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John Leland: The man who saved medieval knowledge

John Leland toured England and Wales in the 1530s, recording the holdings of monastic libraries just before the Dissolution. James Carley, Leland's most recent editor, reveals what he saw in the lost libraries

Published: January 19, 2011 at 4:43 pm
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This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


John Leland was the last witness of some of the greatest treasures of medieval literature. During the 1530s, he toured the libraries of England’s monasteries, the chief repositories of knowledge in the Middle Ages. Thus he saw them just before the break-up of their collections in the Dissolution. In the process he saved a wealth of knowledge, particularly through his greatest work, a bibliography of British writers, which has just been given its first edition in over 200 years.

Leland was born in London c1503 and was educated at St Paul’s School in the new humanist mode that was sweeping Europe. After his years of study at Cambridge and Oxford, he travelled to Paris in 1527 in order to complete his education at the feet of the French masters frequenting the Sorbonne. He was a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, and when he departed for France, he left a land confirmed in its strict religious orthodoxy – one in which Henry VIII had been honoured by the pope with the title of Defender of the Faith.

When Leland came home late in 1529, he was, quite understandably, convinced that the dark recesses of the English monastic libraries were full of treasures that would throw light on the classical past – this is, after all, what the great French Renaissance scholars were discovering in their libraries and bringing into print. Yet what Leland found was a country undergoing radical religious and political change: Wolsey had fallen into disgrace and the king was becoming increasingly frustrated by Pope Clement VII’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother, Arthur.

One of the ways to resolve this clash with the pope, as Henry and his circle of advisors were increasingly convinced, was through an examination of ancient manuscripts that might contain in their dusty leaves precedents for Henry’s stand against Rome or, even more radically, proof of England’s right to exist as a sovereign nation in ecclesiastical as well as political matters. This glint in the reformers’ collective eye would become official doctrine in 1533, the year of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, when the Act of Restraint of Appeals to Rome boldly stated that “divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles” established that England had always been an empire exempt from “the authority of other foreign potentates”, including the pope himself.

There were grave dangers in the confrontation with Rome – the interdict against King John back in the 13th century was a stark reminder – and Henry’s advisors realised that a strong case had to be made for the claims put forth in the 1533 act. The king’s minister Thomas Cromwell argued that irrefutable evidence must be amassed, that a royal library full of pertinent documents needed to be assembled.

For his part Leland was on the lookout for new patrons and was desperate to see what the English libraries contained. He had known Cromwell from his time in Wolsey’s service and so it was no surprise when, in 1533, he was supplied with some sort of official letter from Henry, authorising him “to peruse and diligently to serche al the libraries of monasteries and collegies of this yowre noble reaulme”. Armed with this document he set out almost immediately after the coronation of Queen Anne – he had provided verses for the London pageants celebrating the event – on his first tour of monastic libraries.

This trip began at the Dominican house in Guildford in Surrey, followed by the Cistercian monastery at Waverley where Leland was pleased to discover an ancient Life of St Thomas Becket. This is a text that wouldn't have interested him so much five years later when Becket was repudiated by the English church as a traitor to his nation.

As Leland travelled along the south coast in the direction of Cornwall, he unearthed other succulent delights, some of which he 'borrowed' from the unwilling monks: Bede's history of the English church in Old English, William of Malmesbury's Life of St Patrick (now lost and witnessed only by Leland's notes), an ancient Life of St Swithun, now in the Bodleian Library, and an extraordinarily important collection of the writings of the early church father Tertullian, subsequently sent abroad and then lost. There were more esoteric items as well: unknown writings by famous authors, such as the lost Hexameron, or a description of the six days of creation, by the 13th-century theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and texts by other individuals whose names would have fallen into oblivion had it not been for Leland's eagle eye.

Illustrious ancestors

Fascinating as these ancient manuscripts might be, they were not necessarily what Leland's patrons desired, and shrewdly he chose this south-westerly route because it would take him to Glastonbury Abbey, where the bones of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere were supposedly lodged, and where over the centuries many of Henry's illustrious ancestors had come to worship. In the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth had written a hugely popular and influential History of the Kings of Britain in which he told the story of King Arthur establishing a British empire and challenging powers across Europe, including the pope in Rome. Ever since then, English kings had looked to the quasi-historical figure to bolster their own positions. In the 1530s, Henry's advisors used King Arthur's reign as the context for questioning the rights and powers of the papacy.

When Leland arrived at Glastonbury, exhausted after weeks of travel, he was overwhelmed by what he saw: "I immediately went to the library, which is not open to all, in order to examine most diligently the relics of sacred antiquity, of which there is so great a number that it is not easily paralleled anywhere else in Britain. Scarcely had I crossed the threshold when the mere sight of the ancient books struck my mind with an awe or amazement of some kind, and for that reason I stopped in my tracks for awhile. Then, having saluted the genius loci, I spent some days searching through all the bookshelves with the greatest curiosity".

