Blog post

Medieval monastic book inventories

Learn about medieval book lists and how they differ from today's library catalogues

Page of a medieval manuscript
Markus Greulich (opens in new window) (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin)

Libraries are places of knowledge. Everyone who owns books and everyone who manages libraries has always wanted to know what exactly they have in their possession. This is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century, or even the Middle Ages.

Medieval book lists show us what was read where and when, and several examples have survived the centuries. Book lists provide excellent insights into cultural history and they are very diverse. First of all, in most cases they only show ownership. Unlike today’s library catalogues, they did not initially function as a finding tool. Sometimes these inventories are just short lists written down on the very first, or the very last, page of a manuscript. Some lists were written on single leaves, some inventories have a systematic approach – others just seem to list one by one. Let’s look at two very different examples.

The first is a book list from Lambach Abbey (Austria). This list was not written on separate parchment leaves, but on the very first page of the manuscript that is best known for its religious texts and miniatures. While the codex was written around 1170-1180, the entries on the first page date from around 1210.

First page of a manuscript Vitae patrum

On this – admittedly very full – first page of the manuscript we find a list of twenty titles in the middle. The titles were written one after the other in no recognisable order. These are either manuscripts that belonged to a single person in the monastery (maybe even Gotscalcus de Lambach who is mentioned on fol. 3r) or manuscripts that were given to Lambach library. Even if this list can hardly be called a book inventory, it gives us great insight into what was accessible to some of the monks in Lambach around 1200. In addition to texts that one would expect in a monastery – such as the lives of saints – there are other things to discover. The Lambach book list mentions instructive texts such as Donatus (Ars) minor – a widely used introduction to Latin grammar, but also classical texts that go far beyond learning and practising Latin as a language, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his Remedia Amoris (Love’s Remedy), or his Epistolae (Letters).

The second example is older, but much more extensive. It is the oldest book inventory of St. Gall Abbey in today’s Switzerland. It was written more than 350 years prior to the Lambach book list. The book inventory from St. Gall lists more than 400 volumes and dates from the middle of the 9th century. It is written on separate parchment leaves at the beginning of a manuscript that contains several law texts (e.g. Lex Salica).

The titles are arranged under 26 headings. In this inventory the books are sorted according to subject groups or authors. For example, the codices with texts by Augustine are collected under the heading: De libris sancti Augustini episcopi; the codices with texts of Beda Venerabilis are listed under the heading: De libris Bedae presbiteri.

The double page of the open book clearly shows that the list was worked on over several decades and that other writers have left their traces. Of course, it is obvious that books have been added. In addition, there are also entries on other pages about the current location of the books (ad scolam [in the school]) or assessments of their content (ad nihil utilia [useless]).

The St. Gall book inventory includes mainly religious and theological volumes. But there are also other volumes. For example, a series of manuscripts with different legal texts, manuscripts with historical texts, a codex with Aratus’ Phaenomena (an astronomical text), codices with Isidore’s Etymologiae (a kind of very early etymological encyclopaedia), many manuscripts on Latin grammar beside others by Donatus and Priscian, but also texts by Virgil and commentaries on his works.

An Irish manuscript with 3478 glosses (translations and small comments) in the Old Irish language.

‘Written in Insular script’

An outstanding feature of the oldest St. Gall book inventory is that it begins with a section that does not refer to the manuscript’s content. While all other sections group the manuscripts mainly according to their content, the first column is about the script itself. Under the heading Libri Scottice Scripti this first section assembles thirty manuscripts. Libri Scottice Scripti means “books in Insular script”. The term ‘Insular script’ refers to a number of medieval scripts, all based on a medieval Irish script dating back to the sixth century. Monks spread this script very quickly in Scotland as well as in Anglo-Saxon England and later in some monasteries on the western European continent such as Bobbio, Echternach or Fulda.

The left page of a manuscript shows the list of books written in Insular script

Researchers have intensively discussed the insular influence on St. Gall Abbey, named after Saint Gallus, an Irish monk and companion of Saint Columban, who is said to have built a hermitage close to the river Steinach. More than a hundred years later, the Alemanic cleric Otmar founded St. Gall Abbey on this site and served as its first abbot. The connection between St. Gall and the British Isles shows itself in several ways. For example, Irish name entries can be found in various documents. In addition, explanatory Irish entries can be found in Latin manuscripts of St. Gall’s library. Most important, however, are the insular manuscripts in the Abbey’s library itself.

In fact, St. Gall is home to one of the largest collections of Irish manuscripts and fragments from the early Middle Ages outside Ireland. Even today you can find some of these books written and decorated in Insular script in St. Gall’s library. A very fine example is The Irish Gospel Book of St. Gall (Codex Sangallensis 51) that was produced in Ireland in the middle of the eighth century.

What these book lists show is a diverse and exciting picture of textual culture present in different times and places during the Middle Ages. The inventory from St. Gall also clearly shows traces of cross-regional networking between medieval monasteries.

Unlike modern examples, the two book lists were not intended to serve as actual searching tools like a modern day catalogue. Rather, they were inventories of the works found in the library, showing an emphasis on the content of the manuscripts and the number of volumes. In the St. Gall list we see a systematic approach to make an inventory, whereas the Lambach list appears to have been drafted according to which books the scribe encountered first. Also we should be aware that we are not dealing with the full book collection. Many more books pertaining to liturgy must have been kept at other locations in the abbeys, such as in the church or the vestry, but were often left out of the lists.

Against the background of these two examples of medieval book lists, one must always remember that there were, of course, very many theological and religious manuscripts in all monasteries. In addition, the Latin language was learned with excellent books for grammar and rhetoric written e.g. by Donatus (fourth century) or Priscian (about 500). Medieval clerics learned and trained their Latin with these books as well as with old classics like Virgil and Ovid. Although there are only a few classics on the ninth-century book inventory of St. Gall, more and more ancient texts occur in later lists. The eleventh-century book inventory of Corbie Abbey names among others: Terence, Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero, and a very early Latin copy of Aristotle’s Categories, a treatise on logical thinking.

Manuscript from Corbie Abbey containing the Categories of Aristotle

Further reading

  • Johanna Jebe, „Bücherverzeichnisse als Quellen der Wissensorganisation. Ordnungspraktiken und Wissensordnungen in den karolingerzeitlichen Klöstern Lorsch und St. Gallen“, in: Speer, Andreas/Reuke, Lars [ed.], Die Bibliothek – The Library – La Bibliothèque. Denkräume und Wissensordnungen. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2020 (Miscellanea mediaevalia, 41), p. 3–28.
  • Cornel Dora and Franziska Schnoor, The Cradle of European Culture: Early Medieval Irish Book Art (Summer Exhibition 13 March until 4 November 2018). St. Gallen: Verlag am Klosterhof and Basel (Schwabe Verlag), 2018.
  • William O'Sullivan, “Manuscripts and palaeography”, in: Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí [ed.], A new history of Ireland, vol. 1: Prehistoric and early Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 511–548.
  • Kurt Holter, „Zwei Lambacher Bibliotheksverzeichnisse des 13. Jahrhunderts“, in: Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung 64 (1956), p. 262–276.
  • Robert G. Babcock, Reconstructing a Medieval Library. Fragments from Lambach. Published in conjunction with an exhibition held between July 16 and September 25, 1993, at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. New Haven, Conn.: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 1993.
  • David Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian renaissance. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1990 (Beihefte der Francia, 20).
  • Ursula Winter, Die mittelalterlichen Bibliothekskataloge aus Corbie: kommentierte Edition und bibliotheks- und wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Berlin: 1972.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.