Chaining books was widespread practice in European libraries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance period – the earliest form of a security system, reflecting the value and importance of the book. This month Dr Rosemary Firman, Librarian at Hereford Cathedral, has kindly written an article about its renowned Chained Library. Photographs are copyright of the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral.
The origins of Hereford Cathedral Library go back to at least the early 11th century, but only one complete book survived the destruction of the Cathedral during a border skirmish in 1055. This is the Hereford Gospels, ca. 800, a rare example of an insular book from the West of the British Isles and possibly the oldest extant book made in Wales. In the 12th century the library was built up at the same time as the Cathedral was being reconstructed: it was an indispensable part of the Cathedral’s development as a regional centre of learning. The Chained library still contains over eighty 12th-century books, over half of which bear evidence of having been at Hereford in the 12th century. Some of these have idiosyncratic decorative details or binding styles which suggest they were made locally, but where exactly they were made is a mystery. The Cathedral, being a secular foundation of mainly non-residentiary priests, is unlikely to have had a scriptorium.
In 1582 the Queen’s Commission found the library in a state of neglect and the resulting statutes laid down rules for its care. In 1590 the library was moved from a cloister room into the redundant Lady Chapel and by 1597 the books were being chained. Accounts in the Cathedral archives, still in the Cathedral’s care, date the commencement of the construction of the famous Chained Library to 1611, showing that the woodwork was made by a local carpenter, but metalwork was ordered from Oxford. The key mover in this was Thomas Thornton (c.1541-1629), a canon of Christ Church Oxford and also precentor and master of the library of Hereford Cathedral. Thornton was familiar with the recently-completed Duke-Humfrey’s Library and may have been involved in the refurbishment of the library at Christ Church along similar lines, begun in 1610. He was adamant that Hereford’s library should be ‘nothing inferior to that in Oxon’. The Chained Library remained in the Lady Chapel and continued to be added to until 1841, when it was dismantled to allow the renovation of the East end. The long story of how it was reconstructed, which reads at times like a detective novel, is told in Burnett H. Streeter’s The Chained Library (London, 1931).
Today the modern library continues to provide books and information in support of the very varied needs of the Cathedral community. The donor’s book, begun in 1611, shows that gifts and bequests, mainly from the canons, were of huge importance, and such is still the case today. Other important collections which have become part of the library include the library of the Jesuit College of St Francis Xavier, seized in 1679, the library of the Hereford Cathedral College of Vicars Choral, and the chained library of All Saints’ Church, Hereford, originally the private collection of Dr William Brewster (1665-1715).
Since 1996 the Chained Library has been housed in a purpose-built building, alongside the Hereford Mappa Mundi, in controlled environmental conditions. They are the highlights of an interpretative exhibition which includes changing displays from the collections of the Library and Archives. Over the summer holidays this year ‘The Hereford Illuminations’ showcases ten of our finest medieval manuscript books and the Hereford Magna Carta (1217) is out on display.
Above the Chained Library is a Reading Room for the library and archives which includes a modern lending and reference library open to all, free of charge, continuing a library and archives tradition which can be traced back a thousand years. Details of over two-thirds of the historic books and almost all our modern books are on our online catalogue. Further information about the library and archives, the Hereford Mappa Mundi and Chained Library exhibition, and our current joint research project with the University of Swansea on the 17th-century Jesuit library can be found at the link below.