Reading, Scholarship and the Art of the Book at Reading Abbey

By Harriet Mahood

On the 17th April, the University of Reading played host to “Reading, Scholarship and the Art of the Book at Reading Abbey” which considered a wide variety of aspects of Reading abbey’s history, with special attention to its books and scholarship.

Lindy Grant (Reading) began the day with her paper on Reading Abbey in its cultural and intellectual, international context.


Professor Lindy Grant

Lindy spoke about the abbey’s lack of ‘brand recognition’ in Britain and in the wider academic world, despite it being one of the most important ecclesiastical institutions in medieval Europe.

She then went on to present a short history of the abbey and its early abbots, demonstrating that those abbots were pivotal figures in the international, Cluniac order. In turn, the importance of the abbots reflects the status of the abbey, which saw the burial of its founder, Henry I, shortly after its construction.

Reading abbey would go on to influence a series of abbeys across Britain, including Jedburgh in Scotland and Romsey in S England, whose impressively arcaded naves share an aesthetic with that of the now-ruined Reading abbey.


Tessa Webber (Cambridge) followed, speaking on Reading in the Refectory at Reading Abbey. Her paper was accompanied by some wonderfully crisp images from Oxford St John’s College MS 11. She discussed the importance of reading at mealtimes, which is outlined in the Benedictine Rule, Chapter 38:

Reading must not be wanting at the table of the brethren when they are eating. Neither let anyone who may chance to take up the book venture to read there; but let him who is to read for the whole week enter upon that office on Sunday. After Mass and Communion let him ask all to pray for him that God may ward off from him the spirit of pride. And let the following verse be said three times by all in the oratory, he beginning it: Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam, and thus having received the blessing let him enter upon the reading.

Let the deepest silence be maintained that no whispering or voice be heard except that of the reader alone. …

The brethren will not read or sing in order, but only those who edify their hearers.

The refectory itself was alone amongst the claustral buildings in rivalling the church in size, and accommodated a pulpit and stairs, often set into the walls of the building. The cycle of the monastic year was accentuated by carefully-chosen texts read aloud to the monks.

Unfortunately the customary for Reading (a document that essentially laid out the ideal day-to-day operation/customs of a monastery) has been lost.   However, Oxford, St John’s College, MS 11 preserves the readings for two months, which gives us a hint of how the year progressed. These readings are even highlighted by rubrics at the top of the page, for example stating that the specified text is intended for the Saturday during the third week of Lent.

Michael Gullick (Independent) then followed, speaking on Reflections on the Reading Abbey Romanesque Book Collections and Documents. He discussed the actual manufacture of books at Reading abbey, beginning with its late-twelfth-century catalogue. The ‘catalogue’ is essentially a book-list of all the books owned by the abbey, including ‘library’ and ‘liturgical’ books. This is unusual as such lists usually contain one or the other.

The books themselves were probably viewed as ‘spiritual capital’ and seen not only as material possessions, but also as impacting on the spiritual welfare of the monastery. He then discussed possible reasons for the creation of the book-list, suggesting that it was produced in part to reinforce the power, wealth and intellectual prestige of the monastery.

Evidence for tracing the Reading scribes comes from illuminated initials, with ‘arabesque’ ornament. To sum up his conclusions, it has previously been thought that a ‘Reading style’ was used by a group of collaborating scribe-artists; but in fact these initials are probably the work of a single scribe. This particular scribe seems to have been the most prolific (or his work survives the best) as his style is the most recognisable in the Reading books. Thus, this was not a ‘house’ style, but suggests that scribe-artists arrived already trained at the abbey and were allowed to practise their own styles.  Further evidence comes from comparisons between surviving manuscripts and documents produced in the abbey at the same time.


Laura Clever

Laura Cleaver (Dublin) spoke next on History Books at Reading and Bec.

Laura was interested in what historical books were kept by Reading abbey. but also in what was being produced by the abbey; and amongst the abbey’s collections were copies of the lives of Charlemagne and Alexander the Great. She too used similarities between illuminated initials in different manuscripts to infer textual and/or scribal connections between them, from which she postulated that there was a ‘historian’ at Reading either actively seeking out other histories as resources for his own, or maybe even travelling to find them.

Anne Lawrence (Reading) gave the last paper before lunch, on The Reading Abbey computus manuscript and its context. Anne has been working for several years on computus manuscripts, which allowed you to calculate Easter (amongst other uses) and has dated the Reading one to 1132-5. She also presented evidence that a great deal of care went into its copying and use.


