- Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England
I have often wondered what happened to the monastic libraries in England after Henry VIII dissolved them. Even the small and decadent houses kept open only for the economic benefit of a few nominal monks often had extensive libraries. Whatever became of all those books? Jennifer Summit has not only given us the answer to the location of the books but also explained the intellectual transformation that they subsequently occasioned.
This is Summit's second book. Her first, Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History 1380–1589 (University of Chicago Press, 2000), was a reworking of her 1996 dissertation from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently on the faculty at Stanford University.
As a scholar of Middle English literature, Summit is especially interested in the late medieval texts collected from the dissolved monasteries by individuals and made available in libraries. In Memory's Library she focuses chiefly on the collecting activities of three individuals and how their collections formed the nuclei of three libraries that remain important to this day. The collection of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (who predates the monastic dissolutions), contributed to the foundation of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Matthew Parker's collection went to form the Parker Library at Cambridge. Roger Cotton's enormously important collection is still housed in London at the independent research library that bears his name. This book is arranged around these three central collectors but also includes some of their more important contemporaries.
What these men—and they were all men at this time—collected (and, conversely, did not collect) and how their collections were made accessible, Summit argues, have defined the discourse of medieval studies to this day (2). The English Reformation turned religious libraries into national libraries. With that shift came an attendant shift in focus on the font of authority upheld by these libraries, namely, from religious authority to national authority, which became virtually synonymous in Elizabethan England (3). [End Page 387]
Summit begins with a central metaphor: memory is a library (1). This is not a new concept but one deeply embedded in the medieval mindset. Mary Carruthers's exposition of the medieval understanding of memory as a quasi-physical process that is the seat of human creativity, as set forth in her Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1990), is used by Summit as a foundational metaphor for her understanding of how a library functions. The collecting, cataloging, and accessibility of books, then, mark a shift from a religious memory to a national memory, which also characterized the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Like Elizabeth Eisenstein's books on the move from a manuscript book technology to the printing press (including The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1979), Summit's work, it seems to me, has equally important applications to the current debates about the future of libraries. The implication is that simply collecting information and making it available is not enough. Collecting with an evaluative eye and providing the means to access that information have the power to create a discourse. That is the difference between the Web and a library, and Summit's book makes this clear.
So what happened to all those books from the monastic libraries in England? Today we would say that they were "reimagineered" into libraries of national memory to serve England rather than the church. Summit contends that they transformed the discourse on medieval topics and continue to provide this service today.