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Image of manuscript page in Middle English.
The Rule of St. Benedict in Middle English. MS 4. f.37v Rare Book and Special Collection Division.

Don’t Crack the Codex: Library Lending in a Middle English Manuscript

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A damaged library book can be difficult to replace today, but imagine if that library book were written by hand. What kind of lending policies would you create? Library lending policies are not a modern invention, because libraries themselves are an ancient concept. Early libraries contained books in the form of manuscripts.

The Library of Congress has a number of books in its collection that once belonged to European monastic libraries. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, monastic communities arose that were largely self-sustaining. These communities were able to divide daily labor in such a way that its members had time for learning, reading, and copying texts. Monastic libraries were able to form as a result.

Witten around 530 CE by Benedict of Nursia, the 48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict outlines practices for libraries that correspond to the liturgical season (the governing rhythm of life within a monastery). The Rule instructs that each member of the community “receive a book from the Library, and read it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.” Provided during Lent, a season of reflection before Easter, the books were intended to be read throughout the year. Assuming an agricultural setting, the Rule specifies that the time allotted for daily reading should increase during the late autumn through early spring.

Monasticism changed dramatically over the course of several hundred years. Not every monastic community during the Middle Ages engaged directly in agricultural labor. Some communities housed wealthy elites. Others were formed for less financially advantaged persons. Literacy may not have been high in these monastic houses, and some had neither the endowment to fund nor the infrastructure to create a library.

During the fifteenth century, the English Benedictine convent that commissioned Ms. 4 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division did have a library. How do we know? Because at the end of the Benedictine Rule—written in Middle English explicitly for a female audience—and before the Gospel of Nicodemus, the manuscript contains a set of directions that includes specific concerns about the care of library books (image below).

Image of manuscript page written in a late gothic book hand in brown ink with red rubrics.
The Rule of St. Benedict in Middle English. England, 15th Century. MS 4. f.37r. Rare Book and Special Collection Division. //


The manuscript instructs that the “younge nought negligent” in leaving their assigned books in the choir, or allowing the books to sit opened in the cloister (presumably so that the bindings would not crack). The nuns are also enjoined not to cut any pages from these books, leave the books out of place, or write within them. Ms. 4 further counsels that all library books are to be kept clean, and returned to the “librarie” in the same state “or bettre” than that in which the nun received it.

As librarians, this charge against writing in books sounds to us both familiar and pragmatic. As historians, this injunction is rather a disappointment. Ms. 4 is important for many reasons. The text was definitively used by women, likely commissioned by women, and copied from a French Rule probably by a female scribe. The Middle English version of the Gospel of Nicodemus is unique, and the wimple (cloth headdress) of the nun (image below) is certainly that of a Benedictine nun. Impressive and important as this manuscript is to women’s history in England, the text contains no annotations. The users were faithful to the text’s instructions: no one wrote in this book. We now wish they had.

Image of manuscript page in Middle English.
The Rule of St. Benedict in Middle English. MS 4. f.37v Rare Book and Special Collection Division. //



Benedict, Saint, Abbot of Monte Cassino. Regula. English St. Benedict’s rule : an inclusive translation and daily commentary by Judith Sutera, OSB. Collegeville, Minnesota : Liturgical Press. //

Hill, Betty (1989). Some problems in Washington, Library of Congress MS Faye-Bond 4. In Meier H. H. Todd R. & Mackenzie J. L. (Eds.), In other words : transcultural studies in philology translation and lexicology presented to hans heinrich meier on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. (pp. 35-44). Foris.

Krochalis, Jeanne (1986). The Benedictine Rule for nuns: Library of Congress, MS 4. Manuscripta. 30 (1986): 21-34.

Monastic matrix:  scholarly resource for the study of women’s religious communities from 400 to 1600 CE (2023). University of St Andrews.


Comments (2)

  1. Wasn’t the care of books in the Philobiblon, Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham Cathedral, 1345 manuscript and first printed in Cologne in 1473. Any evidence in the text that they were aware of the Philobiblon?

    • Thank you for your interest in Ms. 4 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. To the best of our knowledge, scholars have not found a link between this manuscript and the work of Richard de Bury (1287–1345). If you are interested in studying this manuscript in greater detail, the entire manuscript has been digitized is available through the Library of Congress’ digital collections: //

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