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Reviewed by:
  • The Anglo-Saxon Library
  • Richard Gameson
The Anglo-Saxon Library. By Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. viii + 408 pp. £65. ISBN 0 19 926722 7.

A revised and expanded version of the E. A. Lowe lectures delivered at Oxford in 2002, The Anglo-Saxon Library is the first monographic treatment of an elusive subject. Firmly grounded in its author's unrivalled knowledge of Anglo-Latin literature, the work is simultaneously a presentation of selected material and a series of reflections on the methodology of such an enquiry. It is also, paradoxically, both more and less than its title would imply.

The scene is set — and the real field defined — by a first chapter surveying 'Vanished Libraries of Classical Antiquity': this is principally to be an enquiry into what of the content of antique pagan and late-antique Christian libraries was transmitted to Anglo-Saxon England. Chapter 2 offers a tour of 'Vanished Libraries of Anglo-Saxon England', lingering at 'Canterbury in the time of Theodore and Hadrian', 'Malmesbury in the time of Aldhelm', 'Wearmouth-Jarrow in the time of Bede', 'Nursling in the time of Boniface', and 'York in the time of Alcuin', then glancing at Hexham, Ripon, Lindisfarne, Whitby, and Breedon 'to 835', before looking briefly at book collections in general during the ninth century, in the circle of King Alfred, and in 'the period of the Benedictine Reform Movement' (effectively the hundred years leading up to 1066).

The following three chapters explore in turn the evidence of inventories, of manuscripts, and of citations for reconstructing parts of these lost libraries, while offering valuable comments on the appropriate use of the material for such purposes (the exemplary discussion of Bede's knowledge of Lucan, for instance (pp. 110–11), typifies this dual approach). The choice of case studies is largely defined by the available documentation: thus in the case of book-lists, Peterborough but not Canterbury can be considered, while with regard to the reading of scholars it is inevitably Aldhelm and Bede who hold centre stage — though a concentration on Byhrtferth of Ramsey, but not Ælfric of Cerne and Eynsham, for the later period reflects a predilection of the author. These were exceptional individuals: if it is fascinating to consider what they had read, such was equally, by definition, atypical.

Moreover, Lapidge takes a very precise view of his subject: 'a library is a collection of books acquired and arranged for the purposes of study and the pursuit of knowledge', and he thus 'exclude[s] the collections of liturgical books which every Anglo-Saxon church may be assumed to have owned' (p. 1). His definition is defensible on practical and academic grounds, for surveying innumerable, poorly documented collections of service books and pastoral texts would be a repetitive and largely fruitless task. Excluding them entirely, however, makes this the equivalent of a study entitled 'The Libraries of Modern Britain' which looked exclusively at the copyright libraries: the result is a picture of enviable treasures available to a small, specialized elite. Such a view is fascinating and extremely valuable, but likely to [End Page 450] mislead the unwary: Lapidge's heroic work highlights the bibliographical riches that were possessed in exceptional centres at certain times, but it will doubtless be incautiously deployed as 'evidence' that particular texts were 'available' in Anglo-Saxon England — which is hardly the case.

The appendices are particularly seductive, and therefore potentially open to abuse, in this respect. Authoritative and substantial, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the total page count, they present contemporary inventories of 'Latin books from Anglo-Saxon libraries' and from 'the area of the Anglo-Saxon mission in Germany', then 'eighth-century manuscripts from the area of the Anglo-Saxon mission in Germany', 'ninth-century manuscripts of continental origin having pre-Conquest English provenance', and 'Latin books cited by the principal Anglo-Saxon authors'; they culminate in a seventy-page 'catalogue of classical and patristic authors and works composed before ad 700 and known in Anglo-Saxon England'. Underpinning the study as a whole, these are impressive works of reference in their own right, which, however, must be used with care. The editions of the book-lists...


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