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

The Manuscript Libraries of English Cathedrals before the Reformation and the Case of York

Rodney M. Thomson (University of Tasmania)

In discussing the manuscript-collections at English cathedrals before the Reformation I shall deal here with just two issues: What is the evidence which must form the basis for their study? And, on the basis of this and other evidence, what were these collections used for?

The Evidence

Surviving Manuscripts: Obviously we need to start with the surviving books. Eight of the sixteen medieval foundations are represented by substantial numbers of these: Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Hereford, Lincoln, Rochester, Salisbury and Worcester (1). Durham is the outstanding case, with about 550 surviving manuscripts (plus another 200-odd early printed books) (2); at the other extreme is York, which has lost nearly everything: there are only about twenty surviving books from what must have been a substantial collection (3). Similarly meagre survival-numbers apply at Carlisle, Chichester, Coventry, Ely, Lichfield, London, Wells and Winchester (4). On the other hand, Durham, Hereford, Lincoln, Salisbury and Worcester still have most or many of their surviving books on site. At Worcester there are 285 manuscripts plus important fragments, some as early as the eighth century. They are supplemented by at least another 124 in other places. The total of surviving Worcester manuscripts is therefore about 400. Canterbury's 350-odd surviving manuscripts are widely scattered and often fragmented. Lincoln has 247 manuscripts on site plus a portfolio of fragments, and another ten complete books now elsewhere. Salisbury has 221 all told, almost all at the Cathedral. Hereford has about 240, mostly still on site, Exeter 145, mostly in the Bodleian. Rochester and Norwich are represented by about 140 and 120 volumes respectively, nearly all of them now elsewhere. Norwich is a special case because its library was apparently entirely destroyed in a great fire of 1272; its late medieval collection may not have been as large as it could have been had the fire not occurred (5). But manuscripts held by a cathedral library now were not necessarily there before the Reformation. So, at Lincoln only one hundred of the surviving manuscripts come from the medieval cathedral; many if not most of the rest were acquired by Dean Michael Honeywood after 1660 (6). At Worcester thirty-three manuscripts arrived after the Dissolution, while the medieval provenance of another thirty-eight is uncertain (7).

Records: What then did the medieval cathedral libraries look like in terms of size and content? This entails another question: What proportion of the late-medieval collection is represented by the surviving manuscripts? To answer these questions we need evidence, in the surviving manuscripts themselves, of their pre-Reformation provenance, and we need contemporary catalogues and booklists. The combination of this material, when it occurs, yields a result at best fragmentary, but it does show that the picture varies enormously from place to place. Hardly any of the medieval foundations furnish medieval catalogues covering the complete library, including some of those with substantial numbers of surviving books (8). On the other hand, Durham has about a dozen medieval booklists, dating from the late eleventh century until the fifteenth, Canterbury has three booklists, the earliest late twelfth-century (listing only the books for basic study of grammar and rhetoric). Exeter has a list of the books made and donated by Bishop Leofric (1046-72) and two comprehensive late-medieval inventories. From London survive three lists from the second half of the thirteenth century, and a catalogue of the chained books made in 1458. Rochester has the booklist in the famous Textus Roffensis, c. 1123, and a comprehensive catalogue, naming donors, from the early thirteenth century. Lincoln has catalogues from c. 1160 and 1454. The fifteenth-century catalogue lists 109 volumes chained in the library, of which eighty-eight survive (9). Here at least we can say that the surviving books represent most of what constituted the cathedral's late medieval library.


In describing the function of these collections, a fundamental distinction has to be made between monastic and secular cathedrals (10). Contrast, for example, Lincoln and Christ Church Canterbury. At Lincoln about a hundred books are listed in both its twelfth-century and fifteenth-century catalogues. About half the stock had been turned over between the two, but the aggregate numbers remained the same (11). At Canterbury the early fourteenth-century catalogue lists 1831 titles, much the same as St Augustine's Abbey, as represented by its late fifteenth-century catalogue (12). But many surviving Christ Church Canterbury manuscripts came there later than the early fourteenth century. The same contrast applies, where sufficient evidence exists, between the other secular and monastic cathedrals. Why is there such a difference?