Apart from “many other manuscripts of amazing age”, as he described them, Leland discovered a fragment, now lost, of the writings of the ancient British bard Melkin, forerunner of the prophet Merlin, which confirmed that Joseph of Arimathea journeyed to Britain after the crucifixion bearing cruets containing the blood and sweat of Jesus.

Leland was not convinced by everything that Melkin proclaimed but he reported the find to his superiors and added information from a now lost manuscript of Gerald of Wales's Speculum Ecclesiae, which contained an almost contemporary account of the excavation that uncovered the remains of King Arthur in the Glastonbury cemetery in 1190/91.

Leland was delighted by the reception at Glastonbury and the accessibility of the collection – and hailed his host, the elderly abbot Richard Whiting, as "a truly splendid man and my special friend". After Whiting's execution on Glastonbury Tor in 1539 by Henry's agents – condemned in part because he was found with a copy of a 'counterfeit' Life of Becket in his possession – he judiciously struck this phrase out of his account.

Not all libraries were as well stocked as that at Glastonbury, and Leland was disappointed when he finally got to Oxford in the autumn of 1533. He had been eagerly anticipating the chance to examine the book collection assembled by the eminent philosopher and theologian Robert Grossesteste (d1253), bishop of Lincoln, which was reputedly stored at the Franciscan convent in Oxford. The friars tried to deny him access to the library – he called them 'braying asses' – but his royal warrant eventually triumphed. "Good God! What did I find there? I found dust, cobwebs, bookworms, moths; in short, filth and destitution. I actually did discover some books, but I should not willingly have paid threepence for them. Looking for treasures I found nothing but coals."

Leland’s description of the visit, made five years before the dissolution of all the mendicant houses in England – the mendicant orders of friars depended on the charity of the faithful and in principle did not own property, even collectively – ends ironically: “Go ahead, then, bishops and leave your treasures to friars of this sort”. It serves as a justification of the fate that was soon to descend upon these unworthy custodians; individuals, as Leland had observed at Evesham a few weeks earlier, who would be better served by being well read than well fed.

In 1534 Leland travelled to East Anglia, to Yorkshire and as far north as County Durham. Still on friendly terms with the monastic (as opposed to mendicant) librarians, he was entertained well and the libraries opened to him. At the Cistercian monastery of Jervaulx in Yorkshire, as he complacently observed: “Once he had read the king’s letter of introduction, the abbot showed me every kindness and took me immediately into his library, well filled with books. Then he went off to his official duties, and I eagerly sought out ancient manuscripts.”

A rare privilege

Leland was, in other words, left on his own with the collection, free to root around as he wished. It was a rare privilege, as readers of The Name of the Rose will well realise. One of the manuscripts he discovered at Jervaulx was a copy of the history of Britain attributed to the ninth-century Welsh monk Nennius. This is the first known text to list the 12 battles of Arthur and it was an important source for Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. A major find, the manuscript survives at St John's College, Oxford.

The following year Leland rode throughout Kent, examining library after library with delight. He was especially taken by the collection at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. As he knew, this monastery had once contained some of the earliest Greek and Latin biblical texts in England, reputedly brought from Rome at the time of the mission in 597, when Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to bring Christianity to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Although manuscripts had been destroyed by fire or torn up by monks unable to read Greek, rare volumes remained for him to see, in particular a sixth-century gospel book associated with St Augustine himself. Now at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, it is still used in the enthronement ceremonies of each incoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1536 the act authorising the dissolution of the lesser monasteries was passed. This was the first stage of the process by which the monasteries, priories, convents and friaries of England, Wales and Ireland were closed down and their wealth and land appropriated by the king. Henry needed the money, and he also needed to ensure that the monasteries could not become centres of papal support.

Though the Dissolution gave a new urgency to the task of recovering books from monastic and mendicant libraries, Leland suddenly stopped recording their contents in 1537 and began a prolonged series of itineraries that focused on places, crops and buildings rather than religious houses and their books. What caused this radical shift in focus?

The first suppressions sparked almost immediate reactions throughout East Anglia and Yorkshire and these culminated in the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, whose goal was a return to the Roman fold. Retribution was swift and vicious: the leaders of the movement were summarily put to death and this was followed by further dissolutions as well as executions of the ‘treacherous’, many of whom, including the abbot of Jervaulx, had warmly entertained Leland and counted him among their supporters. Cannily, then, Leland distanced himself from the monastic world and concentrated on less provocative matters. His accounts of the English landscape, brimming with patriotism, continue to appear in modern guidebooks and local histories.

By the time Leland returned to his studies in 1543, now a prebendary at King Henry VIII College (the future Christ Church Oxford), the situation had changed drastically. There were no monasteries left, no libraries to investigate. Their treasures had been dispersed or destroyed with no care for their value.

