York Minster exhibition reveals the Great Lost Eighth Century Library of Alcuin's York

By Richard Moss | 04 March 2011
a photo of a medieval parchment manuscript
A section of the manuscript Eclogae moralium Gregorii in Iob© Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Exhibition: Alcuin’s Library - The Great Lost Library of Eighth-century York at the Old Palace, York Minster until April 15 2011.

The city of York can boast many eminent incarnations, most famously its stints as a Roman and Viking town, but in the eighth century it owed its reputation as a European intellectual centre to its library and school. 

Headed by the leading scholar Alcuin who went on to join the Carolingan Court of the Emperor Charlemagne, the school enjoyed the patronage of Archbishop Ecbert and was renowned as an important centre of ecclesiastical learning, science and the arts.

Although the history of the school, which today is known as St Peter’s, is well known as one of the oldest schools in the UK, the library that supported this great centre of scholarship has been lost – even to history. All trace of it and its manuscripts and books has disappeared.

Now a new exhibition organised by Dr Mary Garrison of the University of York, at York Minster Library reveals some of the clues that prove its existence.

part of an illuminated manuscript showing three scholar monks with books and parchments
The scholar Alcuin (middle), supports Raban Maur as he dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right)© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Wien
Copies of manuscripts from libraries across Europe and North America that are believed to have strong connections to Alcuin’s York are displayed together with new calligraphic designs based on the distinctive eighth-century Caroline minuscule script that Alcuin encouraged his scribes to use.

“The library has vanished,” says Dr Garrison. “No books now existing can be proven to have come from it. But it was extraordinary. Students came from afar to study with Alcuin.

“Scholarship and letters have been studied at York since the eighth-century and these beautiful traces of Alcuin’s library are a very moving record of that long history still alive today.”

Dr Garrison believes the library was either exported to mainland Europe or destroyed in the devastating Viking attacks on York and Northumbria in 866 and 867. “The library was dispersed or destroyed, but the surviving information about its growth, use and disappearance make a fascinating and inspiring story.”

A collaboration between the Old Palace (York Minster’s centre for historic collections), York University, local calligraphers, the Yorkshire Museum, and the Danelaw Living History Centre at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, the exhibition pieces together delicate yet beautiful fragments of this forgotten world.
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