Friday, February 1, 2013

Byzantine and Monastic Libraries

During the Middle Ages, there was no Rome of the kind that ruled the Mediterranean for centuries and spawned the culture that produced twenty-eight public libraries in the urbs Roma (Bischoff, 1994).  The empire had been divided then later re-united again under Constantine the Great who moved the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 A.D. to the city of Byzantium which was renamed Constantinople (Staikos, 2007, p. 12).  The Roman intellectual culture that flourished in ancient times was undergoing a transformation as the academic world moved from laymen to Christian clergy (Staikos, 2007, p.8).  As the West crumbled, books and libraries flourished and flowed east toward the Byzantine Empire (Murray, 2009, p.24).  There, four different types of libraries were established: imperial, patriarchal, monastic, and private (Papademtriou, 2000).  Each had it own purpose and, as a result, their survival varied. 
Christianity was a new force in Europe and many of the faithful saw Hellenistic culture as pagan.  As such, many Greek classics, originally written on scrolls, were left to decay as only Christian texts were thought fit for preservation in a codex, the progenitor of the modern book (Lyons, 2011, pp. 35-36).  In the East, however, this was not the case as many of these classical Greek and Roman texts were copied (Murray, 2009, p. 50). 
In Byzantium, much of this work devoted to preserving Hellenistic thought in codex form was performed in scriptoriums by monks (Peterson, 2010, p. 320).  While monastic scriptoriums flourished throughout the East and West, the rules governing them were generally the same (Murray, 2009; Peterson, 2010).  Barren and sun-lit rooms (because candles were a source of fire) were major features of the scriptorium that was both a model of production and monastic piety (Murray, 2009, pp. 36, -38).  Monks scribbled away for hours a day, interrupted only by meals and prayers (Murray, 2009, p.36).  With such production, medieval monasteries began to accumulate large libraries.  These libraries were devoted solely to the education of the monks and were seen as essential to their spiritual development (Peterson, 2010, p.329).  Although most of these texts that were produced were Christian in nature, many monastic leaders saw common virtues in the Greek classics.  As a result, many of these Greek works were copied, and thus saved, in monastic scriptoriums (Peterson, 2010, pp. 330-331).
When Europe passed into the Dark Ages, Byzantine scriptoriums laboriously preserved Greco-Roman classics. As a result, Byzantium revived Classical models of education and libraries (Thompson, 1957, p. 311).  The Imperial Library of Constantinople was an important depository of ancient knowledge.  Constantine himself wanted such a library but his short rule denied him the ability to see his vision to fruition. His son Constantius II made this dream a reality and created an imperial library in a portico of the royal palace (Thompson, 1957, p. 312).  He ruled for 24 years and accelerated the development of the library and the intellectual culture that came with such a vast accumulation of books (Staikos, 2007, pp. 30-31). 
(Constatine's Palace and home of the Imperial Library)
Constantius II appointed Themistius, a pagan philosopher and teacher, as chief architect of this library building program.  Themistius set about a bold program to create an imperial public library that would be the centerpiece of the new intellectual capital of Constantinople (Stoikos, 2007, p. 33). Classical authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Thucydides, Homer, and Zeno were sought.  Themeistius hired calligraphers and craftsman to produce the actual codices.  He also appointed educators and created a university-like school centered around the library (Staikos, 2007, pp. 32-33). 
After the death of Constatntius II, Julian the Apostate, a bibliophile intellectual, ruled briefly for less than three years. Despite this, he had a profound impact on the imperial library and sought both Christian and pagan books for the imperial library (Thompson, 1957, p. 312).   Later, the Emperor Valens hired Greek and Latin scribes full-time with from the royal treasury to copy and repair manuscripts (Thompson, 1957, pp. 312-313). 
At its height in the fifth century, the Imperial Library of Constantinople had 120,000 volumes and was the largest library in Europe (Thompson, 1957, p. 313).  A fire in 477 consumed the entire library but it was rebuilt only to be burned again in 726, 1204, and in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks (Hillerbrand, 2006, p. 603). 
