May 24 – A visit to the Chained Library, Wells Cathedral

Two Fascinating Visitors

Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic

Today we had two very interesting visitors. One was Ruth Ames-White who is an artist who specialises in mosaic art. She has been granted a commission to create a large 30 square metre mosaic in the grounds surrounding the cathedral with 32 smaller panels depicting the history of Wells. It sounds like a very interesting project which may take 3 years to complete. They have finished the consultation period but now she has to add to her workshop to accommodate such a large artwork. We had a lot in common and talked for ages. We will watch her work with anticipation.

The other interesting visitor was Donald Wells. He is an 81-year-old gentleman who is cycling from Lands End to John of Groats in a Brompton fold-up bicycle alone carrying all his own gear. He had called into Wells to see the cathedral on his way. It could take two weeks to do the trip but he was taking 6 weeks so that he could take a leisurely pace and see the sights on his way. I asked why he was going that way as it would be uphill all the way but he said that he was going with the prevailing wind. He has already cycled the Camino de Santiago and various other trails around Europe.

At lunchtime Kevin Spears, the head librarian of Well Cathedral Library gave us a tour of the chained library. This is one of only 4 chained libraries remaining in the UK and was built between 1430 and 1508. It houses 1800 volumes on theology but also science, history, exploration and languages. There are some medieval manuscripts but most of the medieval books were lost during the Reformation. Most of their books were published before 1800. Most books have been given to the cathedral or were collected by the canons in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and demonstrate a wide variety of intellectual interests. There are still examples of chained books which were chained from the open edge of the book so are on the shelf backwards. In those early days, books were placed on the shelves randomly making finding books quite difficult. The  Dewey Decimal System was not invented until 1876 in the United States by Melvil Dewey.

Before 1540 all the books were handwritten but with the advent of the printing press in 1540 more books became available. However, they were only able to print in black so all pictures were hand coloured. There was also something called ‘subscription’ printing where the publisher would be paid in advance for so many copies of a book and the subscriber would receive his book and hand colour it to his own specifications. As a result of these subscriptions, it then paid for the printing of more less superior copies of the book to be printed. We were able to see several examples of these commercially printed but hand-coloured books. Modern printing began in the fifteenth century after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg(1398-1468).

We also saw a lovely example of Brian Walton’s “Polyglot Bible”. The book came out in six great folios. The first volume in September 1654; the second in July 1655; the third in July 1656; and the last three in 1657. Nine languages are used: Hebrew, Chaldee, Samaritan, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Ethiopic, Greek and Latin. Another interesting book was Foxes Book of Martyrs from 1583. Another lovely book interesting was “An account of the Voyages” undertaken by Order of His Present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook which was published in three volumes in 1773.

One of Kevin’s favourite books is “De Vyerighe Colom” by Jacob Aertsz Colom in 1632.  Jacob Colom was a Marine Cartographer from 1600 – 673 and his detailed books also gave instructions on the art of navigation and included “pop-ups”. “The Theatre of the Whole World” published in London in 1606 and written by Abraham Ortelius is fabulous and is copper engraved and hand coloured. We were also able to see an early medieval manuscript from “The Abbey of Hayles“.

We were very grateful to Kevin for giving us a great tour of the Wells Cathedral Chained Library and it certainly made our day.