A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library

By Clark, James G. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library


Clark, James G., The Catholic Historical Review


A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library. Edited by R. M. Thomson with a Contribution on the Bindings by Michael Gullick. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Rochester, New York: Boydell & Brewer, Inc. 2001. Pp. xlviii, 256; 50 plates. $170.00.)

It is still not widely known that the cathedral church at Worcester houses one of the best-preserved book-collections to have survived from medieval England. There are few churches, colleges, or schools of medieval origin whose early libraries are more complete-amongst the cathedrals, only Durham has more pre-Reformation books-and none which displays the same remarkable degree of continuity, retaining books or fragments of books dating from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries in the same room (above the south aisle of the nave) which has stood for over six hundred years. The majority of the medieval books now in the collection were those copied, compiled, or otherwise acquired by the monks of the Benedictine priory that served the cathedral until 1540. But there is also an important group of manuscripts that came to the collection from other medieval institutions nearby, notably the Cistercian abbey at Bordesley and the mendicant convents at Chester, Hereford, Shrewsbury, and Worcester. The collection as a whole cannot be distinguished for the antiquity, beauty, or rarity of its books. But it does reveal the whole variety of texts-homilies and meditations, academic textbooks, Latin literature, preaching aids and sermons-which shaped the intellectual culture of religious communities across the Middle Ages.

The wealth of the Worcester library has long been obscured by the inadequate and incompetent early catalogue produced by two canons of the cathedral in 1906. For this new catalogue, which follows his previous work on the Hereford and Lincoln manuscripts, R. M. Thomson has begun again from scratch, taking from his predecessors only the old shelf-mark system which classified the codices according to size, F (Folio) and Q (Quarto). Thomson's descriptions are exemplary, giving thorough but concise summaries of the physical structure and textual contents of each codex, together with details, where applicable, of the decorative and scribal work involved in their compilation. He pays particular attention to the medieval and later history of the books, and in many cases provides important new insights into their institutional or personal provenance. In a brief introduction, Thomson traces the origins and expansion of the collection, and drawing on the evidence of Worcester manuscripts held elsewhere as well as at the cathedral, he also examines the role of the monastic community in the production of books. A short essay by Michael Gullick serves to underline the importance of the bindings, of which almost half are medieval, including one pre-Conquest example (Q.5), ten locally made in a Romanesque style, and several identified as the work of Worcester monks.

There are more Anglo-Saxon books surviving from Worcester than from England's other Benedictine houses, although many of them are now in other libraries. There are six Latin books still at the cathedral including copies of Eusebius, Gregory, and Smaragdus and a selection of unusual and early grammatical treatises (in MS Q.5). Also in this group is the eleventh-century sacramentary (MS F.173) that was made for Winchester Old Minster and several fragments of lost books, including leaves from a seventh-century copy of Jerome's commentary on Matthew, and those thought to be from the great bible given to Worcester by Offa of Mercia in c. …

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