Peter Lombard, In Psalterium (early 13th century) Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 30

Peter Lombard made his name as a teacher at the Cathedral School in Paris.  His texts were widely studied. The Library has 19 manuscripts by Lombard, demonstrating its importance as an early centre of learning.   Although there are several major illuminated initials in this, his commentary on the Psalms, it is sadly also an example of one of the manuscripts in the collection whose illuminations have been cut out.  In 1849 the rather finely named Beriah Bottfield, a 19th century politician and bibliographer, wrote a book on the Cathedral libraries of England in which he stated that at Lincoln “the manuscripts are now carefully lettered and arranged, though, as formerly a few shillings were sufficient to allow the excision by any curious stranger of the illuminated capitals, many of the volumes are lamentably mutilated and defective”.  You will be pleased to hear that this practice is no longer permitted and that the manuscripts are carefully looked after and preserved for future generations.


The magnificent illuminated initial D (above right) at the beginning of Psalm 109 (Dixit Dominus Domino Meo) shows King David seated on the left, holding a sceptre in his right hand and a model of the Temple in his left, while the Lord God sits on the right, crowning David, affirming the medieval view that the king’s authority came directly from God.


Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (15th century)  Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 110

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury. The pilgrims, who come from all levels of society, tell stories to each other to pass the time on their journey. These stories make up the Canterbury Tales.

This is one of only 50 surviving manuscript copies of the Canterbury Tales. It belonged to Dean Michael Honywood, the library’s greatest benefactor. We believe that he may have obtained it while he was in exile in the Netherlands during the English Civil War, although the dialect shows that the English scribe was from the west or south-west midlands.

Honywood also owned a printed version of the Canterbury Tales:

Geoffrey Chaucer, The works of our ancient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer newly printed.               Printed in London in 1602

The fully illustrated printed edition is dedicated to Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I.  As well as the Canterbury Tales it includes among other things Chaucer’s translation of the Roman de la Rose; his Testament of Love; his Treatise on the Astrolabe; a selection of ballads; definitions of some of the old and obscure words used in his works and a brief biography including a family tree.  A contents list in Honywood’s own hand is on a loose leaf at the front of the book.



Wilkins, John. “The discovery of a new world…” printed in London in 1640

This book is one of the library’s many science books and was written by John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death in 1672. It is his attempt to describe the moon: its physical appearance, whether there might be life there and whether, in the future, Man might be able to travel there.

Wilkins was one of the founding members of the Royal Society, set up in 1660 to promote science. It is one of the oldest such societies still in existence.  Over the centuries, famous members have included Sir Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Sir Christopher Wren who designed the Cathedral’s Wren Library.

Wilkins stresses that the ideas that he puts forward are merely his opinions, and he is hopeful that future generations, with their greater skill and knowledge, will build on the knowledge of his time, in order to explore the moon further.

“Time will come when the indeavors of after ages, shall bring such things to light as now lie hid in obscuritie”


What makes this book so much fun, are not just the ideas that Wilkins puts forward, but his turn of phrase and the way in which he expresses his opinions. He believes that Man may eventually be able to travel to the moon and that he will need a ship of some kind in order to do so:

 “Nor can wee well conceive how a man should be able to carry so much luggage with him as might serve for his Viaticum in so tedious a journey”

“yet he must have some time to rest and sleep in. And I believe hee shall scarse find any lodgings by the way”

Wilkins concludes that in order to convey his “chariot” to the moon, Man could harness the power of wild swans from the East Indies which he believes are migrating to the moon.

“so that notwithstanding all these seeming impossibilities, tis likely enough that there may be a meanes invented of journeying to the Moone; And how happy shall they be, that are first successful in this attempt”!!


Sebastian Münster, “Cosmographia Universalis” printed in Basle in 1572

The Cosmographia Universalis by Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) originally printed in 1544, is the earliest German-language description of the world.  Many different editions were printed including the Cathedral’s copy which was written in Latin after Munster’s death.

The continued success of this book was partly due to its numerous woodcut illustrations, introducing the reader to new lands; describing the unusual plants and animals found there; showing town plans and illustrating the everyday lives of the inhabitants of places that most people never even knew existed. Despite being written in Latin, the illustrations vividly bring this world to life.

It also contains several illustrations of strange and monstrous “beings”. Medieval artists rejoiced in bringing these grotesque, fanciful creatures to life.  They were thought to live in remote places at the edge of the world.


Below you can see a “blemmyae”, a headless man with his face in the middle of his chest; a cyclops, with one eye; and a “sciopod” or “monopod” with one giant foot under which it would supposedly shelter during hot weather.   The “Monster of Cracow”, a baby born with barking dog’s heads instead of elbows and knees is also described and depicted in this book.  This book formed part of a popular “Here be monsters” exhibition, which was held in the library in 2018.



Conrad Gesner “Historiae animalium” printed in Zurich in 1558 by Christoph Froschauer.

This book also featured in our “Here be monsters” exhibition.  It is believed to be the earliest modern zoological work of its type. The library has three volumes, one on quadrupeds, one on birds and this one on sea creatures.

The books are decorated throughout with fine hand coloured woodcuts. Although the work was intended to be factual, many mythical and fictional creatures are also described with information from pre-existing sources such as the Old Testament, Aristotle and medieval bestiaries. Written in Latin, the book describes in great detail the life cycles, eating habits and behaviour of the different creatures.  Below is an images form the section on whales, which in medieval times were feared due to stories of whales terrorising ships and swallowing them whole.  One of the illustrations even shows two sailors who have mistaken a whale for an island and have lit a camp fire on it.

Centuries ago the sea was regarded as a dangerous and unknown place full of all kinds of monsters.  Medieval maps show them roaming the seas and unknown areas of the world were simply described with the words “Here be monsters”.  Even today the deepest oceans conceal many secrets from us and we have a lot to learn about the creatures that live there.  If some of these creatures actually existed, it would certainly make you think twice before going for a swim in the sea!



Many thanks to Jim Newton for the Conrad Gesner images