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Monastic-Lib-art - 4/4/02


"Rules Governing Monastic Libraries" by Trystan of Anglesey.


NOTE: See also the files: Battl-o-t-Bks-art, early-books-msg, bookbinding-msg, parchment-msg, paper-msg, Libry-Research-art, Using-ILL-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:



Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Rules Governing Monastic Libraries

By Trystan of Anglesey


[Note: This was written before I had any access to the Internet, and, as such, contains no references to online material, unless it was made available online since then. References are identified by author's name and page number, with the name referring to the work listed in the bibliography. I used Canadian English spelling, so there will be some small differences in spelling from standard US English. This was done as a course assignment, for LIS 1010, my first year in the Library Technician Program at Lakehead University, and was due 03 Dec 92.]


Many people know that between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, much of the information we have at present concerning the ancient world was preserved in the various monasteries scattered across Europe. However, how was this information handled and stored? What rules were applied to organize the information in a usable way? How did the various monastic orders view the importance of books?


The earliest catalogues preserved in any significant numbers date from the Carolingian dynasty of France, descended from Charlemagne to the death of Louis V [Scrivner, p. 427]. These catalogues were mainly simply inventories of the books belonging to the monasteries, sometimes listing those responsible for donating them, as of the ninth and tenth centuries. These very early catalogues, never intended to be viewed by anyone outside the librarian, often listed only the most important or the first work in each volume. Looking for a particular work often reduced itself to the very time-consuming task of searching every individual volume in the library, often a disorganized clutter, until it was found. That is, of course, assuming it was in the library and not in another monk’s cell.


However, despite the fact that early catalogues were most often a mess, right from the beginnings of Christian monasticism the value of books was recognized. One of the first Christian monasteries, founded by St. Pachomius (ca. 290 – 346) on the banks of the Nile, had amongst its rules those regarding the use and care of books. Unfortunately, they didn’t survive the sixteen intervening centuries in their original form. Shelved in a cupboard set into the thickest wall in the monastery, they were counted and locked up every evening. Although a monk was allowed to borrow a book for up to a week at a time, it could not be left open if he left its location [Thompson, p. 234].


A direct descendant of these rules, via the rules of St. Basil, are the rules governing the Benedictines. In his rules, St. Benedict is very specific about the hours he thought were necessary for reading, and gives us the idea that he considered a good collection of books a necessary basic tool for any monastery [Thompson, p. 235]. One of Benedict’s contemporaries, a Roman patrician by the name of Cassiodorus, founded a pair of monasteries at a location he called Vivarium and in the rules governing them, “he mentions the need for competent bookbinders, adequate lighting for nocturnal readers, sundials and water clocks, and an organized scriptorium with established policies for copying” [Thompson, p. 235]. The Benedictine order eventually gave birth to three more orders, all of whom had stricter rules: the Cluniacs (ca. 910), the Carthusians (1084), and the Cistercians (1098) [Thompson, p. 235]. The Carthusians, existing as they did under a vow of silence, were encouraged by their leadership to spend much of their time copying and reading [Thompson, p. 247]. I will deal in more depth with a Carthusian monastery at Basel shortly, but contemporary to the founding of the Carthusians was the official sanctioning of the Augustinian Canons. “Every member of the order had complete writing equipment” [Thompson, p. 247].


The Charterhouse of St. Margarethental (Basel) was established in 1401, but by century’s end, it had accumulated “the finest library in the whole Upper Rhine region” [Halporn, p. 224/225]. The Carthusians, as I have stated previously, worked under a vow of silence and were encouraged to be literate. This in itself created the possibility for books to be produced virtually en masse, which created cataloguing difficulties of a scale unheard of before by the other orders. To counteract the difficulties created by this level of production, alphabetical catalogues of the holdings of the library by either author or title were used [Halporn, p. 225].


"When a collection grew beyond two or three hundred books, the library curator, who was often the steward in charge of the general supplies for the house, needed more than his memory to provide bibliographic control. … The Carthusians, because of their scholarly mission, were among the first to devise new strategies to deal with the problems created by the first information explosion and the rapid / growth of their collection. … Under his [Louber’s] leadership, the Charterhouse at Basel assembled an outstanding collection of books, developed an advanced system of bibliographic control and access, and drew up a manual of policies and procedures for the management of the library." [Halporn, p. 225/226]


One of its early priors, a man named Jakob Louber, through his maintenance of good relations between the monastery and the local printing shops, rapidly increased the size of the collection to the point where two rooms were needed to house the main collection, not including the vernacular collection for the lay brethren or the collection for the choir. “During his twenty-year administration of the monastery, Prior Louber built the library from ‘almost nothing’ to more than 1 200 volumes” [Halporn, p 226]. Louber’s methods were two-fold: he graciously accepted any books given as gifts or copied by the monks into the library; and he allowed the local printer-publishers to use the library’s collection of manuscripts to produce printed versions, one of which usually ended up in the collection as payment for the privilege of using the manuscript. This method alone allows for a doubling of the holdings of the monastery. As the books came in, Louber personally catalogued them as part of his job as librarian of the house according to his own system. This catalogue, unfortunately, has not survived, but two descendants of it did [Halporn, p. 226].


The first, prepared by Urban Moser sometime after 1502, is an attempt to formulate a union catalogue for the holdings of the library by author or, failing that, by title. It did not, however, list the entire holdings of the house, but it does represent a major leap forward for bibliographic controls [Halporn, p. 227].


The second, a two volume shelflist catalogue, was prepared around 1520 by Georg Carpentarius, and went so far as to contain a policy and instruction manual for the librarian, which was written as a preface to the catalogue and contained “information on the cataloguing of new books, inventorying, cleaning, mending, binding and circulation policy” [Halporn, p. 227].


