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

This engraving by Charles Grignion (1717–1810) is taken from a lost bust of John Leland at All Souls College, Oxford. Leland's bibliography of British writers is a unique record of the country's medieval literature before it was decimated by Henry VIII's agents. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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.

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