I am a medievalist in the process of completing a PhD (involving medieval medicine). I travel as much as possible at home (UK) and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences!
Published July 13th 2015
Discover rare books in one of the last chained libraries
During the Middle Ages, books were very expensive and labour-intensive to produce. A number of solutions were devised to protect these precious books, such as locking them away in chests and private collections. The book curse, written into a manuscript by a scribe, was a potent warning for potential thieves. James Thompson in his book The Medieval Library records one such example: "Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged."
Chained libraries were developed to both protect the books and allow access to readers. Books were physically chained to their shelves and desks were arranged for readers to consult them. With the development of the printing press, which reduced cost, increased speed of production, and greatly broadened access to books, chained libraries were no longer necessary. Today, only a handful of such libraries survive.
St Wulfram's Church in Grantham, Lincolnshire is one of the finest medieval churches in England. The Francis Trigge Chained Library known as "the great treasure of the church" was established in 1598 by Reverend Francis Trigge, Rector of Welbourn. The library contains 356 items, including 80 chained volumes. One of the oldest items in the collection is a 1472 incunabulum (technical term for an early printed book prior to 1500).
The library is accessible via a small door and a circular medieval staircase of hand-cut stone steps. The library is contained in the medieval vicar's former residence. I wondered how often he tripped on these treacherous steps, especially in the dark with only a candle to light the way. The only evidence left in the library to signify that it was once a residence is a blocked fireplace and a piscina - term for a basin recessed into the wall that was used for washing. A corroded handle, which would have held a bucket, is still hidden within in the upper space of the piscina. In the second photo below the piscina is visible behind the open book on the stand.
The majority of the chained volumes are bibles, sermon collections, and theological texts, including the collected works of Aquinas and Calvin. There is a rare copy of the Vinegar Bible, which contains a printing error in the heading of Luke 20 which reads "The Parable of the Vinegar" instead of "The Parable of the Vineyard." The library also contains a miniature chained book that requires a magnifying glass to read (pictured below).
Isaac Newton attended the King's School located near St Wulfram's. The warden stated that Newton was known to visit the library. It is remarkable to be in the presence of books read by the young Newton.
A warden will accompany you on your visit to the library. The warden is full of knowledge about these volumes and the history of the library and will happily talk you through items of interest.
St Wulfram's is one of the largest medieval churches in England. The chained library is a rare attraction, but it is not the only feature of note in the building. You may wish to explore the following on your visit.
The Crypt Chapel
The church's namesake, St Wulfram, was a seventh century missionary to North Germany. He was born in Fontainebleau and was the Archbishop of Sens. During the Middle Ages, the Crypt Chapel housed a shrine containing the relics of the saint. The church was a place of pilgrimage for medieval worshippers who made lengthy journeys to visit the saint's relics in hope of miracles. Today, the Blessed Sacrament is stored in the Chapel. In the second photo below, note the worn stone in front of the altar from centuries of worship.
In the Lady Chapel, a curious smiling hippo is carved into the base of an arch around a stained glass window. It has been eroded by time and it is somewhat difficult to see, but in the photo below you can just make out a hippo's wide grin and its tiny ear flaps. If you have trouble locating it, a warden will happily help you to find it. Its origins are a mystery and it is the only hippo carving in the church.
The medieval font (1496) is decorated with a stunning cover from 1899. Within the cover are three carved figures - Edward the Confessor, St Hugh of Lincoln, and St Wulfram. The font is still in use to baptise about 50 children a year, according to the church's website.
The Visitor's Centre contains a small museum of church artefacts, including the original medieval chest that housed the most prized treasures of the church. Unfortunately, the treasures were stolen in a later century, but the chest is an interesting item for its age and connection with the history of the church.
The coffee shop serves tea, coffee, and a delightful selection of cakes made by the parishioners. The shop is open April to September, Wednesday to Friday, 10:00am - 4:00pm, and Saturday 10:00am - 1:00pm.
The library is open during the summer at the following times: