The Chained Library in Wimbourne Minster

The Chained Library above Wimbourne Minster in Dorset was built over 600 years ago. Although small, this collection of chained artifacts dates back 300 years, contains some unique historical documents and is in itself of historical significance. The rare items comprise the second largest Chained Library in the UK and also represents one of the first Public Libraries in the UK.

Left-handed people are always slightly bemused by the use of the word sinister. The word sinister also occurs in certain artefacts in the Wimbourne Chained Library including the fact that the staircase spiral was reversed in the ecclesiastical manner to deter swordsmen ascending to what was the old Treasury sadly ransacked by Henry VIII.

The shelves of the library are weighed down by over 350 volumes many of which are leather-clad. An interesting aspect of the shelves is the fact that the chained items are reversed with their spines facing inwards. Unlike other such libraries there are no shelves on which visitors can rest the books as the library was originally created for the Revd Stone to relocate his collection. He moved the collection down from Oxford after the restitution of the monarchy partly because he suspected that the collection of “Fathers and Commentators” that is relating to the early Christian Church, would have been considered the possessions of a papist and burnt by the public hangman at a place of execution despite Stone’s status as Protestant scholar. The remainder of Stone’s library was sold and the funds used, amongst other things, to pay for a Hospital for the poor and sick, now known as Stone’s Court in St. Clements, Oxford.

The languages contained within the collection include Greek, Latin and Hebrew – sometimes all at once, such as in the Polyglot Bible in which the pages are divided up into regions for the different languages (try suggesting that to a publisher today). This was at a time when few amongst the local population would have even been able to read English.

It is hard for us in an age of instant printing presses and digital reproduction and file sharing to fully appreciate the uniqueness of the items contained here. The early printing presses were nothing short of revolutionary in the way that they changed the persistence and portability of knowledge. The books present here were printed on these very printing presses that were emerging in the 16th and 17th centuries and are also first editions in many cases. Thus, the four great Western or Latin Fathers are present: Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory. Also present, three of the four great Eastern or African Fathers: Basil, Gregory of Nazianus and Chrysostom. With a strong possibility of the fourth, in the form of Theophylact’s commentaries which he may have considered, as Erasmus did, to be the writings of Athanasius.

At a later date others such as Roger Gillingham added to the library through their bequests. Gillingham’s bequest was referred to as being typical of a gentleman’s library of the Restoration period with books on politics, gardening, geography, husbandry, etiquette and winemaking. These further additions were also chained in many cases, in order to protect them from the gentry and others who felt able to help themselves from such libraries. The 1708 Act of Parliament protected Parish Libraries though chaining but the Wimbourne Library falls outside such protection.

The chaining of books has going on for many centuries for a number of reasons ranging from simple theft to protection due to their scarcity or their controversial themes. Reference libraries would have been needed by those attending Universities in the 16th and 17th centuries. Books would be consulted by standing or using benches adjacent to the book shelves. Readers were restricted to an hour of access if another person was waiting. This was just as well as the oldest book in the library dates from 1343, the Regimen Animarum which means the Guiding of the Souls and advices on how we can avoid the Spiritual Dangers. The words are written on vellum in inks produced from oak apples and iron sulphate as well as red lead or mercuric sulphide.

As printing took off during the latter part of the 18th century the need for chained libraries diminished. By the 19th century most chains had been removed from books in libraries. However, what fascinates me about this insight in to the collecting of books is the strength of purpose and courage that went into the process. Even leaving aside the efforts of the printers, illustrators, copyists as well as the children who may have worn out their eyes and fingers making the chains, we should remember and thank the collectors.

With respect to libraries today, some comfort can be drawn from the fact that issues surrounding security, reproducibility and even borrowing and sharing are not new. We now face fewer conflicts over intolerance, bigotry and misunderstanding. However, such issues are still present and we do well to remember that as we seek to understand the world around us preserve such complexity for future generations to disentangle.