These instructions consist of twelve rules that cover everything from the fact that new books, before being bound, must be inspected to insure that they are all there with now missing pages and are sufficiently thick to warrant binding to the regular inspection of the collection and the biennial cleaning and inventorying. The times when the library was cleaned or inventoried were to be entered in a special book, the general record [Registrum usuale]. The section known as the Old Library, consisting mainly of the hand-written manuscripts produced by the order, was to be inventoried only once every three or four years [Halporn, p. 230: rule 3]. Because of the wording of rule 1, it is logically assumable that there was some sort of classification system that was used in the whole library, because the rule states that books out of order should be placed back in the proper order, which also gives the impression that the books were not, as was usually the case in the libraries of the time, chained to their proper locations.


"The Instructions defines for the librarian the limits of his authority and responsibilities. It delegates considerable responsibility to him but also keeps the library under the close control of the prior. All important library transactions, whether cleaning, cataloguing, inventorying, or lending, require the authorization of the chief administrator of the monastery.


According to the Instructions, the librarian has responsibility fir the physical maintenance of the collection, the inventory and cataloging process, loans and circulation records, and a rudimentary form of reference service." [Halporn, p. 238]


As can be seen, many of the duties which today are considered to be the duties of librarians are actually set down in this document in clear, unmistakable Latin, even to the point of saying that the librarian had the standing authorization to leave his cell to insure that the books were properly cared for and aired out [Halporn, p. 237]. By placing the books under the care of the librarian, they were insured their rightful and proper treatment as the treasures they were.


"The library at St. Margarethental remained intact after Protestantism had been officially established in Basel in 1529. The monks were allowed to remain in the cloister provided no new members were admitted…After the last monk died, the monastery and all its goods became property of the city. In 1590 the library collection of nearly 2 000 volumes was transferred to the University Library, where it has remained ever since. Because of the peaceful nature of the Swiss Reformation and the measure of tolerance it practiced to the old order, the Old and New Libraries reached the University Library in good condition and almost intact … The preservation of a medieval collection as complete as this along with its shelflist and union catalog is very unusual. This accident of history allows us to examine how the attitudes of these scholarly monks towards books and learning led them to build a large library and then to expand and develop bibliographic systems and organizational patterns to manage the collection for the best use of the community." [Halporn, p. 242]


Dealing with the mendicant orders, after the organization of the universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Franciscans and the Dominicans assumed greater responsibility, although they tended to buy rather than copy the works they used for teaching [Thompson, p. 254].


"The Dominicans had scholarly responsibilities from the beginning, for their chores included the interpretation of doctrine and the refutation of heresies. There / were explicit instructions for the Dominican libraries, including a prohibition against decoration (aureae litterae), and an emphasis on theological books, although philosophy, especially Aristotelianism, began to be represented in the 13th century." [Thompson, p. 256/257]


As occurs in many libraries today, theft was the greatest single threat that the books faced. The leather bound Codices, with proper care, were virtually immune to the depredations of bookworms and brittleness that were so characteristic of papyrus scrolls, but unless they were taken care of properly by the librarius in an orderly and carefully administered way, they could be carried away by anyone. In an attempt to counteract this, three measures were used. First, if the collection was relatively small, the literate population similar, and access relatively unlimited, a unique literary form developed: the book curse, which promised various mundane or eternal punishments for theft [Peiss/Hessel, p. 25]. Secondly, if the size of the collection or literate population warranted it, the books were chained, either to their shelves with a movable lectern provided, or to the lectern itself. The third solution used was to restrict access to only the librarian, the ancestor of modern closed-stacks.


Many people today think that inter-library loans are a modern invention, but there is, however, evidence that this occurred in monastic libraries, mainly between neighbours, “but sometimes between libraries as / far apart as France and Greece or England and Austria” [Johnson, p. 122/123].


What does all this information tell us about monastic libraries? Originally, the rules governing them were very simple: get a copy of as many books as you can, and allow your monks to duplicate them. As collections of the monasteries grew, so did the need for some way to keep track of the books in the collection. Catalogues developed, originally consisting of shelflists saying only the most important work in each single volume, which could contain many more which were not thought if as being as important. Although this is a good way to keep track of the number of books in a library, it is useless when attempting to keep track of the entire holdings unless all monks have exceptional memories. Some other means were needed and were developed by monks to solve the problems as they arose. Think of how difficult things could be if other methods, not so simple to understand, had been developed instead of the simple ones we have today, which are the direct descendants of those developed by monks. With the lessening of the importance of the Roman Church and the increase in the importance of nationalism and the universities, the importance of monastic holdings began to dwindle rapidly. They were important, though, as without their perseverance, our knowledge of things that occurred prior to Rome’s fall in 476 CE would be greatly reduced and our methods of caring for books would be vastly different.




Edwards, Edward. Memoirs of Libraries. 2 vols. London: [n.p.], 1859. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1964.


Halporn, Barbara. “The Carthusian Library at Basel”. Library Quarterly 54, no. 3 (July ’84): 223 – 244.


Johnson, Elmer D. History of libraries in the Western World. 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1970.


Kyle, Joseph D. “The Monastery Library At St. Emmerman (Regensburg)”. Journal of Library History 15, no. 1 (Winter ‘80): 1 – 21.


Peiss, Rueben, trans. A History of Libraries by Alfred Hessel. New Brunswick, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1955.


Scrivner, Buford. “Carolingian Monastic Library Catalogs and the Medieval Classification of Knowledge”. Journal of Library History 15, no. 4 (Fall ’80): 427 – 444.


Thompson, Lawrence S. “Monastic Libraries” in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. vol. 18. Ed. Allen Kent et al. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1976.



Copyright 1992 by John A. Anderson. Thunder Bay Ontario, Canada. <rowanoaken001 at yahoo.ca>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org