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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Culture and Leisure


By Alastair J Mann

The literate culture of medieval Scotland depended on two interrelated developments: the growth of Episcopal sees and the establishment of universities, both of which became catalysts for book collection. Glasgow's early history as a monastic centre provided it with the necessary foundations. As the status and property rights of Scotland's bishops grew, cathedral building took off in the 13th and early 14th century with the building of Glasgow's 13th century cathedral one of the highlights. The cathedral library expanded, helping to spread book culture to both the clergy and a slowly expanding secular readership. Between the elevation of the see to an archbishopric in 1492 and the Reformation of 1560 the cathedral library grew, but unfortunately at the Reformation Archbishop James Beaton (c.1517-1603) removed himself to France taking with him the vast library, most of which was lost at the French Revolution (1789).

The foundation of the university of Glasgow in 1451, originally located in the Blackfriars and close to the other religious houses and chaplainries of the burgh, provided further momentum in learning and literacy. During the next half century early printed books began to arrive from the Continent, mainly from Venice, Cologne, Basel, Lyon, a few from England and, from 1500, increasing numbers from Paris and the Low Countries. The individuals associated with Glasgow who gathered both printed and manuscript books included Henry Sinclair (1508-65), a lawyer and dean of Glasgow in the 1550s, who later became bishop of Ross and whose collection is the largest surviving pre-Reformation group. However, Glasgow's relative insignificance in economic terms, it being not even in the top ten in the burgh tax roles in 1535, delayed the arrival of permanent bookselling and the printing press.

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