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The preservation of libraries

by Craig Martin on 2020-05-06T09:10:24+01:00 in History | Comments

In the 5th century the Roman Empire moved east and metamorphosed into the Byzantine Empire. It took with it former philosophies on education. Many classical Greek and Roman texts were preserved and copied in their libraries. The great Library of Alexandria continued to thrive as did Imperial libraries. The Imperial Library of Constantinople was the largest library in Europe holding over 100,000 texts.

With the decline of the western empire classical learning migrated to the Islamic world, where Greek science and mathematics texts were translated into Arabic. With the arrival of papermaking technology from China in the 8th century, classical knowledge spread around the Islamic world.

The collapse of the Roman Empire enabled Christianity to expanded across Europe and saw the establishment of the early medieval Church. The Church actively preserved Christian texts, transcribing works from scrolls into codex. However the Hellenistic culture was viewed as pagan and many Greek texts were lost. A few private libraries survived owned by the nobility.

In the 10th century the Benedictine monasteries spread across Western Europe. They encouraged an appreciation of knowledge by preserving texts, promoting literacy and learning. The Rule of St Benedict of Nursia set guidelines on how monks should live, which actively promoted reading, studying and learning. They had special rooms, scriptorium for copying and transcribing manuscripts. Some were highly decorated, known as illuminated manuscripts; their text was enhanced with decorated boarders, initials, and miniature illustrations.

These monasteries became repositories for manuscripts, including Greek texts. Manuscripts were written in Latin [manu (by hand) scriptus (written)] - with quills made from bird feathers. Penna is the Latin for feather, and the origin of the modern word pen. Latin continued to be the formal language of the Church, education, legal and political establishments throughout the Middle Ages. Monasteries regularly borrowed exemplars from other institutions, across Europe, to make copies of texts. By the medieval period monasteries had amassed large libraries, including religious and secular subjects.

Sally Dummer
Library Assistant

Before working at the Library, Sally Dummer was a Roman Archaeologist. She held positions at Newcastle upon Tyne University and Glasgow University. Later she became Keeper of Archaeology in Ipswich and worked on Compass at the British Museum.

  • Read Sally's other post about the history of libraries here 

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