The Encyclopedia of Calligraphy and Illuminated Letter

The Portable Medieval Reader

The Medieval Library,
Page 2 of 11

A Bookcase in the Chapter Library, Hereford

A Bookcase in the Chapter Library, Hereford

bulk of them to a specially prepared building, or rooms in the cloister, where they were in turn divided into circulating and reference collections. It came to pass, therefore, that a single cathedral or monastery often had ad many as half a dozen distinct collections, located at various points in church and cloisters, each intended for a special use; and besides this, there were also, here and there in the cloisters, small reading-desk with one or two books on each for general reading. The whole institution was thus in some sort a library, and to think of the ecclesiastical library as a single collection in a single place is to miss one of its most characteristic features.

It is true that the ecclesiastical were not the only libraries of the middle ages, but while there were others, Mohammedan as well as Christian, royal, private, and university as well as religious, it is still true that these church and monastic libraries were, by virtue of number, quality, permanence, and especially of their dominating influence on library architecture and method, the true types of the period and the actual ancestors of the libraries of to-day.

Although the truly typical ecclesiastical library never, perhaps, existed complete in all its elements in any one place, some of the greater cathedrals and monasteries contained at one time or another nearly every feature, and a visitor to Durham or St. Gall, Vercelli or Monte Cassino, to-day may with a little imagination realize all the various elements of the libraries of that time, say when toward the end of the thirteenth century the famous Humbert of Romans laid down the rules for the libraries of his Dominican convents. If some one accustomed to the free public library of to-day could be transported in the spirit to the time when convents were in their glory and visit some great monastery having all the elements of the library practice of the time, it would be an instructive experience. After a perfunctory visit of custom to the church under the guidance of the porter, he would e met at the entrance of the cloister by the hospitaler, whose duty it is to receive and escort all strangers. Welcomed in the guest-quarters, and the wish to visit the libraries made known, the guest would be taken first, by punctilious etiquette, to visit the infirmary — to fulfill first the prime duty of "visiting the sick." Here in a building a little apart from the church and from the cloisters, both great and small, he would find the feeble and ailing as well as the sic, and


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