Reviewed by Elaine Treharne (Florida State University)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2010)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn (University of Western Ontario)
Recovering the Past: The Anglo-Saxon Library
The five chapters of the The Anglo-Saxon Library are based on Michael Lapidge’s three E. A. Lowe Lectures in Palaeography, given at the University of Oxford in 2002. In addition to the 132 pages emerging from the lectures there is a hefty 210-page sequence of appendices, and a “Catalogue of Classical and Patristic Authors and Works Composed before 700AD and Known in Anglo-Saxon England.” This “Catalogue,” Lapidge tells us, “is intended as a replacement for [J. D. A.] Ogilvy’s Books Known to the English 597-1066” (1967) (p. vii). The appendices, for their part, provide details of Latin book inventories from Anglo-Saxon libraries and German libraries in the areas evangelized by Anglo-Saxon missionaries (appendices A and B); lists of eighth- and ninth-century manuscripts from the same areas of Germany and of Continental origin, but English pre-Conquest provenance (appendices C and D); and “Latin Books Cited by the Principal Anglo-Saxon Authors” (appendix E). Appendix E includes Theodore and Hadrian of Canterbury, Aldhelm, Bede, Alcuin, the Old English Martyrology author, Asser, Lantfred, Abbo, Wulfstan of Winchester, Ælfric, and Byrhtferth of Ramsey. As Lapidge points out, some of this material owes much to the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici project, and to his own extensive and exceptional work on these particular authors. Given the breadth and detail of information available in the Fontes database, I should have liked to see Wulfstan of York included in this list, but even so, these appendices and the “Catalogue” will serve textual historians well, and make this book indispensable.
In the five main chapters of The Anglo-Saxon Library, Lapidge begins with a stimulating discussion of the lost libraries of classical antiquity. His definition of “library” is important, too; for Lapidge, “a library is a collection of books acquired and arranged for the purposes of study and the pursuit of knowledge” (p. 1). This specificity means that Lapidge feels justified in omitting liturgical book collections, though quite what justifies the omission of all vernacular books and book collections is not as clear. In the first chapter, then, Lapidge focuses principally on Mediterranean libraries in the late classical world, using these to illuminate his analysis in chapter 2 of Anglo-Saxon libraries, which have also vanished. The library at Alexandria, for example, might have housed the equivalent of eighty thousand modern books, all of which were available for research by scholars until its destruction, possibly in the third century AD. The contents of other early libraries, and especially those in Greece, were seized by the Romans, and taken into the private possession of individuals, some as notable as Sulla. It was at the height of the Roman Empire that public libraries emerged, including the Bibliotheca Ulpia, built by Trajan, and now meticulously excavated. Among the surprises from these Roman libraries is the discovery of papyrus roll winders to facilitate the negotiation of that unwieldy text technology.
In “Christian Libraries of the Patristic Period,” the final section of chapter 1, Lapidge briefly assesses what we know of the libraries of some of the church fathers, dwelling momentarily on Cassiodorus’s library at Vivarium, revealed in the Institutiones, which describes the library’s resources and layout to its users. Of the many volumes in that library, only about seven manuscripts remain, vividly illustrating how great are the losses. What is clear from this overview, as Lapidge points out, though, is how vibrant the production and use of books in the Mediterranean in the late classical period was, and how some of those books belonging to libraries, like Pope Gregory’s on the Caelian Hill, will have found their way to a Christianized Anglo-Saxon England in the late sixth and seventh centuries; it is to these now-vanished English libraries that Lapidge turns in chapter 2.
By scouring the sources used by Anglo-Saxon authors, together with evidence from extant manuscripts, Lapidge pieces together the Latin contents of English libraries between the seventh and eleventh centuries; these include Nursling monastery in Boniface’s day, and a quick survey of King Alfred’s “restocking” of libraries. And it is from this broad-brush picture that Lapidge moves into chapters 3-5, where the analysis of the volume lies in the marshalling of evidence to permit the virtual reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon libraries from the scrutiny of book inventories (chapter 3), the testimony of extant manuscripts (chapter 4), and the interrogation of authors’ citations (chapter 5).
