I know that in towns and cities there might be libraries built, but is it possible or likely that peasants can have access to it as well? I've heard that every village has an least a monastery or church, but I don't think they keep books there.

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    What do you mean by 'library'? If you mean the modern concept of a building holding a variety of books on all subjects (available to members of the public) then I doubt that most towns and cities had one. Most people couldn't read and write, and hand-written books were rare and valuable. Monasteries were probably the most likely place to have a library but they wouldn't have been open to the public.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 11, 2017 at 4:53
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    Adding to Steve's question/information. A noble's "library" might be a (very) few books on a single shelf. Aug 11, 2017 at 15:14
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    In a largely illiterate society public libraries seems to be useless, especially in small villages.
    – Greg
    Aug 12, 2017 at 15:21
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    Until the invention of printing, books had to be copied by hand. This took weeks or months of specialist labour. Comparable to thousands of dollars of today's money. Most villages had exactly one book - the bible in the church.
    – pjc50
    Aug 12, 2017 at 22:27
  • You can't become literate without books - but without widespread literacy what's the point of publishing books? A library is a collection of books, but with next to no one to read the books available in the library, what's the point? Aug 13, 2017 at 4:38

9 Answers 9


No, there would not have been a public library.

The majority of the world was illiterate before 1950. Even in Europe, most people were illiterate prior to 1800 (the protestant nations seemed to have a higher literacy rate at that time - probably because they had translated their bibles and prayer books from Latin, and held their services in English/Dutch/Swedish/etc).

In the middle ages, almost all Western literature was written in Latin, not the native tongues that the general peasantry would have spoken (and they likely still wouldn't have been literate in their own language, anyway - they didn't "need" to be).

Most churches probably wouldn't have had more than a bible and service book which the local priest would have used for his sermons. Scholarly and historical works would have been held at universities and other centres of learning, such as monasteries and cathedrals - but they would only have been available to teachers, students, and visiting scholars. Books would have typically been chained so as to prevent removal from the library.

"Free" public libraries - ones without (or at least, minimal) restrictions started to appear about the 17th century - these were typically associated with cathedrals or universities. Also, you wouldn't have been able to remove books from the library.

The kind of public lending library we're all familiar with didn't start appearing until the 19th century.

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    Apparently, there was book-lending in the medieval times, since Wikipedia reads: In 1212 the council of Paris condemned those monasteries that still forbade loaning books, reminding them that lending is "one of the chief works of mercy." Aug 11, 2017 at 7:26
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    @SuperYoshikong With regard to loaning of books from monasteries, an important question would be "who are they lending them to?" I suspect that they weren't expected to lend them to just anyone - most likely it was to other religious institutions.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 11, 2017 at 8:00
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    @SteveBird - The books wouldn't be useful to someone who couldn't read, and possessing one would be an expensive potential liability should something happen (eg: unexpected fire or flood). That would necessarily limit lending to the upper and middle classes. So I suspect they didn't need to turn away a lot of requests.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:36
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    I read about book-lending between monasteries about five years ago -- my memory is pretty shaky, but I believe book lending was significant thing, but only between monks, and usually important ones (abbots, scholars and the like). This was done both as an exchange of knowledge, and significantly also for the purpose of copying and further preserving the book.
    – Random
    Aug 12, 2017 at 0:27

Medieval times span ten centuries and a continent. An English village in 1400 would be far from a Norwegian village in 500. That makes generalizations difficult. Here I'm thinking of the 11th or 12th century, England, France or the HRE.

  • Many villages had a church, but that did not mean there was a full-time priest. (That would be a chapel of ease, unlike a filial church with a priest.) Monastries were kind of villages in their own right, not part of the average village.
  • Illiterate priests were common enough to be a concern. (A bit of googling got me lots of tertiary sources, but no neat secondary or primary ones.)
  • The rights and duties of a village might be described in the manorial roll of the manor. Business records were kept e.g. on tally sticks.
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    That makes generalizations difficult - normally, I'd agree with you - in this specific instance, though, I'm fairly sure we can say "no" for the whole period and geography involved.
    – user13123
    Aug 11, 2017 at 5:40
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    @HorusKol, agreed on "no libraries", but there might have been more-than-single-digit numbers of books around 1500. Literacy influenced the end of the middle ages.
    – o.m.
    Aug 11, 2017 at 5:45
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    "Many villages had a church, but that did not mean there was a full-time priest." - "Illiterate priests were common enough to be a concern." - "one document, describing their feudal rights and duties" - sources for this would be sweet. Insofar I'm aware, the first and last are almost certainly incorrect (few villages had no churches, a few churches shared priests, feudal-related stuff like title and estate documentation were plenty), and the illiterate priest concern seems hard to swallow (maybe it's about priest aides; it seems hard to do a mass without a reader). Also, agreed with HorusKol. Aug 11, 2017 at 7:46
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    @DenisdeBernardy I don't know how reliable it was, but this: thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/priests-in-the-middle-ages.html says "Compared to the village priest and the local parishioners, a parish priest would be more educated, but illiterate nevertheless." In the Middle Ages, the priests memorized the mass and recited it during the service; they certainly didn't read it every time. Aug 11, 2017 at 14:27
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    @DenisdeBernardy Every parish had a church, but parishes could contain more than one village. Also, as the OP mentioned there is no shortage of tertiary sources for illiterate members of the clergy example1, Example2 Aug 11, 2017 at 18:28