Secular cathedrals were staffed by canons who were often pluralists and careerists, with interests and duties elsewhere, and for whom the canonry was often only a step on a ladder of preferment. They were not often, or continuously, in residence and therefore did not need a large local library. They had their own books, as demonstrated by their donations and bequests, sometimes to their cathedrals but more often elsewhere. For instance, at Lincoln Philip of Bayeux (dean c. 1130-40), John Russell (bishop 1480-94), and Robert Flemmyng (dean 1452-c. 1483), each owned large and important collections which they donated respectively to the abbey of Bec, and to New and Lincoln Colleges Oxford (13). In this circumstance, the cathedral needed only to maintain a small collection of basic reference books, on canon law, sermons and pastoral theology. By contrast, the monastic cathedrals behaved like the larger Benedictine monasteries. The monastic community was stable, dedicated to prayer and study, and therefore dependent upon a well-stocked library of biblical commentary and patristic theology. In addition, from the late thirteenth century on, Benedictine monks were compelled, by papal mandate, to undertake university studies (14). Their textbooks were to be furnished by their communities, and in return these men often brought back to the cathedrals the latest commentaries and treatises on, say, Aristotle and the like. In other words, not only were the libraries of monastic cathedrals much larger than those of the secular, but they grew over time, whereas those of the seculars were comparatively static.

But this picture is too black-and-white, and there were nuances. Take for instance the secular cathedrals of Exeter, where sixty-six books already appear in the Leofric list (before 1072), or Salisbury, where some sixty books were written between 1066 and c. 1100 (15). In both cases the communities were 'reformed' by bishops of Lotharingian background, in accordance with the Rule of Chrodegang of Metz. So their communal life was quasi-monastic until soon after 1100, when they conformed to the norm of other secular cathedrals. Later lists of books at Exeter still differentiate it from this norm: the list of 1327 totals 226 books, that of 1506 359 in the library plus three books in seven volumes chained behind the treasurer's stall and another fourteen law books chained behind the succentor's stall (16). The earliest books listed in the 1506 inventory look monastic, the rest, dominated by law and scholastic theology, like a university college.

York Minster

I end with a postscript containing new information about the medieval library at York Minster (17). It has often been assumed that a major catastrophe must have befallen its library after the Reformation, amounting to the wholesale destruction of a great collection containing books dating from as early as the eighth century. But, although the destruction must have been considerable, it was on a much lesser scale than one might have thought. I start with the dimensions of the library building commissioned by Treasurer John Neuton and begun after his death in 1414. It occupied the upper room of a two-storey rectangular building, measuring about forty-four by twenty-four feet, projecting at an angle from the western wall of the south transept. Entry is gained via a spiral staircase at its north-east corner (Fig. 1). On each side are four two-light windows with a larger one of three lights centred in its western wall. The normal library furniture of the day consisted of double-sided desk-lecterns on which the books were both stored and read, normally arranged with one end abutting the side walls between the windows, leaving room for a central aisle about six feet wide (18). At York there was room for three double-sided lecterns on each side. On either side of the west window there could have been a single-sided lectern set against the wall. At the other end the stairwell would not have left sufficient room for another lectern on that side. On the other there would have been ample room for another single-sided lectern, perhaps just enough for a double-sided one. Thus the room could have contained the equivalent of seven and a half or eight double-sided lecterns. The surviving fifteenth-century lecterns from Lincoln Cathedral are seven feet long, designed for a room originally twenty feet wide (Fig. 2). At York, the width of the western window is eight feet, leaving eight feet on either side for the two flanking half-desks. We could expect the rest of the lecterns to be the same length. Now it is possible to estimate approximately how many books these lecterns carried: about six per side would seem reasonable. This estimate can be cross-checked, for at Lincoln the catalogue of the chained books, made in 1454, lists 109 items. As we know that the fifteenth-century library at Lincoln contained eight double-sided lecterns, this gives us six-seven books per lectern-side. Applying these figures to York, it seems that its post-1414 library was built to house about 135 volumes. Intention and reality are, however, different things. As at Lincoln so at York the library must have acquired more stock over the next century or so, particularly with the advent of the printed book. At Lincoln this growth was managed by the insertion of an extra shelf beneath the sloping surface of the lecterns. Something similar may well have happened at York.

