The Andrew W.Mellon Foundation | The Neil Ker Memorial Fund

About the Project

Posted on 17th May, 2010, by James Willoughby

This project deals with fundamental evidence for the transmission of culture. But it is a fundamental fact for English medieval libraries that most were dispersed and the books lost or destroyed as a consequence of the dissolution of the religious houses in the late 1530s and 1540s. Scholarship has had to develop techniques to recover such evidence as there is for where books came from and for reconstructing virtual libraries of each type and period. This work follows a two–track process, based on two types of evidence. Libraries are attested first by their surviving books and second by surviving medieval catalogues of the collections. This resource brings together these complementary fragments so as to enable an integrative reading of the evidence.

Most scholarly and much literary reading and writing in the middle ages depended on host–institutions which owned and maintained libraries, often for centuries. Such institutions were not changeless, nor were their books, and our date–range for the middle ages extends from the earliest available evidence of provenance or documentation to the break–up of most religious institutions in England between 1536 and 1547. This period encompasses the transition from the manuscript as the normal form of book to an age in which print had taken over in almost all contexts. In Great Britain no medieval library survives entire, but surviving books that bear evidence of provenance can be listed to form a virtual library, something achieved by Neil Ker in Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, now the standard work of reference for contextualizing books and their texts. Extant library catalogues made in the middle ages between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries provide a complement by showing the whole contents of a lost library at a particular moment and often, in the later middle ages, their arrangement on shelves. The Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues has hugely advanced our ability to interpret these documents while fully deploying the complementary evidence of those books, manuscript or printed, that survive and can be cross–matched. The documentary evidence taken as a whole allows a systematic and typological approach to libraries and their contents that permits extrapolation beyond their surviving contents. We can project what a library of a certain type would have been like at any particular period from a synthetic reading of fragmentary evidence, and draw comparisons with libraries attested by richer evidence. In addition, the cumulative overview of what works were available where and when, with a similar possibility of projection, allows a more systematic—yet also physically grounded—view of the learned culture of the middle ages than traditional methods ever could.

The Royal Historical Society handbook Medieval Libraries of Great Britain by Neil Ker has been a classic of historical bibliography since it was first published in 1941. It lists, by its modern shelf–mark, every manuscript that can be shown to have belonged to an institutional library at some point during the middle ages. For any scholar who has ever needed to consult a medieval manuscript, it has been a crucial port of first call. Preparing this handlist involved examining thousands of medieval manuscripts for physical or textual evidence of their original medieval provenance. The information was recorded on cards, still retained in the Bodleian Library. The evidence harvested in this way allowed lists to be drawn up of extant medieval books arranged according to the libraries they had belonged to, a marvellous witness to what was available in support of scholarship at different institutions in medieval Britain. Ker’s work was first published in 1941 and quickly proved its value; it was revised and expanded in 1964, with a supplement in 1987.

The user has always needed to instruct himself in Ker’s method in order to make best use of the handbook. The book is a model of lucidity, managing to organise a large and complicated body of information into a plain and concise format. But the concision that was needed to accommodate the data within the binding of a normal–sized book meant that the detailed evidence, including that on which the provenances themselves were established, could not be given space. In lieu of a fuller description, each extant book is indicated by its modern shelf–mark and followed by a brief indication of its contents in a few words: ‘Augustinus etc.’; ‘Medica’; ‘Sermones’. The evidence by which the provenance was established is signalled by an italic letter–code. For example, should the book contain an ex libris inscription, an italic letter e supplies that clue to the reader; should the binding of the book or the script of the contents be distinctive of a particular house, there will be an italic letter b or s. It has been a limitation of the handbook that the user, should he want to understand and interrogate that evidence for himself, cannot do other than go either to the modern manuscript catalogue, which may or may not record the evidence he needs, or to the medieval books themselves, or to the file cards on which Ker and his contributors recorded their judgements.

This digital version allows the user to access more information about the evidence of provenance, about the contents of the medieval book, and about how it was catalogued, shelf–marked, and shelved in its medieval library setting, than was permitted by the concision of Ker’s printed format. It is joined here by the evidence provided by the medieval catalogues, should the book be identifiable in such a list. The user may therefore use this resource to locate every institutionally provenancable copy of a particular author’s work, whether surviving or attested.

Project History

The approach to medieval library catalogues as a support to the listing of provenanceable books was conceived at the end of the nineteenth century. The first list, for Bury St Edmunds abbey alone, was made by the famous manuscripts scholar M R James in 1895. In the 1920s he turned to work on an early union–catalogue of works by major authors, Registrum Angliae, compiled in the late 13th century by the Grey Friars of Oxford. The nature of this complex catalogue, which uses numerals to identify libraries reporting copies of particular works, was worked out in the 1930s by R A B Mynors (who had known M R James at Eton). Mynors set out an agenda to test its information by collecting documentary evidence for the availability of particular works in particular libraries—what would become the Corpus—and physical evidence in the form of surviving books bearing evidence of provenance—what became Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. Work on MLGB started at once in Oxford, with Mynors in the lead and contributions from R W Hunt in the Bodleian Library, C R Cheney (professor of diplomatic between 1938 and 1946), and N R Ker (who had not had more than formal contact with M R James at Eton). Cheney devised the system of using printed record–cards for the recording of the requisite information, but with the outbreak of war only Ker remained in Oxford, so he took responsibility for editing the first edition. This was augmented in a second edition in 1964 and supplemented by A G Watson in 1987 after Ker’s death in 1982.

MLGB1 included mention of documentary sources for particular libraries, but systematic work on this part of the evidence was not begun until many years later. Registrum Angliae was the subject of Richard H Rouse’s PhD thesis for Cornell University in 1963, and with Mynors’s edition of the Latin text, this was ready for publication in 1988. By then a committee had been formed to oversee the collection and editing of all medieval library records from Britain, with Mynors playing a leading role. After Mynors’s death in 1989, Richard Sharpe was invited to assume the role of general editor in 1990, and under his direction publication began, with the assistant editorship from 2000 of James Willoughby.

The elecronic resource, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, was begun in 2009 with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the institutional support of the Bodleian Library. The project is directed by Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby.