The lost library of Canterbury Cathedral: Digital resources to reunite manuscripts and fragments

Manuscripts Under Lockdown 1:

Dr Alison Ray has worked since 2018 as Assistant Archivist at Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library, having previously worked at the British Library as Digitisation and Web Curatorial Officer with The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 digitisation project. Follow Dr Ray on Twitter.

The recent growth of palaeographical and codicological resources online has led to the development of exciting digital projects, including the recreation of medieval libraries and reuniting separated manuscripts. This post outlines some useful sources for students and researchers to get started in a similar project, using the medieval library of Canterbury Cathedral as an example. The Cathedral’s pre-Reformation library and archive records date from the 9th century and is today inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for the United Kingdom. However, the surviving collection is a fraction in size of the medieval holdings.

The Cathedral and priory of Christ Church, Canterbury was a leading centre of learning and book production from the early Middle Ages, and the library of the community was one of the largest known collections of manuscripts in medieval Britain. A surviving booklist dated before 1331 lists nearly 2,000 volumes held by the library including works of theology, grammar, music and arithmetic, and it is estimated the library held several thousand books by the dissolution of the monastic foundation in 1539. From the 1550s onwards, books were taken in large numbers into private collections, destroyed completely or recycled in parts as binding waste for later records.

The first challenge in recreating a library is to find the present location of collection manuscripts, and I recommend to beginning with the electronic database Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (MLGB3) hosted by the Bodleian Libraries. MLGB3 is features edited medieval library catalogues for British religious foundations and secular institutions, and users may browse by medieval and modern locations. The site displays 5 separate Christ Church booklists and 361 manuscripts and fragments identified with a Christ Church provenance and currently held in Britain and abroad internationally, the majority held in the British Library, Oxford and Cambridge University and college libraries. The entry for the Canterbury or Eadwine Psalter contains important details: the manuscript’s current library and shelfmark, Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.17.1; provenance evidence listed in the Psalter calendar; ownership information that the book was given to Trinity by Thomas Nevile, dean of Canterbury (c. 1548-1615); and an additional note that further illustrated leaves from the manuscript are now fragments held by the British Library, V&A Museum and Pierpont Morgan Library.

Trinity College MS R.17.1, f.283v
Portrait of Eadwine the scribe from the Eadwine Psalter, Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.17.1, f.283v. This work is copyright the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Online catalogues of individual institutions are valuable sources of provenance, text and decoration details complementing printed catalogues, and many sites including the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts and the Bodleian’s Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries can also be searched  by place and text author. The names of medieval authors and place names may vary in catalogues, and to make keyword searches easier it is useful to consult the Library of Congress Name Authority File and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names databases to find standard alternative spellings and translations of names in multiple languages including Latin approved by library professionals.

Fragments are increasingly being added to online catalogues, yet these items are often displayed out of context of their original manuscript source so they require additional textual and palaeographical research. Canterbury Cathedral holds 81 fragment leaves of a 12th-century multi-volume Passionale or saints’ lives collection (now CCA-DCc/LitMs/E/42). The Passionale was recycled in the 16th century with its leaves reused as wrappers and binding materials. Using the foliation evidence of Richard Gameson and Neil Ker, I recently re-catalogued the fragments in their original order and provide location information for other surviving fragments in the British Library and Kent History and Library Centre. The fragments were further reordered, conserved and digitised by the Cathedral’s conservation team in 2019. These leaves now have the necessary metadata information and images needed for any future digital reunification projects. Fragmentarium is one leading online resource for researching medieval manuscript fragments.

LitMs E 42
Depiction of the martyrdom of St Vincent, from a Canterbury Passionale (CCA-DCc/LitMs/E/42, f. 9r)

Finally, there are several options for displaying manuscripts and libraries online. Large-scale institutional projects can be used for guidance on how to present and arrange digital content and images, such as the Durham Priory Library Recreated website. Larger institutions provide online images that may be freely shared and downloaded through International Image Interoperability Framework (III-F) compatible viewers, which are excellent sources for digital classroom activities. The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700-1200 image database hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris is an example.  For other uses, do contact libraries for any necessary permissions of use and credit lines. Researchers could also contribute manuscript provenance details  to existing resources such as the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts or compile information with free platforms, including  MediaWiki. For example, David Shaw has used MediaWiki to create a valuable record of the provenance and history of the early printed books of Canterbury Cathedral Library from the 16th to 20th centuries.

These resources are a suggested starting point for students and researchers new to provenance research of medieval manuscripts and libraries, and these may be used by palaeography instructors as digital teaching tools to complement to traditional printed texts.  Working closely with online catalogue information and electronic databases are also a useful way for students interested in curatorial work to build their digital skill set.

Online resources:

Further reading:

  • Gameson, Richard, The Earliest Books of Canterbury Cathedral: Manuscripts and Fragments to c. 1200 (The Bibliographical Society and The British Library, in association with the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, 2008)
  • James, M.R., The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge University Press, 1903)
  • Ker, N.R., Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, Volume 2: Abbotsford – Keele (Oxford University Press, 1976)
  • Ramsay, Nigel, ‘The cathedral archives and library’, in Collinson, P., Ramsay, N. and Sparks, M. (eds.), A History of Canterbury Cathedral, 598-1982 (Oxford University Press, 1995) pp. 341-407

Alison Ray, Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library

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