A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
23: The Cathedral Library
After the departure of Boniface the Monastery of St. Mary and St. Peter continued to house a community of monks and nuns which appears to have been served by two separate churches. The monastery must have become a notable centre of learning, indeed in 932 King Athelstan saw fit to bestow one third of his extensive collection of relics on the monastery. The large number of Breton and Frankish saints reflect Athelstan's sphere of influence. Among them are relics of St Basil and it is perhaps significant that a fragment of a Vita Sancti Basilii dating from the early tenth century has been found in a binding of a Cathedral manuscript. Perhaps 25 surviving manuscripts and manuscript fragments associated with Exeter date from before the arrival of Leofric and the dissolving of the monastery but some of them could have arrived in the City at a later date. Other early fragments from Exeter Cathedral bindings include a benedictional, a missal and a copy of Orosius. A fragment of an eighth-century Lectionary survives as folio 75 of the British Library Ms. Tiberius B.v. The leaf bears the reading from St. Matthew for the Friday after Easter. It is in the Irish tradition rather than following the version to be found in the Codex Amiatinus, now Ms. Amiatino 1 of the Laurentian Library in Florence. By the 930s the Lectionary appears to have been no longer in regular use, perhaps because it had been replaced by an Amiatinus version, but it was still considered sacred enough to have legal documents inscribed on it. Part of the text was scraped clean with pumice and an agreement describing the functions of the newly established guild of Exeter was inscribed. The leaf was later used during the brief reign of Edwy (955-959) to record the manumission of Abunot Alfnoth, the sacristan of the monastery, and again towards the end of the century to record the manumission of Wulfgyth by Hunnaflaed. The practice of inscribing legal instruments on gospel books was common in the middle ages as the sacred texts were held to give an added sanction to the agreements entered into.
A tenth-century manuscript possibly associated with the monastery is to be found in the Calendar affixed to the British Library Ms. Cotton Nero A.ii, which has entries for various local saints and a prayer and poem relating to the benefactor Athelstan also inscribed in it.
In 968 the secular monks at Exeter were expelled as part of Dunstan's reforms and the Benedictine order was introduced by introducing a group of monks from Glastonbury under Sideman who was abbot to 977 and Bishop of Crediton from 973. This would have required new service books and calendars, and it was probably as part of this reform that the calendar in the manuscript known as the Leofric Missal (Bodleian Library Ms. Bodley 579) was copied for Exeter from a Glastonbury exemplar. The missal itself was written in northern France, perhaps at St Vaast. It also contains a list of the relics at Exeter.
Dating from the later tenth century are two groups of manuscripts associated with Exeter. The first includes the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the largest of only four codices of Old English. Besides the riddles already referred to, it also provides the only source for a wide range of poems of Christian and pagan inspiration and is generally considered to originate from south west England. In a very similar hand are Isidorus De fide (Bodleian Library Ms. Bodley 319) and a copy of Bede (Lambeth Palace Library Ms. 149) which bears a dedication to St Mary dated 1018. It has been conjectured that this group of manuscripts can be associated with a scriptorium based in Exeter. Another group of manuscripts is associated with a scriptorium at St Augustine's Canterbury: Cassianus De instituto monachorum (Bodleian Ms Auct D infra 2.9), Boethius De consolatione and Persius Satirae (both in Bodleian Library Ms. Auct F.1.15). The first and last of these bear an inscription by Bishop Leofric and can be identified with titles mentioned in his list of donations, so they may have reached Exeter later.
In 1003 the Danes under Sweyn sacked Exeter and the monastery would have been severely affected. However from 1014 there was a brief flowering under the patronage of ealdorman Athelweard who in 1018 presented to the monastery a finely written manuscript of Bede's Exposition on the Apocalypse with which was bound Augustine's De adulterinis coniugiis (now Lambeth Palace Library Ms. 149).Two other manuscripts which were perhaps acquired during the period of Aethelweard's patronage are Egbert's Penitential (Bodleian Library Ms. Bodley 718) and a discourse on Athelstan's gift of relics to the monastery of Exeter, bound in with Leofric's Gospels (Bodleian Library Ms. Auct. D.2.16).
Soon after 1018 Aethelweard appears to have been exiled and a period of decline may have set in although Cnut confirmed its privileges in 1019. When in 1050 Leofric, Bishop of Crediton, moved his see to Exeter, according to Leland, only eight monks remained who, Hooker tells us, were transferred to Westminster and the monastery, after an existence of almost four centuries, was closed down.
