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A medieval library: The book list of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Libraries have been a source of knowledge and inspiration to readers for centuries, and as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies digitisation project, we have recently made available a medieval record of England’s oldest known book collection, the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (now TCD MS 360). Click here to view the manuscript on our Digital Collections page. In this post we explore what we can learn from this list and surviving books from the abbey today.

Opening page of main catalogue list (TCD MS 360, f. 27r)

Books played a major role in the life of the abbey community from its foundation in 598 AD, as we know from the survival of St Augustine’s Gospels (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 286), an Italian manuscript that was possibly gifted by Pope Gregory I to St Augustine (d. 604), first archbishop of Canterbury and the abbey’s founder, for his Christian mission to Kent in 597. St Augustine’s Abbey was an important centre of learning and book production during the Middle Ages, and the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989 together with nearby Canterbury Cathedral and St Martin’s Church.

The Fyndon Gate, originally the gate to the great court of St Augustine’s Abbey, dating from the 14th century (image via Wikipedia)

The surviving late 15th-century book list is a transcript copy of a complete catalogue of the St Augustine book collection produced sometime between 1375 and 1420, and lists over 1,700 individual works, showing that the abbey housed one of the largest known medieval libraries in England. The list is arranged in three main parts: a register indicating the locations of books (ff. 1-12v), an alphabetical index (ff. 13-25v), and the library catalogue proper arranged by subject (ff. 27-96v) and featuring works of the Bible and liturgy, history and law, literature and natural sciences, medicine and alchemy. The catalogue’s register also reveals that books in the later medieval period were stored in various locations, including the main library building, the abbey cloister, the vestry, and held by individual monks borrowing texts as library loans. The monks of St Augustine’s Abbey belonged to the Order of St Benedict, and under the Rule of St Benedict the festival of Lent was to be observed through reading and prayer. Additional regulations, known as the Constitutions created by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury (r. 1070-1089), instructed Benedictine monks to read at least one book per year and the librarian was required to keep a list of readers.

Opening page of register with locations of abbey books (TCD MS 360, f. 1r)

Following the Dissolution of St Augustine’s Abbey in 1538 under King Henry VIII of England, the abbey’s buildings and property were largely destroyed and the library’s book collection was also destroyed or dispersed, with under 300 volumes identified as surviving today. Two of these surviving volumes are now housed with the library catalogue in the Trinity collections, and these are a 13/14th-century compilation of historical and religious texts (TCD MS 514) and a 13th-century copy of William of Malmesbury’s De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum  (‘The History of the English Bishops’) that traces the ecclesiastical history of Britain from St Augustine’s arrival in 597 (TCD MS 602).

Ownership inscription of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (TCD MS 602, f. 1r detail)

These two manuscripts contain identifying signs that they originated from St Augustine’s Abbey library in the form of inscriptions, such as an ex-libris note in the William of Malmesbury copy showing it belonged to the abbey and the storage location of the book within the medieval library: Liber Sancti Augustini Cant’. Di. ix ga. iii.’. This note reveals the book was stored in the library’s ninth book press or case (Distinctio) on the third shelf (Gradus). Both works are additionally recorded as items 900 and 919 respectively in the library catalogue, and the digitisation of the catalogue together with two surviving manuscripts will allow researchers to undertake detailed studies of the no longer extant library of St Augustine’s Abbey.

Dr Alison Ray

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The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

B.C. Barker-Benfield (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, 3 vols (London, 2008)

M.R. James (ed.), The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge, 1903)

Medieval Libraries of Great Britain online (MLGB3), entry for St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury book list (BA1)

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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