(For two Augnet pages specifically about a number of medieval Augustinian libraries, click here.)
The Renaissance (Italian: Rinascimento, French: Renaissance, from the latin, ri- "again" and nascere "be born") was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th centuries. The advent of humanism and the Renaissance spurred the copying and the additional composition of manuscripts (and later of books). The preservation and growth of the libraries of the Order of St Augustine was encouraged and actively assisted almost all of its Priors General for the 160 years during, just before and just after the fifteenth century.
Image (above): A sketch of a chained library. Each bound manuscript or book has a chain that limits it from being taken more than about 1.5 metres from its allocated place on the shelf.
For these Augustinian conventual libraries, the years between 1357 and 1518 were not years of decline. In the Registers of the Priors General, in abundant medieval inventories preserved today, and in other reliable references, mention is made of more than 140 Augustinian libraries throughout Italy, Germany, Belgium, and England. There is no doubt that there were also libraries in the major houses of Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Hungary, although the references to these are from a later period.
Through the letters of the Priors General, written in order to correct abuses and remind religious of the laws pertaining to community libraries, it is known that with the exception of smaller houses each house was to have an official librarian, a trustworthy individual who was capable of carrying out this responsibility. With his almost exclusive right to the keys of the library and its bookcases, he was obliged to make a yearly inventory, to place his own signature in each volume and store the books in an orderly and appropriate manner in the shelves and cases provided.
The borrowing of books was similar to the format followed today. The religious who sought to take out a book had to write his name in the register of the library along with the author and the title of the volume, and the date. Books could not be taken out of the house nor left with persons who were not members of the community. Superiors were empowered to dispense from the law in this regard, but a receipt with the signature of the person or sometimes a sum of money twice the value of the codex had to be left with the librarian. If a stranger entered the library he had to be accompanied by the religious who admitted him. If this was impossible, another religious was required to take his place. In 1436 Prior General Gerard of Rimini O.S.A. (not to be confused with Gregory of Rimini O.S.A. in the following century) warned that those who did not carry out this order "are to be deprived of their exemptions, if they are Doctors; if Bachelors or Lectors, they shall lose active and passive voice for three years; and if simple conventuals (members of the community), they shall spend two years incarcerated in the community jail.”
The holdings of a library were increased through the work done in the scriptorium and by the incorporation of books received from deceased religious or as a result of donation from prelates and benefactors of the Order. There is extant documentation for the scriptoria of Paris, Avignon, York, Erfurt and a few other libraries. It is quite certain that, given the prosperity of the times, there were scriptoria also in the major houses of Italy, central Europe, France, England, and the Iberian Peninsula, and that a number of these continued in operation until the last quarter of the fifteenth century, when the printed book completely replaced the manuscript.
The incorporation of the books of deceased friars and donations made by benefactors of the Order left these libraries very often with duplicates of the same work. This is evidenced by the numerous dispositions given by the priors general to permit these duplicates to be sold. The following letter, sent by Prior General Gregory of Rimini O.S.A. in March of 1358 to the house at Ratisbon, serves as a case in point: "Although our laws prohibit the sale of any book in the conventual (i.e. community) library, it is not against the law to exchange duplicates for codices which are more useful for the community. This is always to be done with the authorization of the superior of the Order.” The only condition stipulated by Gregory was that any money obtained by such sales be employed for the benefit of the library, a condition often repeated by his successors.
Three cardinal protectors of the Order, Blessed NichoIas Albergati, John dei Conti of Tagliacozzo, and William d'Estouteville, were among the benefactors of Augustinian libraries of the period. The first named died in the Augustinian house in Siena in 1443, leaving some of his books to the community. In 1449 John dei Conti bequeathed his collection to the library of theConvent of St Augustine in Rome. In 1483 d'Estouteville gave the same Roman library 183 volumes. He perhaps played a part in the donation of another 130 codices, made in 1468 by his secretary John Baroncelli. In 1499 the Portuguese cardinal George da Costa made out his will and generously favored the Augustinians of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. He bequeathed to them various sacred objects and vessels, a large sum of money, buildings, vineyards, and "all my books." Without attempting to include here the Augustinian bishops whose books legally reverted to their native house, mention should be made of John of Neumarkt.
This illustrious prelate, a friend of Petrarch and a supporter of humanism, leads the list of another class of benefactors to Augustinian libraries. He was bishop of Olmiltz and chancellor of Emperor Charles IV. Upon undertaking a trip to Rome in 1386, he left his library in the Augustinian house in Prague, declaring that the books should remain there if he died on his journey. He returned safely, but it appears that he did not change the disposition regarding his books. In 1374 the fabled author and humanist, John Boccaccio, willed all his books, with the exception of his breviary, to the Augustinian friar, Martin of Signa O.S.A., who entrusted them to the Augustinian community ofSanto Spirito, Florence. The Italian diplomat and scholar, Giannozzo Manetti, who was the most famous of the humanists, intended to set up a special room in Santo Spirito for the collection he had gathered, because according to Vaspasian da Bisticci, "having studied there, he had a great love for that religious house." Manetti, however, died in 1459 without having realized his project. (The valuable library of Santo Spirito has long been lost, owing to various military depredations inflicted on late medieval Florence.)
In 1422 Richard Homes, canon of York and a professor at Cambridge, enhanced the library of the English Augustinian friary at Gorleston with many books. Maffeo Vegio left part of his collection to the house of St Augustine in Rome. He also constructed the beautiful chapel of St. Monica in this same church (“Sant’Agostino”). The chapel which is still preserved contains his remains. He was buried there in 1458. There are many more names of benefactors that could be listed whose donations of particular books are unspecified. Nor is there need here to mention those religious who, according to reliable accounts, were solicitous in both preserving and enriching conventual (religious community) libraries. To the delight of scholars and bibliophiles, an ancient study contains the inventory of twenty-eight Augustinian libraries throughout Europe.
The best Augustinian libraries of Italy were those in Rome, Siena,Florence, Bologna, Cremona, Milan, Padua, Venice, and Treviso. Among the best Augustinian libraries in central Europe were those of Munich,Erfurt, Magdeburg, Vienna, and Prague. Also to be included are the libraries of Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Avignon in France, and the library of York in England, which, according to a specialist, was one of the five best in all of Europe in the late fourteenth century. It can be deduced that the Augustinian libraries of this period were well cared for, but unquestionably there was a decline within the Order and in the Church generally, when laxity within morals and administrative vigour plus the failure of major attempts at reform led to the eruption and disruption of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Besides the books preserved in libraries, the early laws and decrees of the chapters of the Order offer information about other kinds of books kept in Augustinian houses in the late Middle Ages. The liturgical books (i.e. those used in worship), for example, were to be kept in the sacristy. The books of government (i.e., the Augustinian Constitutions and capitular definitions) were under the care of the prior of each house. The sacristan and procurator had to give monthly reports to the conventual chapter on the record books they kept on receipts, expenditures, and debts. Each community possessed a Liber Professionum (a Register of Professions), in which the religious profession of each member was publicly recorded as prescribed by the General Chapter of 1368.
Pictures (at right)Picture 1: Bound manuscript of “lost” sermons of St Augustine, found in a library at Mainz, Germany in 1990Picture 2: A medieval library preserved in the Franciscan friary at Šibenik, Croatia.Picture 3: Evidence of dust between the pages at Šibenik, Croatia. (Continued on the next page.)