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13 January 2007

Devon Book 24

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
24: Libraries on the eve of the Reformation

On the eve of the Reformation a survey of monastic libraries in the region was made by John Leland. Leland had been born in London in about 1503 and had been educated at Cambridge, Oxford and Paris. His studies brought him into contact with a range of humanist scholars and developed his interests in poetry and history. In 1530 he was appointed to a post in the royal libraries and in 1533 he was commissioned by Henry VIII to undertake a survey of monastic libraries and list their major contents, a task which was to take him until about 1540, by which time the dissolution has been completed. His visit to the Westcountry appears to have taken place in about 1533 during which he took in Ford, Newenham, Dunkeswell, Exeter, Totnes, Buckfast, Plympton and Hartland in Devon when, beside listing the contents of the libraries, he also took down various historical notes. These visits encouraged his fascination for antiquarian travels and lead him to undertake at least one more independent visit to Devon in 1542 as part of what he termed his itineraries. In 1545 he reported to the King that he had amassed sufficient notes to complete a series of books describing the history, famous individuals and topography of the kingdom. This project was curtailed by his becoming incurably insane in 1547 followed soon after by his death in 1552. The bulk of Leland's writings remained in manuscript, most of the surviving items passing to the Bodleian Library in 1632. The antiquary William Harrison, who contributed topographical material to Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1577 had access to the manuscripts and described them as "books utterly mangled, defaced with wet and weather, and finally, unperfect through want of sundry volumes". The library lists were published as part of Leland's Collectanea in 1715 (Chandler). The manuscript is neatly written with gaps left for Buckland and Barnstaple, which presumably he hoped to visit later.

In Ford Abbey he noted the presence of the Homilies of Gilbert, Bishop of Hereford and several works by Stephanus Canuar:, presumably Stephen Langdon (c1150-1228). There are also several works by John, known as Devonius, the Abbot of Ford Abbey from 1190 to 1220, including 120 homilies and his gloss on Jeremiah. In his time, according to Fuller, Ford Abbey had more learning within its walls than any three convents of the same size anywhere in England. There was also in the library at Ford a medical text and Isidore's De viris illustribus. Unusual items in Buckfast Abbey included the study of Nicholas Trivet (1258-1328) on the tragedies of Seneca and his history of the world from the beginning to the birth of Christ. As in the case of Ford Abbey local writers were represented, in this case William Slade, a monk at Buckfast in 1380. His questions on the soul and his Flores moralium were among the works present. In Tavistock and in Hartland Abbey Leland remarked on medical books. He did not set out to provide an exhaustive catalogue of the libraries in each foundation, but the extracts he gives indicate that significant collections of books were available in all parts of the county in the late middle ages (Leland, v. 3, 150-3).

This page last updated 25 Jan 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.