Unchained, but not unchanged: Encountering books and their history in Lambeth Palace Library (Part 1)

Today we are excited to present a guest post from Becky Loughead, formerly of Lambeth Palace Library and now Serials & E-Resources Librarian at the Society of Antiquaries.

One of the fascinating things about working with the historic collection of Lambeth Palace Library is not just the content of the manuscripts and printed books, but the books themselves as objects. What can examining this book tell us about its past? Who owned it, sold it, bought it, gave it as a gift? What does its binding tell us? Did it once have clasps or a chain attached to it? Does it have a shelfmark or title on the outside? What can this tell us about how it was kept or stored?

Matthew the Evangelist in the MacDurnan Gospels (MS 1370)

The chances are, if you’re an avid reader, you have some book shelves at home. You probably shelve your books in the way we’re using to seeing in libraries nowadays – rows of vertical books on a shelf with their spines facing outwards. If you have a lot of books, perhaps you also have some sort of finding aid, ordering the books by author’s surname, or by genre. We’re so accustomed to seeing books laid out in this fashion that it might seems strange – or even counterintuitive – to find out that this was not always the case. In fact, it’s a relatively recent development, and one with which our Medieval and early Renaissance ancestors wouldn’t have been familiar in the libraries and book collections of the day.

The books now in Lambeth Palace Library date back to the late 9th century or early 10th century. The oldest is the stunningly illuminated MacDurnan Gospels, believed to have been written in Armagh, Ireland, and later acquired by King Aethelstan of England (925-940) who donated it to Christ Church, Canterbury.  This was a time when manuscripts were produced by monks in monasteries; an extremely labour-intensive operation involving many hours of copying text by hand. Books, therefore, were extremely valuable, so they were kept in locked chests or cupboards (‘armaria’) to keep them safe from wandering hands.

Librije Zutphen (Netherlands), a 16th-century public library with the lectern system of chaining

Some (but not all) books were chained to reading desks in a church or to lecterns in monastic cloisters. Those chained would be generally be large, heavily-used reference books, rather than the ones we might consider ‘valuable’ in a monetary sense today – these would still be kept securely locked away elsewhere. (Think about the not-for-loan books in the reference section of a modern library: you won’t find an expensive illuminated manuscript bible on the shelves, but you’d likely find a modern printed reference edition.) Chaining was an expensive practice, and some books may also have been available to be loaned under strict conditions, such as on payment of a deposit.

By the end of the medieval period, it was not only monastic institutions which had their own libraries. Universities and theological colleges likewise needed communal book collections for their students, also chaining their books to keep them from “disappearing” from the shelves. In earlier chained libraries, the books were typically chained to long, slanted reading lecterns, like pews in a church.

However, as more books were added to libraries, keeping them stored flat on slanted lecterns became more and more impractical. Some lecterns had shelves built in above or below, where books could be stacked horizontally – but this too posed logistical problems. Imagine trying to pull out your book from the bottom of a pile of heavy tomes! In the late 16th century, a continental technology was brought over to England (an early adopter was Merton College, Oxford) which would soon become the norm for libraries across the country. This was the stall system, where books could be stored upright in vertical rows in back-to-back shelving, lifted down and read on desks beneath.

The chained library of Hereford Cathedral

The best surviving example of this can still be seen at Hereford Cathedral (the Chained Library was established in 1611). A chain was attached to the fore-edge of the book, typically on the corner of the front cover, and the end of the chain was attached to a steel rod running along the bottom of each shelf. Having the spines facing inwards meant the books could be lifted down off the shelf and opened, alleviating the need to turn them around. This meant the chain wouldn’t become tangled.

The library of Sion College (a college, guild of parochial clergy, and almshouse founded in 1630) was another such chained library in its early days. In 1996, when Sion College Library was closed, its manuscripts and pre-1850 books were transferred to Lambeth Palace Library. Many of its books still show evidence of chaining.

Chained joined
Holes in the upper boards of these Sion College Library books show where a chain had once been stapled. The binding leather was damaged on the latter when the chain was later removed. (Sion Arc Octavo A46.3/AB1H and Sion Arc Quarto A52.0/T97)
Benefactors joined
The Sion College Library Benefactor’s Book, 1629-1703, was chained to a desk on display. Part of the chain is still attached. (Sion L40.2/E64)

But did chaining actually work? Unfortunately – at least for Sion College – having chains didn’t make their library theft-proof. The Benefactors’ Book describes a substantial bequest by Thomas James, who died in 1711 and left some 3,000 volumes to the college. An assessment of the collection was carried out, and it was discovered that “several of those chain’d [books], have at sundry times been broke of ye chains, and stole away, notwithstanding ye strictest diligence & attendance of the Library Keeper, and all imaginable methods that he used to prevent it.”


Another entry of 1718 reads: “The foremention’d Books are now in ye Library. But some others have been stollen; & some of these are liable to be stollen; notwithstanding their chaines, & all possible care besides.

By the late 1800s, the mass availability of cheaply printed books meant chained libraries were redundant, and the practice died out. Part two of this article will look what happened when the chains came off…

References and further reading:

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

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

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