09 October 2017
A borrower and a lender be
You may have noticed the recent trend to commemorate things with their own day or week. Perhaps you missed International Bagpipe Day (10 March — put a note in your diaries for 2018) but some people may have remembered to celebrate National Badger Day last Friday. Certain of these dates have less resonance with us at the British Library, but one that has caught our eye, and is definitely the occasion to blow our own trumpet, is Libraries Week, starting on 9 October. To celebrate, we are looking at evidence for lending and borrowing in medieval libraries.
‘Not to lend books is a type of homicide’, according to Stephen Langton's commentary on Deuteronomy. (One of Langton's principal claims to fame is that he was archbishop of Canterbury at the time that Magna Carta was issued in 1215.) There is a popular perception that medieval libraries comprised rows of chained books, which were never allowed out of sight. Such chained libraries did exist (an example is that at Hereford, and many British Library manuscripts were clearly once chained), but people have always exchanged, borrowed and shared their books. Here are some of our favourite examples drawn from the British Library’s collections.
Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham and noted book-borrower, with a stack of three books, St Albans, c. 1380, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 87r
Borrowing books was crucial for the formation of medieval libraries. Scribes often borrowed manuscripts to make copies. For example, the letters of Lupus, abbot of Ferrières (fl. c. 805–862), are full of requests to borrow books, which he copied to augment his own libraries.
Lupus of Ferrières’s manuscript of Cicero’s De oratore, copied from a book he borrowed from the library at Fulda in 836, Harley MS 2736, f. 1r
After the monastery of Peterborough burnt down in 1116, its library was restocked in part by borrowing and copying texts from other houses. Some of the diagrams in one computistical handbook may have been left unfinished when the scribes had to return their exemplar.
Possibly unfinished pages from Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s computus, England (Peterborough), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 3667, ff. 5v–6r
Outside of monasteries, professional scribes and illuminators also borrowed books. A note in a 14th-century copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César records that one of its quires was lent to the Parisian illuminator, Perrin Remiet (fl. 1368, or c. 1396–1420), to copy.
Detail of a bas de page illustration of Jason's adventures, Naples, c. 1330–1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 33v
Medieval authors also needed to borrow books. The huge number of sources cited by Bede (d. 735) suggests that he may have borrowed books from other libraries.
On occasion we have clear evidence that surviving books had been loaned. For example, one 13th-century theological compilation from Reading Abbey has an inscription indicating it was exchanged with Cirencester Abbey for another book.
Flyleaf with drawings, book curse and note of an exchange, Harley MS 979, f. 1v
Individual monks also borrowed books from their monastic library. The ‘Constitutions’ of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, stated that Benedictine monks should borrow a book every year, starting on the first Monday of Lent. They also needed to beg forgiveness if they hadn’t managed to read last year’s book.
Borrowing and lending books was not limited to the clergy. In the mid-15th century, John Paston, a member of the gentry from Norfolk, wrote to his brother to ask that he contact a mutual friend in London who ‘has a book of my sister Ann, of the Siege of Thebes. When he is done with it, he promised to deliver it to you.’ One medieval bestiary may also have been lent to laypeople. The last page includes an oath that its borrowers would have to return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by an 'abstetrix heifmoeder' (midwife) in a 14th- or 15th-century hand.
Detail of an oath, from Der Nature Bloeme, Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v
Not everyone was happy about lending books or trusted their borrowers. ‘Overdue’ or stolen books were a major concern. Some books include curses threatening supernatural punishments on anyone who stole them. Other lenders utilised contracts or letters to ensure that their books were returned. An indenture dated 1 June 1390 (Cotton MS Faustina C V, f. 50r) records that William Bottlesham, bishop of Rochester, agreed to lend John Mory/Amory, rector of Southfleet, 13 books and some vestments for one month. If they were not returned, the borrower would have to pay 100 marks sterling.
One of the books borrowed by John Mory/Amory, Antony of Padua's Concordantia maior and Concordantiae morales bibliorum, England, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 4 E V, f. 4r
Letters written in an effort to recover books provide further evidence of borrowing. In the 970s or 980s, a monk from Fleury wrote to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988) and mentioned that Abbot Osgar of Abingdon (d. 984) and the monks of Winchester had still not returned his books.
Copy of a letter from ‘L’ (Lantfred) of Fleury to Archbishop Dunstan, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 168v
This is only a very partial survey of the medieval evidence for lending and borrowing books. We hope it shows at the very least that medieval libraries should not be stereotyped as containing rows of chained tomes, jealously guarded by ferocious librarians. Next time you borrow a book from your local library, remember you are participating in an ancient tradition.
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