Priests and their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England

As Dr Gerald P. Dyson explains, books were crucial to the work of the medieval priest, providing him guidance and essential information. But what did he need? And which books might be used, who selected them and how were they sourced? Here Dr Dyson gives us a rare glimpse into a fascinating subject, one that he explores in-depth in his new book.

Parish priests and their people in the Middle Ages in England, 1898.

When we think of the secular clergy in the Middle Ages, we seldom imagine them in terms of their relation to the written word. But how did priests know what penance to prescribe? How did they ensure that they were performing the liturgy correctly? How did they know all the important dates of the church year? The simple answer is that they used books. To be able to perform their duties, priests had to have access to books for their education, for the liturgy, and for pastoral care. Bishops certainly saw books as important to clerical work: a significant number of prescriptive booklists survive from Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian episcopal sources. Bishops didn’t require this to burden their priests, but so they would use the right books and thereby properly shepherd the laypeople entrusted to them. Priests and Their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England brings together the threads of the medieval clergy, priests’ books, and pastoral care to shed light on the lives and work of the English secular clergy.

When considering medieval priests’ relationship with books, questions of literacy and access inevitably come up. Obviously, some degree of literacy was necessary for a priest to use a book in any capacity, and an examination of the Anglo-Saxon material revealed some surprisingly strong evidence for clerical literacy. This includes evidence for priests glossing manuscripts and doing other scribal work, schools in secular churches, and several highly literate secular clerics. This monograph has also revealed many of the potential avenues through which priests received their books, such as episcopal and aristocratic patronage, lending, purchase by priests, and inheritance. These contextual factors for the use of priests’ books paint a picture of the literate world of the Anglo-Saxon priest that challenges existing thought on the medieval clergy.

Naturally, researching priests’ books involves a lot of working with manuscripts as well. One of the challenges of this manuscript work was that many of the surviving manuscripts from early medieval England are connected to monks or bishops, rather than the secular clergy. Differentiating these is also not always easy—I’ve yet to see an example where a priest wrote his name in the front—but by looking at what was useful, practical, and met the intellectual and pastoral needs of priests, we can hope to recognize these books when we see them.

Most priests’ books were probably liturgical or quasi-liturgical in nature and navigating the world of medieval liturgy is not for the faint of heart. Despite this, the mass-books, lectionaries, penitentials, computi, psalters, and other books of Anglo-Saxon priests are a window into the work of the clergy and pastoral care for laypeople. Furthermore, some of these manuscripts contain amazing and little-noticed details, such as doodles, sketches of hand gestures used in the liturgy, and in the Warsaw Lectionary, previously unknown musical notation dating to about 1000 AD. Reading and understanding these books will help us get closer to the sights, sounds, and relationships that defined the experience of medieval Christianity.


This guest post is written by Gerald P. Dyson is Assistant Professor of History at Kentucky Christian University.

Priests and their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England
by Gerald P. Dyson
Hardback / 9781783273669 / £45 or $74.25

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