Wicked pettifogger

The situation at New College, Oxford was typical: as the notorious monastic inspector Richard Layton – described by Leland as a wicked pettifogger – gloated: "We found all the great quadrant court full of the leaves of Duns [Scotus – the medieval theologian and philosopher], the wind blowing them into every corner". It was a fate that even radical Protestants, such as Leland's friend John Bale, lamented: "A great nombre of them whych purchased those superstycyouse mansyons, reserved of those lybrarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes [privies], some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, & some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, & some they sent over see to the bokebynders, not in small nombre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to the wonderynge of the foren nacyons".

From the ashes of this destruction, however, came Leland's great bio-bibliographical history of British writers, De Viris Illustribus, in which he set out to describe every writer of the kingdom from the very earliest times to his own day, and to list every book written by any of his countrymen, based on the knowledge he had amassed in the libraries he had examined. It was a monumental task and ultimately it broke him – there was simply too much to record and the evidence was disappearing around him on a daily basis – and he fell into insanity on 21 February 1547.

Fortunately his contemporaries were aware of the value of what he left behind: a unique witness to pre-Dissolution England. His writings, described by Bale as “a wondre, yea a myracle to the worlde”, were committed to the care of Sir John Cheke, tutor to Edward VI. Bale was vociferous in his cry for their publication. It was, he said, for just this kind of purpose that “God hath in thys age geven the noble art of prentynge”.

Nevertheless, Leland has not been well served by posterity and his De Viris Illustribus, this "infynyte treasure of knowledge", languished, like the books and authors it described, in decaying manuscript state until the 18th century when a partial and often misleading edition was produced (and immediately condemned as shoddy by contemporaries). I have just completed a new edition and translation, which unravels many of the textual problems resulting from Leland's constant revisions and restores deleted passages. It also reveals how this physical object with all its accretions – Leland scribbled between the lines, in the margins, over deleted phrases – tracks the course of the early phases of the English Reformation and shows what was lost in the process. Leland has, at last, been restored from "deadly darkenesse to lyvelye lyght".

Leland's travels

John Leland’s tour of monasteries and libraries unearthed a wealth of historic treasures, sometimes from the most unexpected places


A remarkable find

One of Leland's finds in the library at Glastonbury Abbey was St Dunstan's Classbook, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Made up of four distinct booklets dating from the ninth to the tenth centuries – one a copy of Ovid's Art of Love – it was brought together as a single entity by St Dunstan. Prostrating himself before the image of Christ on the first folio is a drawing of a tonsured monk. This may be a self-portrait by the saint himself.


Athelstan's gospel book

At St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Leland found a tenth-century gospel book given to the monastery by King Athelstan (d939). An admirer of Athelstan, Leland appropriated the manuscript and presented it to King Henry, after having inscribed in it Latin verses that flattered both rulers.


An early reformer's book

Another book Leland brought to the royal library was a 12th-century copy of a commentary on St Matthew's gospel by Claudius of Turin (died c827) which he discovered at Llanthony Priory. This early reformer anticipated Henrician policy in his attack on relics and his repudiation of pilgrimages. The manuscript was stored at Westminster Palace and is found in the inventory of the library taken in 1542.


A fine purple manuscript

Now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York is a remarkable tenth-century gospel book, the text written in letters of gold on parchment-stained purple. It is one of the finest purple manuscripts in existence. Leland acquired this book for Henry VIII from the Collegiate Church at Ripon when he accompanied the king on his royal progress to York in 1541. Henry treasured the gift; verses were added, perhaps composed by Leland, proclaiming him disseminator of the sacred word to the people.


Medieval poetry

When he visited Crowland Abbey in 1534 Leland was pleased to discover a copy of the verse epic on the Trojan War by the immensely important, but now much-neglected, medieval poet Joseph of Exeter (d1210). He also found a manuscript containing the lives of St Winifred, St Guthlac and St Ivo, which he appropriated for his own use. It is now stored in the municipal library at Douai.


Borrowing and annotating

Leland provides us with a rare glimpse of the collection of books at the small Augustinian Priory at Southwick in Hampshire. He borrowed the copy owned by the canons of a history of England by the 12th-century chronicler Henry of Huntington and subsequently annotated it. It was, however, never returned to the priory, which fell in 1538, and is now found among the Arundel manuscripts at the British Library.


A lost library

Leland stated that in spite of losses "there is still no library in London to compare with that of the Carmelites for the number or antiquity of its manuscripts" and he listed 61 titles from manuscripts he examined there. The collection virtually disappeared in 1538 and only 18 manuscripts still survive.


Bad judgement

At Tynemouth Priory, Leland discovered a chronicle by an unknown author so exciting that he immediately "skimmed through it, reading quickly". Nor could he part with it when he left the priory and he took it back to London. Now in the Cotton library, the chronicle is actually highly derivative. This is one of the few examples of his bad judgement in bibliographical matters.


James P Carley is distinguished research professor at York University in Toronto and an associate fellow of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. His edition and translation of John Leland's De Viris Illustribus is published by the Pontifical Institute and the Bodleian Library.


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