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.

Quenching your thirst for Lacock Abbey’s history

A new room has been opened for the first time for visitors to Lacock Abbey along with extra information revealing more of the history of the medieval cloisters through new information panels and discovery maps.

(c) National Trust / SWNS

The National Trust has opened the old wine cellar of Lacock Abbey, a room which was originally part of the medieval cloisters and which still shows traces of earlier history.

The team at Lacock believe that this room was created by partitioning off the adjacent Servant’s Hall in the early 1800s. There is also evidence that this bigger room would have served as accommodation to ‘lower class’ visitors of the abbey, in the more class conscious medieval times, while ‘superior visitors’ would have resided on the upper floor near the Abbess’s suite of rooms.

Sonia Jones, House and Collection Manager of Lacock Abbey: “It’s wonderful to be able to open this room to the public for the first time; not only will it enhance the experience of visitors to the furnished Abbey Rooms, but the wine cellar is also another part of the abbey where it’s possible to see the layers of architectural history that subtly reminds us how the use of the building has changed over the last 800 years.”

(c) National Trust / SWNS

House Manager Sonia Jones putting the final touches to the wine cellar at Lacock Abbey which has just been opened to the public for the first time.

In the early eighteenth century the residents of the abbey decided to turn this room into a wine cellar. The room is partly underground and the lack of natural light makes it humid, cool and dark, ideal conditions to store wine. However, the installation of heating pipes in 1876 meant that the temperature rose in the room – nice and cosy for the occupants but not ideal for wine.

More evidence of the Talbot family and their life has been discovered by the Conservation team last winter as they were cataloguing family heirlooms and an exhibition of children’s toys and clothes has gone on display in the abbey for the first time, bringing visitors closer to the former residents and life in the early twentieth century.

Another new addition for history hungry visitors will was unveiled on Wednesday. New information panels and discovery maps are installed in the medieval cloisters and will help quench their thirst for knowledge as they find out about the life of the nuns and its connection to the local history of Wiltshire.

“Visitors often ask about the day to day life of the nuns at Lacock and want to know where the original abbey once stood. We wanted to come up with a way to make it more interesting for both young and old audiences to find out about the medieval history of our special place. We have created two different maps, one for adults and one for children, which they can take around the cloisters on a discovery walk.” explains Karen Bolger, Visitor Services Manager at Lacock. The maps are available on the entrance to the cloisters, with key facts, and fun and fascinating highlights. But that’s not all; more in-depth information panels are installed in the rooms and near important sites, such as the tombstone of Ela, Countess of Salisbury, who founded Lacock Abbey in 1232, for all those that just can’t get enough of Lacock’s history.

The wine cellar will be open to the public from Saturday 23 March (as per Abbey opening hours) and the new information panels will be on display from Wednesday 20 March 2013.

 For opening times please visit nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock or call 01249 730 459.

Fairies, sprites, monks and bikes

Floating fairies, pensive monks and hunky Harley Davidsons are not a common sight at Lacock Abbey. Especially not ones made of chicken wire.

That’s all due to change from Saturday 18 February to Sunday 4 March, when an esteemed local artist displays some life-size sculptures in the grounds of the historic property.

For two weeks, visitors will encounter a range of fun figures, including a cyclist on the driveway to the Abbey, a gardener pausing with his wheel barrow, sprites and nymphs playing in the trees and even a gleaming silver motor bike.

The sculptures are part of the Inner Spirit Collection by Westbury based artist Derek Kinzett, whose work has been described as ‘beyond beautiful, stunning and spiritual’.

Award Winning
Derek has won many accolades for his art – he was winner of the Peoples’ Prize at the 2010 Showborough House Sculpture Exhibition, and in 2011 he was selected as one of three British sculptors for The International Sculpture Symposium in South Korea. He’s responsible for the much praised Christmas angels floating above Milsom Street in Bath, and his work has also been commissioned by film star Nicholas Cage, and Tim Green of the Tate Gallery.

‘This is going to be a great display of art in a fantastic setting,’ said Rachael Holtom, Visitor Experience Officer at Lacock Abbey.

‘Although it is winter, our early spring flowers will be out and the crispness of the weather should really compliment Derek’s work. It will be the first art show of its type here at the Abbey, and hopefully not the last.’

Normal admission rates apply. NT members and under 5’s free. For opening times and further information, please phone 01249 730 459 or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/Lacock