Moreover, the Library was clearly constructed to house the bequest of John Neuton himself (19), totalling thirty-five titles in thirty-eight volumes. Presumably, then, the pre-existing library-stock was only about a hundred volumes, although some of Neuton's books may have been replacements of items that were worn or damaged (20).

These figures are revelatory in several ways. They mean that the York Minster library conformed, more or less, to the pattern of other English secular cathedrals, as far as we can glimpse it. It indicates that there need not have been massive losses of manuscript books in the wake of the Reformation and print revolution, let alone losses of volumes dating from Alcuin's time. These had probably left the Cathedral long before (21).

(1) The figures are derived from the listings in N. R. Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (2nd edn, London: Royal Historical Soc., 1964), together with the Supplement by A. G. Watson (London: Royal Historical Soc., 1987) [henceforward Ker, MLGB, and Supplement]. An online updated edition of MLGB is in progress.

(2) About one hundred printed books are listed by A. L. Piper in Supplement, pp. 16-34; Dr A. I. Doyle tells me that this figure can now be approximately doubled.

(3) Ker, MLGB, p. 216; Supplement, p. 113.

(4) Winchester is represented by some seventy-four surviving books or fragments, but no fewer than twenty-four of these are doubtfully ascribed, while sixteen are liturgical books (an unusually high proportional survival-rate).

(5) N. R. Ker, 'Medieval Manuscripts from Norwich Cathedral Priory', in his Books, Collectors and Libraries, ed. by A. G. Watson (London: Hambledon, 1985), pp. 243-72, at 248-9.

(6) R. M. Thomson, Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Lincoln Cathedral Chapter Library (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989), pp. xiii, xx-xxi.

(7) R. M. Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), p. xvii n. 2.

(8) The information below derives from the headnotes in Ker, MLGB.

(9) Thomson, Lincoln, p. xvii.

(10) The monastic cathedrals were Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester and Worcester.

(11) ibid., pp. xvii-xviii.

(12) The Christ Church catalogues were edited by M. R. James, The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), pp. 3-12, 13-172, that of St Augustine's in ibid., pp. 173-406 and, better, by B. Barker-Benfield, St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Corpus of British Medieval Libraries of Great Britain 13 (London: The British Academy and The British Library, 2008).

(13) Thomson, Lincoln, pp. xv, xviii.

(14) Thomson, Worcester, pp. xxv-xxix, with references to earlier literature.

(15) T. Webber, Scribes and Scholars at Salisbury Cathedral c. 1075-c. 1125 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

(16) Ed. by G. Oliver, Lives of the Bishops of Exeter (Exeter: William Roberts, 1861), pp. 301-10, 359-60, 366-75. Other books in the 1327 inventory, mostly liturgical, were scattered about the various chapels and altars in the main church, as well as in 'ueteri scaccario'.

(17) For what follows I am indebted to both stimulus and information provided by Prof. Christopher Norton.

(18) The standard references are J. W. Clark, The Care of Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902), and B. H. Streeter, The Chained Library (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931).

(19) As per the wording of his will, pr. in Testamenta Eboracensia, 1, Surtees Soc. 4 (1836), pp. 364-71, at 365: 'Do et lego prefato Capitulo, in subsidium et releuamen librariae faciendae', which suggests that the project was already under way.

(20) This may be implied by the will's 'subsidium et releuamen'.

(21) This conclusion is supported by the observation of John Leland, who visited the library in late 1539: 'In biblioteca S. Petri, quam Flaccus Albinus, alias Alcuinus, subinde miris laudibus extollit, propter insignem copiam librorum, tum Latinorum cum Graecorum, iam fere bonorum librorum nihil est. Exhausit enim hos thesauros (ut pleraque alia) & Danica immanitas, & Gulielmi Nothi uiolentia': Ioannis Lelandi Antiquarii Collectanea, ed. by T. Hearne (rev. edn., London: Benjamin White, 1770), IV, pp. 36-7.

How to cite

Rodney M. Thomson, 'The Manuscript Libraries of English Cathedrals before the Reformation and the Case of York', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2015, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=51, accessed 29 November 2020