1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library


The origins of the Minster Library stretch back well over a millennium, to at least the eighth century, when the great scholar Alcuin assembled a famous collection of texts in York. But the origins of this project go back little more than a year, to February 2013, when York University Special Collections and Minster Librarian Sarah Griffin invited me to address the annual open meeting of the Minster Library Board (on which I have served for several years). In conversations following the presentation, where Brian Cummings and I outlined our plans for a comparative study of archbishops' libraries in post-Reformation Britain and called for the creation of the Cathedral Libraries and Archives Network (CLAN), it suddenly struck me that July 2014 would mark a major milestone in the history of York, the history of religion and the history of the book—the 600th anniversary of Canon John Neuton's bequest of manuscripts in July 1414, effectively the founding act in the establishment of the Minster Library in its modern form.

This resource sets out both to commemorate Neuton's historic gift and to put it in context, combining source materials, scholarly articles and images of books and buildings. We have provided an account of Neuton's life and career, and his prominent role in the political, financial and intellectual life of York's great cathedral. We have assembled the contents of Neuton's library, assessed its size and value and considered its character in relation to other collections of the early fifteenth century as well as that of Archbishop Tobie Matthew, whose bequest of several thousand books in the seventeenth century gave York Minster the largest cathedral library in England—which it remains to this day. We have drawn on archival and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the original appearance of the building constructed to house the Minster's book collection after Neuton's bequest, one of the earliest and most important examples of its kind in the country (if not the world). And we have explored some of the other tantalizing traces associated with Neuton, from a strap added to the eleventh-century Horn of Ulph, to his tomb near the shrine of St William.

The project testifies, finally, to the close collaboration between York Minster and the University of York. Many people at both institutions have contributed time, expertise and even money, but special thanks are due to the partnership of Hanna Vorholt (Department of History of Art and Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York) and Peter Young (the Minster's Archivist), who jointly curated the resource after my secondment to the Victoria & Albert Museum. As someone who served the Minster and valued the learning bound up in books, Neuton would have been grateful for all they have done to revive his legacy.

Bill Sherman

Head of Research, Victoria & Albert Museum

Professor of Renaissance Studies, University of York