Eighth-century York owed its reputation as one of the most intellectually influential cities in Europe to the library and school headed by the scholar Alcuin.
But while rich and vivid evidence exists about the school, all trace of the library has disappeared.
A new exhibition at the Old Palace, which houses the present-day York Minster Library, organised by Dr Mary Garrison, of the University of York’s Department of History, assembles clues to solve the mystery.
The Great Lost Library of Alcuin’s York features eye-catching new designs by Yorkshire calligraphers Dorothy Wilkinson, Sue Sparrow and Angela Dalleywater based on the distinctive eighth-century Caroline minuscule script that Alcuin encouraged his scribes to use.
As well as the calligraphy, the display includes high quality photographs of manuscripts, which are now preserved in various locations across Europe and North America.
Dr Garrison says: “The library has vanished. No books now existing can be proven to have come from it. But it was extraordinary. Students came from afar to study with Alcuin. The library was dispersed or destroyed, but the surviving information about its growth, use and disappearance make a fascinating and inspiring story.”
She suggests that the library was either exported to mainland Europe or destroyed in the devastating Viking attacks on York and Northumbria in 866 and 867.
“The school and library of York were the finest in eighth-century Europe. Alcuin and his teacher before him taught a range of subjects wider than any other scholars of their time,” Dr Garrison says.
“I hope that this exhibition will allow York residents and visitors to learn about and value this remarkable era in the city’s past, and to appreciate the extraordinary origins of the Minster Library.”
The exhibition represents an exciting collaboration between the Old Palace (York Minster’s centre for historic collections), the University, local calligraphers, the Yorkshire Museum, and the Danelaw Living History Centre at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.
The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York, says: “Scholarship and letters have been studied at York since the eighth-century and these beautiful traces of Alcuin’s library are a very moving record of that long history still alive today.”
Peter Young, Archivist and curator of the Minster’s manuscript collections at the Old Palace, says: “We are pleased to welcome visitors to this exhibition, which not only looks back on the history of education and learning at our cathedral, but, in doing so, also draws attention to the importance of the role that the Minster plays today in preserving our Christian heritage”.
Alcuin’s Library: The Great Lost Library of Eighth-century York runs until 15 April 2011.
Source: University of York