The Most Learned Man in Europe

Tom Shippey

  • The Anglo-Saxon Library by Michael Lapidge
    Oxford, 407 pp, £65.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 19 926722 7

The Anglo-Saxons had no libraries in the sense that we understand the word: rooms, or better still buildings, dedicated to the storage of books. St Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a Latin riddle with the title arca libraria, but what that means is, clearly, ‘book-box’. Very few Anglo-Saxons had access to enough books to warrant even a bookshelf. As Michael Lapidge tells us, they kept their ‘libraries’ in boxes, and when an Anglo-Saxon scholar ‘wished to consult a book, he got down on his hands and knees and rummaged round in the chest until he came upon the book he required’. Neither the boxes nor their contents have survived, destroyed by the traditional enemies of learning: time, fire, Vikings, but perhaps more than anything reformers and reforming librarians. Lapidge’s book might have been subtitled, ‘An Enquiry into Works Available to Anglo-Saxon Authors Writing in Latin, Excluding Those Purely Liturgical’. Since most of those texts have vanished, Lapidge’s book is for the most part detective work, a kind of forensic exercise in what he calls ‘palaeobibliothecography’. Its learning is immense, its results – well, not for the general reader.

Lapidge begins with what is probably the most famous, and certainly the most grandiose medieval library in modern memory: the entirely fictional one of the monastery of San Michele in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Since the layout of the library is so important to the plot of the novel, it has been possible for fans to count the number of rooms, calculate the number of shelves, and estimate the number of volumes the library contained – it comes to about 87,000. That number would be dwarfed even by a modest modern university library, but was there ever a real medieval, or classical, library which was anything like San Michele? The most likely contender is the great library at Alexandria, the Museion or ‘temple of the Muses’ established by Ptolemy I Soter around 300 BC, and expanded by his son. This had a director, a catalogue and a very large budget, together with the beginnings of a compulsory copyright act: any ship docking in Alexandria had its books impounded for copying. Almost fifteen hundred years later a Byzantine scholar noted that the library had 490,000 papyrus rolls, though Aulus Gellius says 700,000. This makes San Michele look small, but as Lapidge notes, a wound scroll did not hold as much as a codex, or book: he thinks 80,000 volumes is about right, and certainly the premodern record. It has been thought that the Museion was just a series of shelves running the length of a covered walk, but Lapidge feels sure that the kind of scholarly collation of Homer which was carried out there must have required studies, or carrels, or at any rate desks and chairs.

Not only has the library not survived, no one knows what happened to it. All we can say for sure is that it was destroyed sometime in antiquity, but no one was interested enough to record the fact. We know a little more about Roman libraries. In 238 AD the poet Serenus Sammonicus bequeathed to the Emperor Gordian a library of 62,000 rolls. A century and a quarter earlier the Emperor Trajan built the Bibliotheca Ulpia as part of his monumental forum, and it has been reconstructed in modern times. Its two rooms, one for Greek and one for Latin, faced each other across Trajan’s Column; each room had 36 floor-to-ceiling armaria or bookshelves, and if every one was filled the library might have had some twenty thousand rolls, equivalent to about five thousand volumes. It is said that there were 28 public libraries in imperial Rome, as well as many private ones, but none to compare with Trajan’s. That such libraries existed is an important factor in the survival of Latin literature: from where else would the monks of northern monasteries – often rapacious book-collectors, like American millionaires of the 19th century – have bought their manuscripts?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in