Dr Anne Lawrence

Anne highlighted that the exemplar had an error in its chapter headings, which the Reading copyist had attempted to correct. Alongside this, the text is also accompanied by marginal comments aimed to help the trainee monk in understanding Bede’s original text.

Reading’s computus was created to be used and applied, not just to be a classical text, studied within the monastery. Whether the original scribe was a Reading monk, or someone brought in, we simply do not know. But we can show that they knew what they were doing and that they understood the text they were transcribing and annotating.

Nigel Morgan launched the afternoon’s session with a discussion of The Calendar and Litany of Reading Abbey. The surviving liturgical manuscripts for Reading are surprisingly few in comparison to other houses, yet Prof Morgan particularly wanted to address the nature of Reading’s liturgy in relation to its quasi-Cluniac status.


Nigel Morgan

As a bit of context, Reading was never officially linked to Cluny as Cluniac houses had to be (they all were subject to the mother house). This was due in part to Reading’s foundation as a royal abbey which granted it far more autonomy than the majority of Cluniac monasteries enjoyed.

Using Reading’s calendar, which lists the saints celebrated throughout the year, he argued that Reading was celebrating not only ‘Reading’ saints, but also those emphasised by Cluny, throughout the Middle Ages. He concluded by stating that a Cluniac monk arriving at Reading in the late twelfth century would have been familiar with the liturgy – and so would a monk arriving in the fifteenth. The liturgy remained Cluniac in his opinion and therefore, so did the monks.


Cynthia Johnston followed with an examination of manuscript decorations in ’In the custom of this country’: The transmigration of Bolognese decorative style in thirteenth-century Oxford and Reading Abbey Manuscripts.

Examining and tracing pen strokes and flourishes she convincingly argued for the migration of these manuscript decorations from Italy to Reading. Their distinctive thin lines and barley-head decorations make their presence in a manuscript unmistakeable.

Catherine Leglu (Reading) opened the last session of the day with Reading Abbey’s Anglo-Norman French bible: London British Library Royal MS 1 CIII.

Catherine took us on a whirlwind tour of Reading’s Anglo-Noman bible with particular attention paid to annotations and alterations. There are no marginal annotations, but spaces were left where words were added later. She postulated that perhaps this edition of the bible may have been used as a French-teaching aid for the monastery, and also that as only Genesis to Tobit are included, it is apparent that it was originally planned as part of a larger work (possibly up to 5 volumes).

Her conclusions are that 3 separate scribes were involved in its creation and that they attempted to correct an unsatisfactory exemplar. Their efforts are apparent and their translations are more concerned with definitions rather than doctrine; accuracy is their focus. For example they clarify potentially confusing French terms, or substitute more accurate French words than the ones offered in the exemplar.

Brian Kemp (Reading) brought the day to a close with his discussion of The Reading Abbey Formulary.


The formulary itself came into the possession of the Berkshire Record Office fairly recently and while it cannot be conclusively proved that it was Reading Abbey’s, analysis of its text demonstrates that it was definitely made for someone senior either at or working for the abbey; and Kemp argued that it was actually produced at the abbey.

A formulary is a compendium of forms/formulae, and is basically a guide for legal document writers on how to compose different letters and other formal documents. This formulary consists of 100 folios and measures 5 x 8 inches. Written in a single, fourteenth-century hand, it gives small excerpts in medieval French, with the majority of the texts in Latin.

It is a practical, business-like handbook, but does not seem to have suffered much wear, suggesting it was not in constant use and was perhaps only a reference book. Yet, the material within gives us a fascinating insight into the holdings and workings of the abbey. Future work on this exciting text will likely prove to be illuminating, and will add significantly to the history of the abbey.

The day was a great success and it was satisfying to see what a wealth of research has been done and is being done upon Reading’s old abbey. I first stumbled across the history of the abbey during my 2nd year as an undergraduate and it is one of the primary reasons I ended up becoming interested in the Middle Ages. It really is a fascinating and important site and its history is alive and well.

If you want to know more, and learn about a project aiming to open up the ruins to the public, please go here and support it in any way you can:

Proceedings from the day will be published in a special edition of Reading Medieval Studies.



Formulary photo:

Reading abbey:

All other images were taken on the day, or in the case of Jedburgh taken in 2011, by Harriet Mahood.

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