Early Books and Early Readers at York Minster Library

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York Minster Library is the largest cathedral library in the country, and with 121 incunabula – books printed between the invention of the printing press in 1454 and 1501 – it ranks as an important national collection. Although individual books have been studied, an holistic overview of the earliest books has not been undertaken for many years. This project will re-catalogue, research and contextualise the Minster’s incunabula.

The origins of the Minster Library can be traced to at least the eighth century, when the great scholar Alcuin assembled a library of manuscripts in York, but there is no record of a library at the Minster until the early fifteenth century. The will of the lawyer, academic and cleric John Neuton (c. 1350-1414), listed 35 manuscripts he gifted to the Minster, essentially founding the library we know today.

Some of the names of later donors of incunabula to the Minster are well known, others less so. In 1628 Frances Matthew famously gave 3,000 books from the library of her husband, Archbishop Tobie Matthew (1546-1628), whilst Ferdinando Fairfax (1584-1648), commander of the parliamentary forces in Yorkshire during the Civil War, presented his library between 1644 and 1648. Other fifteenth-century books arrived from less noteworthy sources, gifted by canons, deans and local vicars and deposited with parochial libraries.

The period between Neuton’s bequest and the major donations of the early seventeenth century remains little explored. It is hoped that this project will help to enhance our understanding of the history of the Minster Library, and of York, in a tumultuous period which saw the arrival of the printing press, the Renaissance, the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries.