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View Movies The library

Plan of Kirkstall abbey showing the location of the church(1/1)

Books that were used in the church, refectory, infirmary and cloister were kept in a cupboard, the armarium, under the auspices of the precentor and succentor. At Kirkstall, the books which the monks read each day in the cloister were probably stored in the recess situated in the north part of the east alley. There was also a library at the abbey. This was originally housed in the closet to the north of the chapter-house, but was later moved to the passage south of the parlour, where the first day-stairs to the monks’ dormitory had been.

Artist's impression of a monk reading in the cloister
© Cistercians in Yorkshire
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Artist's impression of a monk reading in the cloister

At the start of Lent each monk was given a book he was to read thoroughly that year during the daily period allocated to reading. He was not to keep his book overnight but return it to the book cupboard. The monks sat on stone benches in the north walkway of the cloister and read aloud, but quietly. Nobody was to leave the cloister during reading time and the monks were to make sure that their hoods did not cover their faces so that it was clear they had not fallen asleep.

The monks spent more time reading in winter and at Lent, and less time working; on Sundays they read during periods normally spent working as well as in the reading time.

Whilst there is no list of the books which belonged to Kirkstall, we do know that when the community dispersed after the dissolution of the house in 1539 Edward Heptonstall, a former member of the community, took with him the abbey’s library. In his will of 1558 Edward stipulated that the books which had hitherto belonged to Kirkstall and now stood in a box at the end of his bed should pass to his nephew, who studied at school;(1) if the abbey, however, reconvened his executors were to return the books to their former home.(2) A number of Kirkstall’s books survive and represent a wide range of subjects. They include theological works, histories, beastiaries, grammatical works and travel writings. (3)

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