Availability and access

The Arab world boasted some of the richest libraries in the medieval period, Paris, BnF, Parisinus Arabus 5847, fol. 5v.

One of the most vibrant centres of research and learning in the 10th century in the West was the abbey of St Gall in present-day Switzerland. There was enough research and writing happening at the abbey at the time to bury the notion of Dark Ages forever.

And yet, in perspective, St Gall, for all its scholarly brilliance, was microscopic compared to another city in Europe, Cordoba under the Muslim Caliphate.

If a reader visiting St Gall’s library could find there about 500 titles, in the caliph’s library in Cordoba the reader had access to over 400,000 works in manuscript. The booklists alone made up several dozen volumes.

The 10th century, as any century, never lacked brilliant minds and established traditions. What it lacked was access to and availability of written knowledge.

The West inherited many things from Greco-Roman antiquity, despite the collapse of the Roman empire. In some parts of Europe, the passage from late antiquity to the medieval period went unnoticed, as in southern France or Italy. In other regions, it was more pronounced. One thing, however, scored very low on the transmission scale, and that was the availability of books. The libraries of the Hellenistic world, which Rome had inherited and expanded, were, by the 10th century, ancient history. The West, as far as libraries, public or private, were concerned, had to start from scratch. The medieval period was, in this respect, a Bibliotheksentwicklungwunder, a miracle of emergence and consolidation whereby the high concentration of books in one place returned to the West in the form of well-stocked libraries. By the 16th century, the map of Western Europe wasn’t just a patchwork of competing political powers, but also a network of libraries and centres of learning that would never know decline again. An important obstacle to learning and research had been overcome.

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