Monastic libraries, often cloistered and protected, thrived during the middle ages.  So for example while the Imperial Library was being destroyed by the invading Turks in 1453, the library of the Prodromos Monastery was saved from damage and passed peacefully from Christian into Muslim hands as a gift to the mother of Sultan Mehmet II’s grand vizier (Staikos, 2007, p. 429).  The monastery was established in the sixth century.  Later a scriptorium was established and several scribes employed.  Classical and theological works were produced by the scriptorium, a few of which still survive (Staikos, 2007, p. 429). 
Patriarchal libraries fared no better, and sometimes worse, than the Imperial Library.  The Library of the Patriarchate of Constantinople was founded most likely during the reign of Constantine the Great in the fourth century (Staikos, 2007, p. 43).  As a theological library, it was known to have employed a library classification system (Staikos, 2007, p. 44).  It also served as a repository of several ecumenical councils such as the Council of Nicea, Council of Ephesus, and the Council of Chalcedon (Staikos, 2007, p.44).  The library, which employed a librarian and assistants, may have been originally located in the Patriarch’s official residence before it was moved to the Thomaites Triclinus in the seventh century (Staikos, 2007, p.44).  While much is not known about the actual library itself, it is known that many of its contents were subject to destruction as religious in-fighting ultimately resulted in book burnings (Staikos, 2007, p. 44-45). 
During this period, small private libraries existed.  Many of these were owned by church members and the aristocracy (Staikos, 2007, p.429).  Teachers also were known to have small personal libraries as well as wealthy bibliophiles who could afford the highly ornate books of the period (Thompson, 1957, pp.313-314).
After the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, many books entered into what could be called a sort of Codex Diaspora.  Books left libraries, great and small, and travelled both east and west.  Many classical Greek works were kept by the Muslims who further aided in their preservation (Murray, 2009, p.50). Theological works, on the other hand, were not favored in Islamic centers of education.  Fortunately, and unlike their Christian predecessors, many Muslims opted to sell these codices to Europeans rather than burn them, thus preserving a rich monastic and religious cultural heritage (Thompson, 1957, p. 329). 
Bischoff, B. and Gorman, M. (1994). Manuscripts and libraries in the age of Charlemagne.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Hillerbrand, H. J. (2006). On book burnings and book burners: Reflections on the power (and powerlessness) of ideas. Journal of The American Academy Of Religion, (3), 593.
Lyons, M. (2011). Books: A living history. London: Thames and Hudson. 
Murray, S.A.P.(2009). The Library: An illustrated history. New York: Sky Horse Publishing. 
Papademetriou, G. C. (2000). The Patriarchal libraries of Constantinople. Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 45(1-4), 171-190. 
Peterson, H. A. (2010). The Genesis of monastic libraries. Libraries & The Cultural Record, 45(3), 320-332.
Staikos, K. K. (2004). The history of the library in Western civilization. New Castle, Del. : Oak Knoll Press.
Thompson, J.W. (1957). The medieval library. New York: Hafner Publishing Co.


  1. Hello!
    My name is Silviu – Constantin Nedelcu and I am a student of Letters Faculty, University of Bucharest, Romania, specialisation Science of Information and Documentation.
    I’m writting an articol about the Imperial library of Constantinople and I have searched for materials on the internet and I saw your blog, that I think is very interesting.
    Because I can’t find any books on this subject, here in the libraries of Bucharest, I would like to help me in this problem by sending me on email ( some references that you used on your article.
    Please excuse my grammar, I’m not so skilled on english.
    With my greatings, Silviu – Constantin Nedelcu

    1. Try these two:
      Staikos, K. K. (2004). The history of the library in Western civilization. New Castle, Del. : Oak Knoll Press.

      Papademetriou, G. C. (2000). The Patriarchal libraries of Constantinople. Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 45(1-4), 171-190.