Thirteen inventories survive from Anglo-Saxon libraries (all discussed by Lapidge in previous significant publications), which is modest by comparison with classical libraries in preceding centuries, with contemporary continental libraries and with post-Conquest English libraries. Analyzing this kind of evidence is clearly problematic, as Lapidge is well aware: the list in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 3, possibly from late eleventh-century Worcester (and arguably not “Anglo-Saxon” at all) contains sixty items, most of which are classroom texts or liturgical books. The latter do not feature in Lapidge’s discussion, of course, while the former are adjudged to be “a collection of books intended for classroom use rather than an inventory of the holdings of a cathedral church” (p. 54). Such a judgment suggests that there is a specific kind of inventory that will yield precisely the information required to assess the contents of the “typical” Anglo-Saxon library (if such a thing ever existed). This list is clearly selective--belonging to a grammarian, Lapidge suggests--a private collection, as so many collections (like Leofric’s books donated to his see at Exeter) must have been. This might go some way to explaining why, unlike Continental libraries that had armaria, as commented on by Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon libraries “appear simply to have been stored in book-chests,” called arca (glossed as boochord in the Antwerp Glossary) (p. 61). This seems to confirm for Lapidge the relatively small scale of the library in Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical institutions, since the use of arca, as he points out, “could scarcely accommodate a very large library” (p. 62). What Lapidge might also consider is the evidence that he himself suggests from inventories (and that exists in patterns of known book owners)--that collections could be private, even within a religious house--and thus a library might, in these circumstances, only be recognizable as the non-constituted sum of its individually owned parts.
Chapter 4, on extant manuscript evidence, takes stock not only of what survives, but also of the substantial number of books that have vanished. Of Aldhelm’s library, for example, there seems to be nothing retrievable, though it is possible to glean scraps of information from texts that do survive about what might have been lost. Chapter 5 explores, in convincing detail, the extensive evidence that can be drawn on in the writings of Anglo-Saxon authors, whose use of earlier and contemporary sources bears witness to the range of material available in libraries, whether in florilegia or in authorially discrete textual units. And it is here that Lapidge, with his incomparable knowledge of Anglo-Latin literature, also draws on the excellent resources of Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, as well as the continuing American project, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture. The picture that emerges is dense and complicated, as can swiftly be exemplified by Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s apparent use of Julianus Pomerius, which would be the only reference to his De uita contemplatiua in Anglo-Saxon England (p. 123). However, the extensive quotation in question is taken by Byrhtferth not from Pomerius, but from Haymo of Auxerre’s mediation. In much the same way that Joyce Hill has so frequently pointed out in reference to Ælfric, the use of quotations by these earlier medieval authors is often much more complex and multilayered than it seems. This use of quotations, together with all of the evidence surveyed in chapters 3 and 4 is supported by the five appendices, which themselves form intensely stimulating sets of information for scholars to use in their own research for years to come.
Lapidge concludes by reiterating that Anglo-Saxon libraries were not large, and that Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in its heyday might have been the largest with perhaps more than two hundred volumes (p. 127). The libraries contained core patristic materials, as well as historical texts and classroom staples, and their principal purpose was “the interpretation of Scripture and the regulation of the Church” (p. 128). Lamenting the loss of so much evidence, Lapidge compares the desolate scene facing modern scholars with that faced by Adso of Melk at the end of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (1980). However, in choosing to present only the Anglo-Latin books, and a selection of Anglo-Saxon authors (surely a necessary expedient given that these chapters were based on three lectures), we lose sight of the other side of Anglo-Saxon book production and use--the hundreds of manuscripts containing English that testify to a dynamic parallel textual culture, separate from Continental analogies and beyond comparison. That is a history that--from the perspective of the book historian--still remains to be written. What Lapidge has given us in The Anglo-Saxon Library is the detailed, lucid, and expert foundation for subsequent work to build on.
. Michael 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. Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 33-89.
. For example, Joyce Hill, “Authority and Intertextuality in the Works of Ælfric,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 131 (2005): 157-181, which is The Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture for 2004.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Elaine Treharne. Review of Lapidge, Michael, The Anglo-Saxon Library.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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