Literacy rates in the 15h century were on the order of 10%, and that would have been concentrated in professions (clergy, law, government) - so let's halve that for the village population. I wish I could dig into the numbers to distinguish between literacy and functional literacy.

the 10th largest town in England had approximately 5000 people - we can assume that the average village had less than 50% of that number. A second source lists 50-300 as a more reasonable number. Although I suspect the distribution was a power curve rather than a bell curve, let's be generous and assume that there are 175 people in the average village.

So there are less than 17 literate people in this village, and probably less than 9. Again, given the incredible cost of learning to read (hours of non-productive labor), they are probably related to one another and already share a household.

Prior to the invention of a printing press books were fantastically expensive. This source refers to print runs of less than 20 books - so there are very few books in the world. This source suggests that all of Germany printed less than 100 books/year. - and most of those are Bibles.

So what is the point of a library? Of the 17 people in the village who can use the book for more than fire kindling, they all know each other and can share books. Most of them own the same book - a Bible.

Books are an incredibly expensive luxury- elsewhere I've seen records of monastic libraries that were admired for their extensive collection of less than a dozen books. (The annual book production of a major country).

The notion of a medieval village library is absurd.

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    Not an agreement or disagreement, but just a statement: Kernan suggest a grand total of 340,000 books being printed in all of the 18th century combined. The so-called printing press revolution was not an all encompassing every person-gets-a-school-book that some seem to believe. Even in the late 19th century, functional illiteracy was still rampant. being able to read and write your letters, and therefor decipher a cherished letter from home, does not mean one can read a novel.
    – CGCampbell
    Nov 2, 2017 at 17:58
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    Excellent points - I wish I had a basis of estimate to project Kernan's estimate for the 18th century back to OP's request for 15th century. And you've expressed my reservations about functional literacy more clearly than I did.
    – MCW
    Nov 2, 2017 at 18:11

Before the printing press was invented in 1439 the only books were hand copied ones. Building a "large" library first required that you trained a team of scribes to write, and then found places to borrow books that they could copy.

Fun fact: actually, you didn't need to train most of your scribes to read as well as write, because book copying was often done by dictation, as a means of low-volume mass production: if you could borrow one copy of a book, a single reader and say 10 scribes taking dictation could make 10 simultaneous copies, which you might then hope to sell. Of course, this "chinese whispers" copying method explains why it was rare to find two copies of any book with identical texts!

Only the very rich could afford to do that, and the cost of books was still prohibitive after the invention of the printing press. The original selling price of Gutenberg's bible was about 3 years' average wages for a clerk - who would at least have been literate enough to read it, if he had found a way to live without money for three years in order to buy it.

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    Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve this answer. Aug 11, 2017 at 9:31
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    I'm pretty sure it's difficult to be able to write without being able to read. Unless you're blind. Writing uses the same knowledge as reading, but with the addition of manual skill.
    – AndyT
    Aug 11, 2017 at 9:33
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    I find your claim about un-reading scribes taking dictation hard to believe. I could maybe believe that somebody who couldn't read could duplicate a book by copying the letters as pictures, but I don't see how anybody could convert spoken words into written text without being able to read back that text. It doesn't seem plausible that there would be people who could convert spoken words to text but not the other way around. (Well, OK, I've read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a hat, so I can believe almost any cognitive dysfunction could have happened once or twice but...) Aug 11, 2017 at 12:10
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    Adding the post notice, because I agree its needed, but this is the one answer I've upvoted. Hand-copied books were hideously expensive in a way modern internet users likely have trouble wrapping their heads around.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:32
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    An unreading scribe could copy from a book, but taking dictation requires, by definition, understanding that the letters "b o o k" you just wrote down do, indeed, correspond to the word "book" you just heard.
    – chepner
    Aug 11, 2017 at 16:00

I would say for the majority of inhabitants the answers presented here are correct, however there are a few notable exceptions, especially in renaissance italy (and other cities with a strong merchant class). For example, the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice is an early public manuscript depository available since 1362. The English Wikipedia lacks a bit in detail and only starts with the finished building 200yrs later, but the collection was open to the public from the start, since the initial collection was endowed "ad communem hominum utilitatem".

