Rare manuscript goes on show at Lacock Abbey

A rare book, a priceless survivor from the days when the nuns lived at Lacock Abbey, has gone on display for the very first time. It has been at the abbey for over 700 years. 

The Manuscript (c) National Trust / SWNS

The Manuscript (c) National Trust / SWNS

The 14th-Century copy of an early bible dictionary gives a unique insight into the ways the nuns must have lived in the abbey and was recently bought at auction by the National Trust.

It is one of very few monastic books to have survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s, still in its original location – the others are all in cathedral libraries.

The book Expositiones Vocabulorum Biblie by William Brito – sometimes known as Guillaume le Breton – has had a long association with Lacock.

Written in Latin, it was part of the abbey library and even has earlier 13th-Century financial accounts of the abbey pasted into the binding. The dictionary contains explanation and origins of difficult words in the Bible and is hand written on parchment.

“We know little about the everyday lives of the nuns at Lacock Abbey that this one book gives us a remarkable rare glimpse, a short glance into how they might have lived their lives,” said Sonia Jones, House and Collections Manager. “It tells us that they studied the Bible closely and most would have been literate. There is scrap parchment in the bindings which are part of the accounts of the abbey, recycled when the book was bound. Those fragments let us see just a little of some of the business side of the abbey, selling wool to provide an income.

“It is a special and important book, but to have it in Lacock and to be able to put it on display in the abbey, in its original home is simply priceless.”

Although it is known there was a book cupboard and a book room in the abbey, the size of the library is not known. Only three books from the Lacock Abbey library are known to have survived – an illuminated Psalter, currently at the Bodleian Library and a collection of Anglo-French poems.

It is not known whether books such as the dictionary were ever written at Lacock or where this copy was laboriously hand written. However, it was rare enough to be valuable and still bears the signs of having been chained when it was in the abbey library.

The National Trust’s Libraries Curator, Mark Purcell, said the book was a very rare survivor from its time.

“Books of this type would not have been printed until the late 15th Century. Being hand written would have made it rare and valuable even when it was new so it is not a surprise to find it shows signs marks from the copper clasps which held its chains when it was in the nun’s library. The manuscript in the book is written on parchment made from sheepskin – and is written in several different hands. Some of the pages show flay marks – small holes in the skins with the words carefully written around the holes.

“The dictionary had a wide circulation and was regarded as an essential scholarly tool so this would have been an important reference work in the library at Lacock.”

“The binding contains some fragments of receipts from the nuns. Both the front and back of the book contains sheets from the 13th-century compotus rolls of Lacock which record both expenses and receipts, including the sale of wool. That shows us that the book, even if not written at Lacock was probably bound here.”

The book was already known to the Trust and had passed down through generations of the Talbot family who lived at the abbey. It was put up for sale and was bought by the National Trust at auction at Christies.

Lacock Abbey was founded in 1232 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury. Although there were rarely more than 20 or so nuns in the convent, the abbey held significant land in the region, including pastures used for farming and wool production.

The end for the abbey came when it was closed down in 1539. The buildings were bought by William Sharington who converted the abbey to a house and built the octagonal tower – preserving the medieval cloisters.

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