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.
LRB 8 June 2006 | PDF Download