The Times/1894/News/The Rede Lecture

The Rede Lecture.

The Rede Lecture was delivered by Mr. John Willis Clark, M.A., the Registrar of Cambridge University, in the lecture room of anatomy and physiology yesterday, the subject being "The position, arrangement, and fittings of libraries during the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, with the special notes on the system of chaining books." The lecture was illustrated by lantern slides, and was open to the public, a few seats being reserved for members of the Senate and their friends.

Mr. Clark said that the methods of the Roman libraries influenced the Middle Ages, and were, in fact, the precursors of those in fashion in our own times The library era, as we might call it, of the Christian world began with the publication of the rule of St. Benedict, early in the sixth century. he did not invent literature or libraries; he only lent the sanction of his name to the study of the one and the formation of the other. That libraries existed before this period was proven by allusions to them in the Fathers and other early writers. We might fairly conclude that by the end of the 11th century Benedictine houses possessed two sets of books—(1) those which were distributed among the brethren; (2) those which were kept in some safe place, probably the church, as part of the valuables of the house; or, to adopt modern phrases, they had a lending library and a library of reference. The Augustinians went a step further than the Benedictines and the orders derived from them, for they prescribed the kind of press in which books were to be kept. It might have been expected, from the use of the word "library" in the Rule of St. Benedict, that a special room assigned to books would have been one of the primitive component parts f every Benedictine house. This, however, was not the case. Such a room did usually occur in these houses, but it would be found, on examination, that it was added to some previously existing structure in the 14th or 15th century. How, then, did they bestow their books after they had become too numerous to be kept in a church? The answer to this question was a very curious one, when we considered what our climate was, an indeed what the climate of the whole of Europe wa during the winter months. The centre of the monastic life was the cloister In the cloister accordingly the brethren kept their books; and there they sat and studied, conducted the schooling of the novices and choir boys. Such a locality as this could not have been very favourable to the preservation of the books themselves. They, however, had a certain amount of protection which was denied to their readers, for they were shut up in presses. As time went on greater comfort was introduced The Durham Rites spoke only of book-presses standing in the cloister against the walls; but it was not unusual to have recesses in the wall itself, fitted with shelves, and probably closed by a door. The number of the books would naturally increase, and by the beginning of the 15th century the larger monasteries at least had accumulated many hundred volumes. These had to be bestowed in the various parts of the house without order or selection—in presses set up wherever a vacant corner could be found—to the great inconvenience, we might be sure, of the more studious monks, or of scholars who came to consult them. To remedy such a state of things a definite room was constructed for books, in addition to the presses in the cloister, which were still retained for the books in daily use. This library was not unfrequently thrown open to scholars in general, who were allowed to borrow books from it, on execution of an indenture of deposit of a sufficient pledge. An examination of the statues affecting the library in the codes imposed upon the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge showed that their provisions were borrowed directly from the monastic customs. The resemblances were too striking to be accidental. He thought that we were justified in assuming that the internal fittings of the libraries would be identical also. When books were first placed in a separate room, fastened with iron chains, for the use of the fellows of a College or the monks of a convent, the piece of furniture used was, he took it, an elongated lectern or desk, of a convenient height for a seated reader to use. The books lay on their sides on the desk, and were attached by chains to a horizontal bar above it. There were at least two libraries in Cambridge University fitted with such desks—at the Colleges of Pembroke and Queens'; and that it was a common form abroad was proved by its appearance, towards the end of the 15th century, in a French translation of the first book of the "Consolations of Philosophy" of Boethius. The desk could not be dispensed with so long as books were chained, but one or more shelves were added to it. The system of chaining, as adopted in this country, would allow of the books being readily taken down from the shelves and laid on the desk for reading. One end of the chain was attached to the middle of the upper edge of the right-hand board; the other to a ring which played on a bar set in front of the shelf on which the book stood. The fore-edge of the books, not the back, was turned forwards. A swivel, usually in the middle of the chain, prevented tangling The chains varied in length according to the distance of the then shelf from the desk. The bar was kept in place by a rather elaborate system of iron-work attached to the end of the bookcase. In English libraries at least bookcases arranged on what he might term the Oxford type were in general use through the 16th and 17th centuries. The invention of printing had largely increased the number of volumes, and at the same time diminished their value so that the chaining was no longer necessary. When it had been abandoned neither a desk or a seat in close proximity to the books was required. In consequence, though libraries continued to be built on the ancient type with numerous windows close to the floor, it was possible to alter the old cases or to make a new ones, with a far larger number of shelves than heretofore; and when further space for books was needed, low cases were interposed between each pair of tall ones. So far as he had been able to discover, the first library arranged in the way with which we were familiar—namely, with the bookcases set against the walls instead of at right angles to them—was that of the Escurial. Among the imitators of this, he felt sure, was Cardinal Mazarin, whose library to be used daily by the public. Before concluding, Mr. Clark showed how many books were bestowed in the studies of individual scholars, whether Royal, monastic, or secular.

At its conclusion a hearty vote of thanks was accorded to the lecturer on the proposal of the Vice-Chancellor.

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