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    That is a very good example, although I wouldn't describe Venice as a "village", even in 1362! Aug 11, 2017 at 14:27
  • indeed, it is more an answer to the question whether peasants (or the public in general) had access to libraries. Few peasants would have the necessary skills (literacy and language) to even make use of those libraries, so the point is more that public libraries existed at all.
    – ptstone
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:37
  • Just to clarify, its an answer to a question in the first part of the body (not the title): "I know that in towns and cities there might be libraries built, but is it possible or likely that peasants can have access to it as well?"
    – ptstone
    Aug 11, 2017 at 15:47
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    Fair enough, although I tend to think of "peasants" in a rural, agricultural context rather than in towns or cities. Also, "public" isn't necessarily a synonym for "open to all", especially in a medieval context. Aug 11, 2017 at 15:53
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    Yeah, a serf bound to a noble lord would certainly have the hardest time, although even for them it would be very hard, but possible: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadtluft_macht_frei However, there were peasants like Freeholders and other non-noble free peasants/landowner, who could get more wealthy than serfs and might even afford some basic education. So i would say possible, but very uncommon...
    – ptstone
    Aug 11, 2017 at 16:17

No. Not for peasants. Wealthy families might have a primer, a book with the alaphbet, prayers, and stories that a child might learn from. Nicholas Orme's book Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England describes many examples of schooling but it was still for the wealthy or religious. By the late 14th century there were free schools established by wealthy patrons but the students would not have been of the peasant class.

Now, peasants and/or the illiterate were occasionally in the presence of books (if that is what you mean by access) they would see books being used during mass and sometime attribute magical religious significance to the object of the books or the ink and paint on the pages.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Aug 18, 2017 at 22:10

There may have been "libraries" in villages, but they were private libraries. Typically maintained by the local church or monastery, or by a handful of wealthy citizens.

They would have had maybe a few dozen books, the Bible, religious books, and maybe the "classics." These were rare and expensive. Most people couldn't read, and apart from the Bible, most had no access to books. Only a handful of favored people, basically the "best friends" of owners could use these private libraries.

The idea of mass production (including that of books and paper), mass education, and mass libraries with "many" books got started with the industrial revolution of the 19th century with paperbacks appearing about mid-century, even though this trend did not fully develop until the 20th century.

  • The printing press was invented long before the industrial revolution. In europe the production at working days was 1500 books. Between 1518 and 1520 Martin Luther tracts were distributed in 300,000 printed copies. Clearly not as massive as today, but considering that the population was also a lot smaller.
    – Jeroen
    Aug 11, 2017 at 8:45
  • Jeroen: The printing press was good enough for tracts, newspapers and the like, so there was some reading material. But the other thing to remember was that books were bound. There was no such thing as paperback books until, I believe, the 20th century.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 11, 2017 at 9:17
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    @TomAu - AIUI, the first commercial production of paperbacks began in 1847.
    – Jules
    Aug 13, 2017 at 8:22
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    @Jeroen: OK, amend my comment to mid-19th century.Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 2, 2017 at 16:05

There were Gurukuls (Vedic Schools) in south west Asia. They taught Vedas, Upnishads and other Sanskrit literature. After the invasion of Mughals, the system break down as the mughals started destroying Indian Vedic literature and Gurukuls. The Gurukul system of education still exist in India. (The Ved contains complete knowledge regarding medicine, vehicles, war, peace, law and spiritual science.)

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    Sources would greatly improve this answer Aug 12, 2017 at 5:31
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    I'm not sure how this addresses the question (which is about public libraries and not schools). Aug 12, 2017 at 12:26

Most Medieval Libraries were located either in major cities or Academic Libraries-(which were either based in cities or medium sized towns).

In the Byzantine Empire, the University of Constantinople had an Adjacent Library, though to my knowledge, there were no villages within the Eastern Roman Empire which had Libraries.

In Northern and Western Europe, most Libraries were associated with the various Universities, such as Padua and Bologna in Italy or Oxford and Cambridge in England, though it is difficult to find evidence of major Libraries in Medieval rural England, Italy or elsewhere within continental Europe.

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