Books in Chains

Picture via the Guardian

The very idea of a book in chains. The very idea.

Chains hail from a time when books were outrageously expensive. If you believe this mediaeval price list at Luminarium, one book was the price of four cows. It was the cost of ink, and labour, and paper, all luxuries in a world where a cow could feed a hamlet for a week.

It is little wonder, at four cows apiece, that the books of Β Oxford’s earliest library went walkabout. Β Duke Humfrey’s library is named after Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose lavish bequest of manuscripts necessitated moving the university’s books from the room above the local parish church in the High Street, to a purpose-built site above the Divinity School between 1435-7.

But by the time Thomas Bodley set eyes on the library in 1598 it had come to a pretty pass. It included just three of the original books. All those beautiful old vellum pages: they had disappeared into thin air.

Isn’t it always the way with libraries? That’s what fines are for.

And librarians. They are the warriors charged with keeping the books at bay.

In 1599, the first Bodley’s Librarian was appointed, to do right by the volumes which were shortly to arrive. And Thomas carved out a canny deal with the Stationer’s Company in London. For every book registered with them, a copy would arrive with the Bodleian library.

So the library thrived and grew under the watchful eyes of its librarians through the ages.

And today, I arrived to meet the books.

They accustom you gently to where you are: the introduction is not brutal. You are ushered into that famed hall which formed the backdrop for Harry Potter’s infirmary in all the films, with its intricate ceiling and walls of golden stone. You sit on a dark oak bench and listen to the years mumble past on the lips of a guide and gaze up, wondering if you will ever manage to take in everything in that enchanted ceiling.

You nod to Christopher Wren’s door, his addition in the eighteenth century,(for the architect was also an Oxford astronomer) and shamble through to the Convocation House, a debating and meeting room which has on occasion held the English Parliament. And from thence into the tiny university court where Oscar Wilde was tried for non-payment of fines.

But all this is just prologue, when Duke Humfrey’s books sing siren silent songs somewhere up the stairs.

And all of a sudden there we were: in the most monumental library you have ever seen.

From floor to ceiling were books, thick, creamy-pages uneven books, not those nasty machine-type ones. The books were bottle green and deep, rusty red and they sat with titles you wanted to devour hungrily, one next to another, stretching off into the distance. Each side had black oak balconies constructed so that you could climb dark wooden stairs to reach a higher tier of books: and everywhere there were ladders on wheels.

And then I glimpsed it: a chained book.

Librarians began by riveting the chain to the cover of the book. But the rivets would tear away at these priceless volumes; so they attached chains to the spines, and turned them towards the wall.

Which meant you couldn’t see the titles. Every book had a number on its closed pages, and you found the catalogue and identified it before taking it from the shelf.

But you couldn’t walk away with it.

Some time in the 18th century Oxford decided to emancipate its books, and the chains were no longer used.

But some of the chains are still there. Just in case.

The rare air of that wondrous place is still in my lungs, and the half-light of its balconies a shadow behind my eyes. If ever a library could weave a spell, then this one wove it today. I did not pick up one book, but every volume muffled the sound of my footsteps and the rise and fall of the guide’s words with the very time it has existed.

A haunting idea, this book in chains.

Sadly photographs are not permitted in the library itself: here is the rest of the Bodleian tour…

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36 thoughts on “Books in Chains

  1. Well I’m impressed. I live so close, but have never been inside! I even had a card for a year and didn’t go in. Shame on me. Maybe I will now?

  2. What magnificent architecture, especially the gold ceiling, Why in the world won’t they allow photos in the library? As long as there’s no flash, there’s no damage to the books, and I’ve heard today’s flashes produce no damage at all. As for the chains, I would use them to keep precious books from “walking” away. Pens at banks are chained, benches are bolted to concrete, and I’m sure there are more examples. I don’t think the books mind πŸ™‚

  3. Does one have to stay on the ladder to read the imprisoned books or are the chains long enough to allow you to enjoy a leisurely read in a comfy chair? Absolutely gorgeous pics of what you were permitted to take.

    1. The chains are only long enough to let you read standing up at a bench, Lou. Very Microsoft. You couldn’t even move out of the gloom to the window, and candles weren’t allowed!

  4. When I was doing some research for a book, I discovered that one of Oxford’s largest libraries runs underneath the street and connects to another building. A library so big, so old, it went underground like a subway tunnel! πŸ˜€

    1. That’s right – they could not expand above ground but I think three floors were extended underground to incorporate the millions of books which now live in the library. Rockefeller funded a library across the road in the thirties which is now undergoing a complete restoration: unromantically, there’s also a huge repository in Swindon too.

  5. Dear Kate, long years ago I read “Beowulf” for the first time and met the phrase “treasure trove.” As I recall that sort of term has a special definition that I can’t think of now. Later I studied Old English at Marquette and learned more about the wonders of that old Anglo-Saxon language. But perhaps “treasure trove” has some beginnings in French also. Whatever, that’s the term that came to my mind when I read your posting on this magnificent library and its books. Book after book after book after book being shelved there and laid out through the ages from dark to enlightenment to contemporary. What is so reassuring to me is that even today there are humans who truly appreciate the bound book, the scroll, the possibility of holding within two hands the wisdom of the ages. This is a wonder that humbles me. Peace.

  6. I always get an eerie feeling in libraries, Kate. It’s an oddly sinister feel that’s exaggerated by hushed whispers underneath the – what appears to be – enclosed silence. Seeing a chained book in the flesh would probably finish me off. I don’t know why I feel this way about libraries…

  7. Have I just been soaked in oil and wrapped in leather? What architecture, Kate. Do you absorb these surroundings like vapour manna? I feel as though I would muzzle anyone who spoke while I gaped.

  8. Unbelievably beautiful. I’ll have to see if this outstanding library is featured in a lovely book I received as a gift from a friend. The whole book is photos from the world’s most beautiful libraries. I have often thought that even in my lifetime I’ve seen the price of books plummet and become easily purchased. When I was a child books were a prize because they were expensive (I sound really old) and we relied almost entirely on libraries. I still just love walking into a beautiful library and have a few lovely ones to choose from–but nothing at all like this. Wow!

  9. Ah, library books. When we lived in Indiana, I swear it, they used to send the police to your house when you had overdue library books. My wonderful librarian mother (not from Indiana) said “oh no” to that. But books in chains? Oh dear, I don’t know what to say about that one.

  10. Hi Michelle! Library police, the very thought πŸ˜€ I would fall foul of them: I’m a terror for incurring library fines. The chains would be perfect to manage people like me.

  11. I should make better use of our library than I do. Too often, I’m at Barnes and Noble sipping a tea or latte before I go to check out what books they have. To cut down on spending, I bought a Nook. Now, I have access to my library (I’m told) on the Nook. Delightful.

  12. The Bodleian Library is on my bucket list. (I don’t have a bucket list, I just created one just now and put the Bodleian on it.) I haven’t been to Oxford yet, just Cambridge. I had no idea they chained books. I can see why they would have done it, but ohh, heartbreaking. Shame they don’t allow photos in the library, but all the more reason for me to get over there and see for myself. Thanks for the story and these beautiful photos, Kate.

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