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

Book Collections at the Minster before 1414

Hannah Jeans (University of York)

There had been a library at the Minster before the fifteenth century. During the eighth century, a library was founded by Egbert, the Archbishop of York (1). This library was developed by both Egbert's successor as Archbishop, Albert, and the great scholar Alcuin, and the collection has been estimated to have contained about 100 volumes. This collection, however, was probably destroyed when the city was sacked by the Danes in 866-867. Any books that survived may have perished in William the Conqueror's Harrying of the North in 1069 (2). In a poem, Alcuin lists around forty titles that were held in the library, which included many that also appear in Neuton's collection. Bede is mentioned, as are many of the Church Fathers, and classical authors such as Cicero, Aristotle and Pliny, amongst others (3). A number of the books were brought to York from abroad: Alcuin recorded several trips to the continent to collect manuscripts. In the 770s, Alcuin gave some of the collection to Liudger, a Frisian studying in York, as a way of ensuring that he left the city following a violent dispute with some of its residents. Liudger went on to found a monastery in Werden, where it is believed there may still be traces of some of the York books. When Alcuin travelled to the continent in the 780s he took some of the books with him, but left most in York. It is telling that throughout his life he always believed that he had never built up a greater library than the one he had at York. Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux, the first Norman Archbishop of York, donated several service books to the Minster. However, these were unlikely to have been intended as the beginning of a library (4) and there is no record of a library at the Minster until the early fifteenth century.

A number of medieval manuscripts which belonged to the Minster and date from the period between the Conquest and the re-foundation of the Minster library in the early fifteenth century have come down to us, however. This is evidence that there was at least a small collection of books at the Minster before Neuton's bequest. A few remain at the Minster while others are held in various libraries around the country. Of the books still remaining at York, there is a copy of the Bible from the first half of the twelfth century (York Minster, MS XVI. Q. 3-4) and a fourteenth-century copy of a law book by the influential Italian lawyer Hugutio of Pisa (York Minster, MS XVI. Q. 15). In Lincoln Cathedral Library there are two manuscripts that can be traced back to York Minster: one is a copy of Eutropius - an Ancient Roman historian from the fourth century - which dates to the late twelfth century or the early thirteenth (Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 101); the other is a copy of a work by Orosius - a Gallaecian priest, historian and theologian - dating to the second half of the twelfth century (Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 102). The British Library holds copies of glosses on Matthew and Mark from the second half of the twelfth century (London, British Library, MS Harley 46) and there is a work by Augustine dating from the first half of the twelfth century in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud. Misc. 140).


(1) C. B. L. Barr, 'The Minster Library', in A History of York Minster, ed. by G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 487.

(2) Barr, 'The Minster Library', p. 490.

(3) M. Lapidge, 'Surviving Booklists from Anglo-Saxon England', in Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, ed. by M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 46.

(4) Barr, 'The Minster Library', p. 491.

How to cite

Hannah Jeans, 'Book Collections at the Minster before 1414', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2014, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=42, accessed 22 November 2017