Medieval Writing
The Private Ownership of Books (2)
Intact private libraries of medieval book owners do not tend to survive. The books themselves were subject to loss and destruction. Being valuable objects, at the deaths of their owners they were dispersed among heirs, donated to religious institutions or sold. While it may be difficult to know the exact contents of the book collections of individuals, there are various clues in surviving evidence. Nicholas Orme (Orme 1973) cites several 14th century examples of book ownership: the 28 volumes that Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick is recorded as having donated to a Cistercian monastery, a reference to a French Bible and other books in the confession of Thomas Earl of Lancaster just before he was beheaded, a list of 21 books among the possessons of Sir Simon Burley and 84 volumes belonging to Thomas Duke of Gloucester mentioned in the inquisitions after his death.
coat of arms Highly prestigious books belonging to wealthy aristocratic owners sometimes had identifying features, such as heraldry included in the miniatures or marginal decorations. Such features naturally remain even if the book has changed hands many times. The triple towered castle in the coat of arms at left indicates the book belonged to Iñigo d'Avalos, Count of Monte Odorisio and Grand Chamberlain of Naples under Ferdinand of Aragon, so I am informed.
Detail from the borders of St Augustine's De Civitate Dei, copy from before 1485 from Italy, probably Naples (British Library, 15246, f.29). Images from The New Palaeographical Society, 1911.
The famous image from the dedication page of the Luttrell Psalter, of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell on his caparisoned horse with his coats of arms displayed on everything including his womenfolk, is a fine example of how the private ownership of a prestigious book was part of the general significata of social worth.
Geoffrey Luttrell
Luttrell Psalter (British Library, add. ms. 42130, f.202v, formerly in Lulworth Castle Library), c.1340. Click on image for a larger view.
Evidence of ownership does not have to be in the form of elaborate decoration. Owners inscribed their books on the flyleaves, and even in the margins of pages within the texts. It is possible to even identify successive owners of books in this way. In fact, with the use of an ultra-violet light, it is even possible to identify ownership inscriptions which have been erased when books have changed hands.
The importance of private book ownership is evidenced from the elegant furnishings in private libraries, themselves depicted in miniatures in medieval manuscripts. Special reading chairs and elaborate bookstands imply a significant valuation of the books being read, as does the very existence of rooms described as libraries or studies in private homes.
Guillaume de Lorris reading
Depiction of Guillaume de Lorris, author of the first part of the Roman de la Rose, in a manuscript of that work (Bodleian Library). (From Lanson 1923)
The dauntless 16th century traveller John Leland, who journeyed the length and breadth of England in search of its antiquities and wonders, was particularly taken with a study in the Percy family manor house of Wressle Castle in Yorkshire (although in another part of his descriptions he appears to ascribe the room to the now lost manor house of Leconfield).

One thing I likid excedingly yn one of the towers, that was a study caullid Paradise, wher was a closet in the midle of 8. squares latisid aboute: and at the toppe of every square was a desk ledgid to set bookes on cofers withyn them, and these semid as yoinid hard to the toppe of the closet: ad yet by pulling one or al wold cum downe, briste highe in rabettes, and serve for deskes to lay bokes on.

From Lucy Toulmin Smith (ed.) 1964 The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535 - 1543, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Vol. 1, p.53

And no, my spelling checker has not exploded. The above excerpt gives just the merest hint as to why it is not possible to do a word search on a digitised 16th or earlier century text looking for references to books, or bookes, or bokes, or bookis, or any other possible combination. Sorry, you have to read the lot.
Wressle Castle The remains of the old Percy manor house at Wressle. I don't know if you can still see Paradise from here.
There is a fascinating study yet to be done on references to books in wills and inventories of the late middle ages. Wills themselves may not commonly indicate each individual volume, sometimes simply referring to "Books to the value of x". Where specific works are mentioned, it is reasonable to assume that those particular works have special relevance to the owners. Inventories of goods belonging to a recently deceased owner, drawn up for the process of probate, have a better chance of providing an insight. Unfortunately, there is no quick way to scan through this kind of evidence. Archival finding aids for such documents usually involve indices of names, not references to things, and as shown in the example above, modern word searches do not take account of the variability of archaic spelling. Books are also not necessarily listed as books, or bokes, but may be described by their type: psalter, prymer, romance etc, with all the multiple spellings of those kinds of words. Nevertheless the evidence is there, and has been accessed for specific studies of individuals or family histories or histories of institutions.
Here are just a few examples rapidly garnered from a couple of published sources.

From Furnivall, F.J. (ed.) Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, London: AD 1387-1439 Oxford University Press, available online from the University of Michigan's Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse.

Lady Alice West, 1395, to her son Thomas "a peyre Matyns bookis" and to her daughter-in-law Iohane "a masse booke and all the bokes that I have of latyn, englisch, and frensch, out-tak the forsayd matins bookis ..."

Lady Peryne Clanbowe, 1422 to her brother " a westment of rede cloth with my massbooke and Chalys" and to her friends Elizabeth Ioye "a booke of Englyssh cleped 'pore caytife'" (according to a footnote, a collection of tracts against abuses in the Romish church, formerly wrongly attributed to John Wycliffe), and to Ionet Okbourn "my sauter helid with blake".

John Credy Esq, landowner and owner of a bakehouse and pubs, 1426 "the chirch of Newton have my masseboke, my portus (a portable breviary), my chaleys, my vestments, and my cruettis".

A note refers to the will of John Branchele, 1420, in which he bequeaths to three separate individuals a Latin copy of Boethius "Consolatione Philosophie", an English copy of the same work, and a copy of the "Talys of Caunterbury", supposedly the earliest reference to a bequest of this work.

And from Tymms, S. (ed.) 1850 Wills and Inventories from the Registers of the Commissary of Bury St. Edmund's and the Archdeacon of Sudbury Camden Society, Book 5

Adam de Stanton, chaplain, 1370, had included in his inventory a portifiorum ( a type of antiphoner), a book of law of land, a pair of statutes and a book of romances.

William Place, priest, 1504, bequeathed to the monastery of Saint Edmund "my book of the dowts of Holy Scripture" (a book of Biblical questions formerly ascribed to St Augustine) and to Raff Stanton, priest "my book of the exposicons of Holy Scryptur"

John King, schoolmaster, 1552, bequeathed to his school copies of Pliny, Virgil, Oratius and Ovid with commentaries, and to Mr Sterman, the ecclesiastical histories of Eusebius.

Gilys Levyt, 1552, bequeathed to his daughter "too great books, the Bybyll and the New Testament, with the booke of the Kings Statuts".

As a random sample, there are some things you might expect and some interesting questions to ponder. The priests with their liturgical books and the schoolmaster with his Latin Classics are perhaps not surprising. Lay people also had liturgical and other religious books, along with certain religious paraphernalia, presumably for when the chaplain said mass in their house. Lady Alice is interesting, bequeathing her multilingual literary interests to a female relative and a mass book to her son. Perhaps she thought his soul needed saving. Lady Peryne bequeaths her religious books, but presumably specifies her Wycliffite Lollard text to a girlfriend who can be trusted. (I think there is a novel appearing out of this). This is only a taster, but it suggests a line of inquiry.

Then there is a whole issue of looking at types of books which were specifically produced for a lay market.

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