According to the list of Leofric's donations found in Bodleian Library Ms. Auct. D.2.16 he found very few books at the Minster when he arrived, only one capitularium, one aged vesper book one epistolarium and two ancient lectionaries, very fragile. These five books are all service books and there may have been a few other manuscripts, perhaps including some of those mentioned earlier, still preserved at the Minster.
However a dozen or so books is a feeble number to serve a cathedral, even a new one, and the sixty books that Leofric brought with him or gave to the Cathedral between 1050 and 1072 must have increased the value of the collection considerably. Leofric was educated in Lothringen and the secular canons that he brought with him lived under the rule of Chrodegang of Metz (died 766), which was almost monastic in its severity. Among the books in the list of Leofric's donations is Regula canonicorum by his fellow Lothringian Chrodegang. Of the other 26 service books those that can still be identified show strong Lothringian influence, for example one of the "ii fulle maesse-bec", now Bodleian Library Ms. Bodley 579, better known as the Leofric Missal and the "i collectaneum", now the British Library Harleian Ms. 2961, known as the Leofric Collectar. There are three psalters, the third, listed as "se thriddan, swa man singth on Rome", being the type commonly used in England and probably thus specified to distinguish it from the other two, which were probably in the Gallican style preferred by Leofric. Other service books include gospels (Christes-bec), epistolaries (pistel-bec), antiphonals (sang-bec) and lectionaries (raeding-bec).
A number of manuscripts have been considered to have similarities of handwriting which could associate them with a scriptorium organised by Bishop Leofric (Conner 1993). They include Corpus Christi Library Ms. 191 which includes Chrodegang's Regula canonicorum, a pontifical (now British Library Ms. Add. 28,188) a psalter (now British Library Ms. Harley 863) and the collectar mentioned above (British Library Ms. Harley 2961).
The donation list itself is in Old English, and the vernacular had wide use among clerics in this period. Nine manuscripts survive with Leofric's curse inscribed on them both in Latin and in English: "Bishop Leofric gave this book to the Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Exeter for the use of his successors; if anyone bears it away from here he will be eternally cursed". None of these nine items is now in the Cathedral Library but the effectiveness of the curse on those who abstracted them has not been recorded. In English too are at least four of the items in Leofric's list: a gospel book, a penitential, Alfred's translation of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and, the greatest treasure of all, "an mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum thingum on leothwisan geworht" - a large English book on various subjects written in verse - referring of course to the Exeter Book of English poetry.
Of the group of manuscripts associated on stylistic grounds with a possible Exeter scriptorium several are in the vernacular. They include the works of Aelfric (Cambridge University Library Ms. Hh.1.10), Alfred's translation of Gregory's Regula pastoralis (Cambridge University Library Ms. Ii.2.4) a martyrology (Corpus Christi Library Ms. 196) and two books of homilies (British Library Cotton Ms. Cleopatra B.xiii and Lambeth Palace Library Ms. 489)
Of the 135 surviving manuscripts that Neil Ker (1964, 81-85) has identified as belonging to the medieval Cathedral library at Exeter only fifteen (including five over which there is some doubt) are wholly or partly in English. However all of them are eleventh century or earlier. After Leofric's time the vernacular seems to have been frowned on. The 1327 inventory appears to list no works in English except for a group of items which the assessors did not even feel it worth their while to value: "Many other books worn out by age, written in French, English or Latin, which are not assessed because they are accounted of no value." This job lot must have included the Exeter Book which, from its markings, appears at some stage in its life to have served as a beer mat.
After Leofric's death the Cathedral library grew steadily to become the hub of learning in the diocese. To the east Glastonbury and Wells were the nearest centres of a size to rival Exeter. Certainly the monastic foundations in Devon had collections of books, and manuscripts survive today from Buckfast, Buckland, Canonsleigh, Dunkeswell, Exeter, Forde (now in Dorset), Hartland, Newenham, Pilton, Plympton, Tavistock and Totnes. The collegiate churches of Crediton and Ottery also boasted important collections, often considerably enlarged by individual bequests. In the fifteenth century the register of Bishop Edmund Lacey (iii, fo. 513v) contains a list of 137 books bequeathed to Ottery by John Exceter, clericus. These books, which were to be chained in the library, were mostly written by the donor himself.
