Libraries in churches

by Anna Blanch on March 13, 2012

I love modern libraries. I love home libraries. But today I thought I’d offer a throw back and share some images from libraries dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. I love the ability to curl up in an armchair and read a small book I can hold in my hands.

Libraries and the churches have a close and long relationship. Many of the earliest libraries available to more than just the owners of the books (think castles and large manor houses) were in convents, monasteries and cathedrals.

Desk in the library attached to the church of S. Wallberg, at Zutphen in Holland. Unlike the freedom we generally have to take books away from a library and enjoy them in our own homes, things weren’t always so moveable.

The system of chaining, as adopted in this country, would allow of the books being readily taken down from the shelves, and laid on the desk for reading. One end of the chain was attached to the middle of the upper edge of the right-hand board; the other to a ring which played on a bar set in front of the shelf on which the book stood. The fore-edge of the books, not the back, was turned forwards. A swivel, usually in the middle of the chain, prevented tangling. The chains varied in length according to the distance of the shelf from the desk. The bar was kept in place by a rather elaborate system of iron-work attached to the end of the bookcase, and secured by a lock which often required two keys—that is, the presence of two officials—to open it. To illustrate this I will shew you a sketch of one of the bookcases in Hereford Cathedral.

Here’s an image that Bookcase in Hereford Cathedral.On the continent, where elaborate bindings came early into fashion, sometimes protected by equally elaborate bosses at their corners, it would have been impossible to arrange the volumes as we did side by side on the shelves. It therefore became the fashion to place a shelf below the desk, and to lay the books upon it on their sides. The earliest library fitted in this manner that I have been able to discover is at Cesena in North Italy. It was built in 1452, by Domenico Malatesta Novello, for the convent of S. Francesco. It is possible, therefore, that the parent house of S. Francesco at Assisi, which had a large library, divided, so early as 1381, into a Libreria publica and a Libreria secreta, had similar bookcases. I am going to shew you a general view of the room, which has a thoroughly medieval character, next the cases , and thirdly a single book with its chain . You will observe that the seats for the reader are no longer independent, but are combined with the bookcase.

Bookcases at west end of south side of Library, Cesena.

Part of a single bookcase in the Library, Cesena.

So what do you think? Do any of these images inspire you? or make you glad for your little library nook?

source: Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods The Rede Lecture Delivered June 13, 1894 by JW Clark available on Project Gutenberg.

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