557–570. New York: Scribner, 1986.

    A useful introductory survey that includes sections on medieval developments, information services, systems and operation, collection development, library facilities, and librarianship.

  • Thompson, James W. The Medieval Library. New York: Hafner, 1957.

    Despite its age and numerous inaccuracies, Thompson’s classic study still merits attention. It is a vast builder’s yard of information containing chapters on British libraries in the Anglo-Saxon period, libraries of Norman and Angevin England, English libraries in the 14th and 15th centuries, the scriptorium, and library administration and the care of books. Reprint, includes supplement by B. Boyer; originally published 1939.

  • Thomson, Rodney M. “The Norman Conquest and English Libraries.” In The Role of the Book in Medieval Culture, Vol. 2, Proceedings of the Oxford International Symposium, 26 September–1 October 1982. Edited by Peter F. Ganz, 27–40. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1986.

    Discusses the nature of the changes to English book collections brought about by the Norman Conquest and the methods by which those changes were implemented. The first major change took place from the 1070s to c. 1100; the second from c. 1120 to c. 1150. Reprinted in Rodney M. Thomson, England and the 12th-Century Renaissance. Variorum Collected Studies Series CS 620. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

  • Webber, Teresa. “Monastic and Cathedral Book Collections in the Late Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” In The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 1, To 1640. Edited by Elisabeth Leedham-Green and Teresa Webber, 109–125. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Summarizes the content of English monastic and cathedral collections at this period, book production, the location of the collections, public and private reading, and cataloguing. Available by subscription online. See also Reference Works.

  • Wilson, R. M. “The Contents of the Mediaeval Library.” In The English Library before 1700. Studies in Its History. Edited by Francis Wormald and C. E. Wright, 85–111. London: Athlone, 1958.

    Although published in 1958, this remains one of the best and most comprehensive surveys of what books one might expect to find in a medieval monastic library.

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