None of these collections however would have rivaled the library at Exeter Cathedral once the impetus established by Leofric was truly under way. The main period of growth appears to have been in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries to judge from the dates assigned to the production of the surviving manuscripts by Neil Ker. Of the 135 known surviving manuscripts 45, exactly one third, were written in the twelfth century. Many are now in the Bodleian Library, and examination shows that they were probably produced not in a scriptorium at Exeter, but in Normandy with which Devon had close links, not least through the supply of Caen stone for the fabric of the Cathedral. They were probably the gifts of successive Bishops of Exeter including Bishop Osbern (1072-1103) and his successor Bishop William Warelwast (1107-37). The name of Bishop Bartholomew (1161-84) is found in a twelfth century book of sermons (Bodleian Library Ms. Bodley 449), presumably as a donor.
The growth of the medieval Cathedral Library in the centuries after Leofric's donation list of c1072 with its 65 volumes can be charted largely through the survival of two other catalogues, one made in 1327 and the other made in 1506. By 1327 the Cathedral had 350 volumes in its possession, plus the indefinite number of unlisted books "worn out by age" mentioned above and by 1506 this number had grown to some 625, not all of them held in the library itself.
In the 15th century this growing collection had been accommodated in a new library. Bishop Brantingham (1370-94) ordered that a library be constructed so that the books could be "faithfully conserved" and in 1412 some 40 weeks were spent preparing the lectrinum or reading room over the east cloister. Two carpenters, Hamond Jakyl and Henry Atwater, were paid 6d and 5d a day respectively and they were assisted occasionally by two sawyers. A large number of books was also refurbished. William Hayward was paid £6/-/- and his servant Richard £1/16/8 for sewing and binding the books. Although most of this work was undertaken in Exeter, 52 books were sent to Ashburton. The cost of calf and sheepskin, vellum, leather, brass for clasps, cords, needles and other materials brought the total to £18/15/8½d (Lloyd 1967, 6). The expenditure of 4/6d on chains for the library is also recorded in 1412/3 and a further 18/8d for 28 chains in 1413/4. There are also further mentions of the library in the fabric rolls: the library window was repaired in 1425/6; indeed by 1448 the Cathedral authorities had closed the right of way through the cloisters because the windows in the chapter house and library were regularly broken by young people playing unlawful games, including tennis (Shillingford). More significant are payments of 6/8d in 1434/5 and 1435/6 to Richard Horidge, an annuellar, for looking after the library.
The layout of the library can be reconstructed from the list of 1506. There were eleven desks in all, the first six being along the east wall and the next five along the west wall. The place which would otherwise have been occupied by a twelfth desk was taken up by the entrance, with a small collection of eight chained books next to it. The number of volumes at each desk averaged about 30 but ranged widely from 14 at the first desk to 49 at the ninth desk. These would presumably have been chained and the 40 or so unchained books out of the total of 374 which were housed in the library may have been scattered throughout the emptier desks. If the listing is an accurate shelf-list there appears to have been little order in the arrangement of the books although books in several volumes were housed together. (Oliver 1861 366-75).
The Library was very much the working collection of the Cathedral with 43% of its contents in 1506 being made up of Bibles and service books of various kinds, relatively few of which have survived. The works of the church fathers, which made up 24% of the collections in 1327 have fared much better, some 60% of the church fathers having survived overall, while for some writers virtually the whole of the medieval stock has been preserved. Leofric left almost no works by the major church fathers and the building up of this section of the library appears from the surviving manuscripts to have been a deliberate policy of Leofric's immediate successors who seem to have commissioned manuscripts from Norman scriptoria. Ker identifies a group of 22 such manuscripts, four of them in a hand so similar that they may have been written by the same scribe. Osbern's contemporary in Durham, William of St. Carilef, who died in 1096 was also commissioning works from Norman scriptoria at this time. Osbern may have been responsible for the survival of the Exeter version of the Domesday Book among the Cathedral archives.
The next largest group of books was made up of law books, both canon and civil, reflecting the Cathedral's role in diocesan administration. They accounted for some 16% of the stock in 1506. Classical writers were poorly represented, only 14 titles, or 2% of the stock in 1506, apparently an actual decrease in numbers since 1327.
More interesting is the representation of later writers in the Library, reflecting the clergy's attempt to develop their collections in a variety of fields. Among fourteenth century writers are Giovanni Boccaccio, William Brito, Ranulf Higden, Robert Holcot, Thomas Ringstede and Robert Waldeby. Subjects covered, apart from theology, include history, medicine, astronomy and mathematics. In view of the important role of the Cathedral in education, officials there being responsible for the song school, the grammar school and lectures in theology, there is little evidence of grammars or works on logic, although these may have been the personal property of the schoolmasters. Also absent are works of literature, although neither of the later lists deign to mention the Library's greatest treasure, the Exeter Book of Old English poetry.
This page last updated 25 Feb 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.