Unchained, but not unchanged: Encountering books and their history in Lambeth Palace Library (Part 2)

Continuing our guest post on chained libraries and book shelving by Becky Loughead from the Society of Antiquaries Library. Catch up with Part 1 here.

The practice of chaining books to bookshelves began to die out by the middle of the 17th century and the mass availability of cheaply printed books meant chained libraries were redundant by the 1800s. By this stage it had also become the norm in non-chained collections to shelve books the other way around – with the spine facing outwards. But surprisingly, even after the introduction of the printing press, it took time for this shift to happen.

A contributing factor was the way books were bound and how book binding and decoration evolved. In the medieval period, less-expensively produced books often circulated unbound or with a simple sheet of parchment as a cover. Those which were bound had gatherings of quires sewn together or sewn on to leather cords or thongs, running horizontally across the spine. They were threaded through holes drilled into wooden boards which would then be covered with leather. The leather could be course and uneven, making it difficult to write directly on to the cover or the spine.

Detail of books with clasps and fore-edge titles from a portrait of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, 1544-5, by Gerlach Flicke. (NPG 535)

So, to make life easier, the book’s title, author, or both might be written along the fore-edge itself or on to a vellum fore-edge label. Most of the surviving examples of this in Lambeth Palace Library are found in the early printed books collection – from the early modern period onwards, book collectors and institutions throughout the centuries had their books bound and re-bound, during which process the pages might be trimmed, and any fore-edge text or decoration lost as a result.

Summa divinarum ac naturalium difficilium quaestionum, 1506, H890.T2**
Pragmatica sanctio et cōcor, 1530, H1938.(R6)**

Some have their writing or labels on the head or tail of the book, suggesting that this was the part that would have been visible on the shelf.

Divine Opticks, 1655, A60.6/D61
Commentarii ac disputationes in primam secundae S. Thomae, 1608, H890.T4V*

Sometimes fore-edges were illustrated. Early English examples typically used heraldic designs, often in gold and colour. This was a means of showing ownership at first glance – and by extension, the wealth, power and literary credentials of their owner. These printed books from 1598, left, have the crest of Archbishop Richard Bancroft, who founded Lambeth Palace Library in 1610. Bancroft bequeathed some 5,600 printed books and 400 manuscripts to successive Archbishops of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.

It wasn’t until into the 16th century when books started to be turned around. It appears this originated in private libraries, when wealthy owners had their books expensively rebound and decorated along the spines. Personal libraries became a fashionable (and expected) feature of the manors and country houses of well-to-do-families; books were placed in free-standing cabinets or bookcases lining the wall, becoming part of the furniture.

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 13th August 1666: “…I to Paul’s Church-yarde, to treat with a bookbinder, to come and gild the backs of all my books, to make them handsome, to stand in my new presses…”. With books reversed, titles eventually made their way on to spines, and the trend of shelving books ‘backwards’ (to the medieval eye) spread to become the norm.  After the last chained libraries – save a very small few preserved for their historical interest – got rid of their chains and re-shelved their books spine-out, the earlier practice was all but forgotten.

Psalter including 150 Psalms translated into English by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, probably published in 1567. Parker had his own private bindery established at Lambeth Palace, which produced this beautifully decorated binding. (E1440.P2**)

And yet, the image of an antiquated library furnished with wooden shelves and stuffed full of dusty, leather-bound books, chained or locked away, remains curiously enduring. In popular culture it has become associated with the fantastical – from Harry Potter sneaking into the Hogwart’s Library Restricted Section (filmed in a former chained library, Duke Humphrey’s Library in the Bodleian, Oxford), the Citadel Library in Game of Thrones – to the Library of Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, famously overseen by its orangutan Librarian (“ook!”). These mysterious libraries are guarded to prevent the secrets of their books from being discovered by enquiring minds, or even chained to stop the most magical and dangerous books from escaping themselves!

Happily, most of manuscripts and printed books are freely available to be consulted in the Reading Room at Lambeth Palace Library (without the worry of them snarling when opened!). There is still a lot of work to be done, however, to add more detailed physical description to our catalogue records in our online printed books catalogue – few entries currently note if the book has a fore-edge title, for example. But our rare books librarians are hard at work cataloguing the Sion College Library collection in detail, including all sorts of provenance information, binding and physical description that might be useful to researchers. No doubt more insights into this fascinating chained collection will yet come to light. Watch this space!

The Sion College Library collection needs you! To help us identify ownership evidence including bookplates, inscriptions, bindings and marginalia in Sion College Library books, please visit the Sion College Library Provenance Project.

References and further reading:

The chained library: a study of four centuries in the evolution of the English library, Burnett Hillman Streeter. Macmillan, 1931.

The English library before 1700: studies in its history, edited by Francis Wormald and C. E. Wright. Athlone Press, 1958.

Chain, chest, curse: Combating book theft in Medieval times, Erik Kwakkel, medievalbooks.nl, published July 10th, 2015.

Reading in restraint: The last chained libraries, Allison Meier. AtlasObscura.com, published May 8th, 2014.

Libraries used to chain their books to shelves, with the spines hidden away, Colin Schultz. Smithsonian.com, published September 6th, 2013.

The last of the great chained libraries, Jenny Weston. medievalfragments.wordpress.com, published May 10th 2013.

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