My six-month CHASE-funded work placement was based at Lambeth Palace Library, the historic library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the principal repository of the documentary history of the Church of England. Founded by Archbishop Bancroft, the records held at Lambeth date from the 9th century to the present day.
The medieval manuscripts number over 600 and include biblical texts, law books, liturgical and patristic collections. My PhD research is focused on manuscripts so this was a wonderful opportunity for me to handle and closely examine items from the collection. My main objective was to review the manuscripts in the library collection which were once in the possession of the libraries of the Benedictine Cathedral Priory of Christ Church and the Benedictine Priory of St Augustine’s, both situated in Canterbury.
Canterbury’s monastic foundations held one of largest – if not the largest – collections of manuscripts anywhere in medieval England. The Christ Church catalogue drawn up in the later years of the priorate of Henry of Eastry (1285-1331) lists almost 2,000 volumes and the incomplete late fifteenth-century catalogue from Saint Augustine’s Abbey records 1,777. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Reformation this number was dramatically reduced: 350 survivals from Christ Church and some 280 from Saint Augustine’s. Lambeth Palace Library can identity 30 manuscripts which emanated from Christ Church and St Augustine’s.
I looked in detail at every single one of these manuscripts. They include world-famous books such as MS 3 (the Lambeth Bible), a lavish giant bible crammed with beautiful illuminations. Another well-known book is MS 1370, the MacDurnan Gospels, manufactured in Ireland during the second half of the ninth century . A colophon records it being gifted to Christ Church by King Athelstan (r. 924-939). By way of contrast, Sion College MS L.40.2/L.32 contains the commentary of on the Book of Lamentations and is modestly decorated with pen-flourished initials. This book survived the Dissolution and Reformation only to be nearly lost at sea, the water damage apparently the result of a maritime mishap when it was rescued from the waters by a fisherman’s net. Some years later it also survived the Great Fire of London – what it lacks in illumination it makes up for in its eventful history.
One of the highlights of the placement was organising a visit for a group of 12 CHASE students as part of the Material Witness training programme in January 2019. The day was spent looking at manuscripts and learning about pigments and conservation through the lens of the thirteenth-century Lambeth Apocalypse (MS 209).
The placement at Lambeth Palace Library provided a fantastic opportunity to work with a wide range of medieval manuscripts. This improved my knowledge and benefitted my palaeographic skills. It also provided me with experience of writing catalogue descriptions and undertaking provenance research. Through working as a member of the library and archives team, I learned about the challenges of balancing public access with conservation. I also contributed ideas to how the library could make its collection more accessible in the future, submitting a 5,000-word report and spreadsheet at the conclusion of my placement.