Monday, 8 July 2013

The Lost Library of Glastonbury

I've always had  a fascination with lost knowledge. There's an expanding corpus of knowledge in any given area, but is that everything that's ever been known about the subject? The hidden libraries of Timbuctou and the discovery of manuscripts at St Catherines Monastery are particularly gripping examples of these.

But, if we can fillet the unhelpful grail mythology from the tale, so is the lost library of Glastonbury.

So far as we can tell, the monastery was founded before 601. William of Malmesbury, probably the foremost historian of the 12th century, visited the abbey in the early part of the century and saw a charter of that date demonstrating a grant by a king of Damnonia at the request of Abbot Worgret of the isle of Yneswytrin to the monastery there. 

The Life of St Boniface, written by his disciple Willibald, mentions the abbey in the mid 8th century, and it also gets a mention in the 10th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle. We know St Dunstan was Abbott in the middle of the century and there is mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. After that William of Malmesbury picks up the tale some time after 1200 and we move through the 13th and 14th century towards the bibliographic apocalypse of the reformation. 

We'd be right to guess, therefore, that, by the reformation the abbey would have collected a significant library in it's 900 year history, despite the predations of the Danes and William the Conqueror, as well as regular fires, thefts and losses. This is born out by a survey of the abbey library made by John Glastonbury in 1247, as catalogued by the precentor William Britton. In the survey there are over 400 volumes, some, no doubt, with multiple manuscripts bound together. There are the writings of the early church fathers like Augustine, Gregory and Athanasius, but also some intriguing curiosities. 

What was "the second part from the psalms (old)"? If it was deemed old in 1247, how old was it? And what were "two English books, old and useless". Saxon, most likely, but what were they? And of the classics from Plato, Seneca, Orosius and others, were they just faithful copies of texts that have come down to us today, or did they hold now lost writings? Not to mention the transcriptions, transliterations, marginalia and appendices that these books must have had. Many were undoubtedly Saxon, but some may well have been earlier. If the abbey was founded in the middle of the 6th century (say), the Romans had only left these shores 100 years previously. How many of the books had come from their empire?

After this enticing survey in 1247, we know that, as the abbey grew rich along with the church, other manuscripts flowed into the great library at Glastonbury. Our next chronicler is John Leland, who, before he became a de facto antiquarian to Henry VIII, visited the monastery library for his own benefit in 1533, before the dissolution. A renowned (if slightly mad) bibliomane, the doors of the library were opened to him and his response was electric "Scarcely had I crossed the threshold when the sole contemplation of these ancient books filled me with I know not what—a sort of religious fear or stupor, and made me pause. Then, having saluted the genius of the place, I most curiously examined for some days all the shelves". 

Maybe Leland knew the end of the abbey was in sight. The bishop, Whyting, was harrassed by Thomas Cromwell from about 1535, and was now an old man. He had graduated in 1483, so, by now must have been over 70. Through the late summer and autumn of 1539 Abbott Whyting and the 
brothers were further harried by Cromwell, who had seen to it that, by this time, Glastonbury was the last abbey standing in Somerset. By October, Cromwells men were ransacking the abbey. 11,000 ounces of gilt plate, 6,000 ounces of silver, cash of over £1,100 and even furniture were hauled back to the king.

Whyting was given a show trial and executed on the tor that stands outside the town. He was hung, drawn and quartered and the parts of his body displayed in Bridgwater, Ilchester, Wells and Bath.

And what of the books? Leland had estimated there to be over 4,000 volumes at the time of his visit. The greatest library in England and a treasure house of the rarest and most important books.

Well, the stories that have come down to us are tragic. Bindings were ripped from the books, and the jewels and gilt prised off as treasure. The folios inside burnt. We hear of thousands of pages blowing away in the wind, gathered to be used as toilet paper or to scour out candlesticks.

But we know of 40 or so that survived, rescued from the flames by Archbishop Matthew Parker and Sir Robert Cotton. The former now known as the Parker Collection, and the later forming the basis of what became the British Library.

These are books like Prognosticon futuri saeculi by Aldhelm, now at the BL:

Or here is a fragment of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle of 890, now at the Parker Collection:

So while much as been lost, at least some remains. And maybe there's more to be found.

A couple of years ago I worked on the lost minutes of the early days of the Royal Society. Kept by Robert Hooke, they'd been mislaid sometime just after 1700. In 2006, during a house clearance, a tattered manuscript was found in a cupboard in a house in Sussex. It was the lost minutes -  a record of the intellectual sparring between Hooke, Boyle, Newton and others. Amongst other things it identified the fact that Hooke had invented the balance spring as a doodle on the back of a page, an invention hitherto credited to Christian Huygens.

You never know what remains to be found. Lost knowledge doesn't always stay lost.

If you want to pursue this fascinating area of study I looked at The Victoria County History of Somerset (vol 2), the Somerset Extensive Urban Survey and much enjoyed Michael Wood's account in In Search of England. Had I more time, I'd have tried to turn up James P. Carley's  "John Leland and the contents of English pre-dissolution libraries" which seems to be a recent definitive work on the subject. William of Malmesbury you should find at the Internet Archive.

You'll also have to forgive my sketchy scholarship. As a technologist rather than an academic, I'd like to think this might be forgiven on account of my amateur status.

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