The World's Largest Surviving Chained Library

Updated on October 7, 2018
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Books were painstakingly inscribed, illustrated, and bound by hand. This made them priceless works that could not easily be replaced.
Books were painstakingly inscribed, illustrated, and bound by hand. This made them priceless works that could not easily be replaced. | Source

Before the Gutenberg printing press made an appearance in 1440, books were painstakingly made by hand. Monks (monastic scribes) would sit in the scriptorium copying text and creating mesmerizing art 6 hours a day for weeks, months, and even years.

The more elaborate books of that time were filled with gold leaf, intricate drawings, and flourished script. Natural pigments were gathered or sourced locally, ground down to powder, and mixed with water. Books were bound by hand, often with beautifully tooled leather covers and mesmerizing brass embellishments.

The fact that less than 1% of the population was literate made books hard to come by and virtually priceless. Script work was extremely hard on the bodies and minds of the scribes. Special attentions were paid to them so they could continue their important work without interruption (i.e. they were allowed to skip religious duties when they were writing.) Historians are unsure how many of the scribes were themselves unable to read, which makes the manufacture of these books even more amazing.

Hereford map (1645), including Hereford Cathedral in the upper right.
Hereford map (1645), including Hereford Cathedral in the upper right. | Source

Hereford Cathedral: The World's Largest Surviving Chained Library

While a few smaller chained libraries still exist, Hereford Cathedral Library is the only library of this type to still have all of its original chains, rods, and locks intact. The library has 56 chained books dating from before 1500, and about 1,500 books dating between the late 1400s to early 1800s. The oldest book housed in the Hereford Cathedral chained library is known as the Hereford Gospels. This is an elaborately illustrated and gilded religious book dating back to the 8th century.

Many of these works have, over time, been donated to the library from the immediate region. Thus, most of the books in the chained library document the history of the area (Herefordshire, England.)

Because the chains had to be attached to the strongest part of the book, they are virtually always shelved "backwards" compared to how we view them now. Thus, in chained libraries, the spine faces away from the reader, with the cross-section of pages on display instead. Librarians were key to tracking down the right books for the right inquiries, as the names of books weren't revealed.

The Book Chaining Process

Chains were connected to the corners and edges of books (whichever area was stronger.) The books were secured to the shelf with a long metal bar going through each chain. The metal bar was then secured with a heavy duty lock. Thus, to unchain a single book, quite an involved process must take place. Once the book has been released, it's chained to the reading surface until it's put away again.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Hereford Cathedral boasts 56 chained books dating from before 1500, and about 1,500 books dating between the late 1400s to early 1800s.Books were secured to the shelf with a long metal bar going through each chain.Books were painstakingly unchained, only to be re-chained to the reading surface.The Hereford Gospels, 8th century (Hereford Cathedral chained library)
Hereford Cathedral boasts 56 chained books dating from before 1500, and about 1,500 books dating between the late 1400s to early 1800s.
Hereford Cathedral boasts 56 chained books dating from before 1500, and about 1,500 books dating between the late 1400s to early 1800s. | Source
Books were secured to the shelf with a long metal bar going through each chain.
Books were secured to the shelf with a long metal bar going through each chain. | Source
Books were painstakingly unchained, only to be re-chained to the reading surface.
Books were painstakingly unchained, only to be re-chained to the reading surface. | Source
The Hereford Gospels, 8th century (Hereford Cathedral chained library)
The Hereford Gospels, 8th century (Hereford Cathedral chained library) | Source

Book Knowledge Was Rare and Those Who Possessed It Were Powerful

Before the days of printing presses and digital news at the touch of a button, book knowledge was extremely rare and difficult to come by. Those who had knowledge had power.

Those who happened to be educated enough to read and write had a huge advantage over others around them who could not. Book knowledge was virtually unobtainable to the common masses, and these masses counted on those who could read to learn and gain information.

While chained libraries were necessary to ensure these priceless works remained intact and in place, these chained books also represented the so-called "chaining of knowledge" that was reserved for a select few.

Knowledge was reserved for a select few.
Knowledge was reserved for a select few. | Source

Other Surviving Chained Libraries

While many other chained libraries still exist, for the most part they are tiny and not perfectly intact. However, if you live next to any of these chained libraries, they're probably worth checking out! The following is a list of all known chained libraries still remaining:

Name
Location
Bolton School
Bolton, England
Chelsea Old Church
London, England
Parish Library of Gorton
Manchester, England
Church of All Saints
Wrington, England
Church of St. John the Baptist
Glastonbury, England
Francis Trigge Chained Library
Grantham, England
Malatestiana Library
Cesena, Italy
Royal Grammar School
Guildford, England
St. Peter's Church
Wootton Wawen, England
St. Walburga's Church
Zutphen, The Netherlands
Trinity Hall
Cambridge, England
Wimborne Minster
Dorset, England
Wells Cathedral
Somerset, England
One of the small remaining chained libraries. Bolton School, Bolton, England.
One of the small remaining chained libraries. Bolton School, Bolton, England. | Source

Chained Libraries in Popular Culture

A few notable popular works have included references to the world's chained libraries. Whether in jest (as in Terry Pratchett's book where books of magic are chained down so they don't walk away), or more in earnest (Samwell's introduction to the Citadel), chained libraries have made it into pop culture.

  • Movie - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)
  • Movie - Doctor Strange (2016)
  • Show - Game of Thrones, Season 6 (2016)
  • Book - Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (1983-2015)
  • Book - David Williams' Murder in Advent (1985)

Have You Ever Been to a Chained Library?

See results

Sources and Further Reading

Chained Library. (2018, July 17). Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chained_library

Corwin, V. (2016, May 24). Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://sites.dartmouth.edu/ancientbooks/2016/05/24/medieval-book-production-and-monastic-life/

Hereford Cathedral. (2017). Hereford Cathedral Chained Library. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.herefordcathedral.org/chained-library

Hereford Cathedral Library. (2018, July 14). Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereford_Cathedral_Library

Hereford Gospels. (2018, July 25). Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereford_Gospels

Kaushik. (2014). The Last Surviving Chained Libraries. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.amusingplanet.com/2015/04/the-last-surviving-chained-libraries.html

Lovett, C. (2017, March 01). Welcome to the Largest Surviving Chained Library in the World. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.signature-reads.com/2017/02/welcome-to-the-largest-surviving-chained-library-in-the-world/

Rothman, L. (2017, July 17). Game of Thrones: Why Medieval Libraries Chained Their Books. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from http://time.com/4861039/game-of-thrones-oldtown-library/

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Kate P

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      • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate P 

        8 months ago from The North Woods, USA

        @Jo Miller, I really hope you get a chance to see one of these chained libraries when you're in England! I imagine you could almost just "feel" the history in a place like this. Thanks for reading, and happy travels!

      • jo miller profile image

        Jo Miller 

        8 months ago from Tennessee

        This sounds fascinating. I'd really like to see one of these. I'm going to be in England in a couple of months and may have to look one up. Thanks for the information.

      • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate P 

        8 months ago from The North Woods, USA

        @Eclectic Plethora, Thanks for the nice comments! As far as I know I've listed all of the known surviving chained libraries. I wish they were closer so I could visit them!

      • ziyena profile image

        Ziyena Brazos 

        8 months ago from Somewhere in Time ...

        Very interesting. I'm curious to know if there are any of these chained book libraries here in France. Maybe in Paris? Something to research as always. Thank you for sharing this unique article. Blessings

      • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate P 

        8 months ago from The North Woods, USA

        @Tarrin Lupo, I thought this topic was pretty fascinating, myself! It's just amazing how different things were back then. Really cool that at least one pristine example is still there for us to visit.. thanks!

      • LupoTV profile image

        Tarrin Lupo 

        8 months ago from New Hampshire

        Cool topic, I didn't know about these until I saw that scene in Game Of Thrones.

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