Annotating Aristotle: Exploring a 13th century Library Book

Today we explore a remarkable book which tells us about the people and intellectual life of Durham Priory, the community of Benedictine monks that inhabited the cathedral site during the medieval period. Durham Priory was dissolved in 1539, but this book remains in Durham Cathedral Library’s collections to this day. It has been digitised through the Durham Priory Library project, a joint project with Durham University to facilitate access to remarkable volumes from the cathedral’s collections from anywhere. Find the link to view this book yourself at the end of this article.

Formerly owned and annotated by one of Durham’s 16th century monks, the image below is a page from a 13th century copy of Aristotle’s ‘Logica Nova’. Known as the ‘Father of Western Philosophy’, the works of Aristotle were in high demand amongst the monks of the pre-Reformation Durham Priory: of the roughly 300 surviving priory manuscripts still held in the collections of Durham Cathedral Library, at least ten of them include the works of Aristotle.

A page from a medieval manuscript, with a large illustrated initial and annotations to the text in the margins and between lines.
A page from Aristotle’s Logica Nova: Durham Cathedral Library, UK, MS C.IV.17

Aristotle was a student of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great; he wrote on a diverse range of subjects including philosophy, zoology, physics, metaphysics, politics, poetry, linguistics and music. His views on physical science in particular were of vital importance to medieval scholarship; many were not replaced in academic thought until during the Enlightenment – two thousand years later. His work influenced not only Christian teaching, but also Islamic thought – he was known amongst Muslim medieval scholars as “The First Teacher”.

This 13th century manuscript copy of Aristotle’s work on logic was owned and annotated by Thomas Swalwell. A monk, and a student of Durham’s Oxford cell (Durham College – now Trinity College, Oxford), Swalwell was also a librarian, a scholar, an archivist, a teacher and a preacher; his annotations – left behind in a number of Durham Priory books – continue to teach us a great deal about the intellectual life of the priory into the 16th century, and up to the eve of its dissolution.

His notes and annotations follow a defined pattern: biblical texts – or other passages deemed particularly significant – would be underlined; key words would be written in the margins; lists would be numbered; cross-references would be made to other key texts. In this volume, he has provided a contents list, which demonstrates what would have been contained in the volume in the late 15th or early 16th century. His contributions reveal a lively and active intellectual life in the priory; not one ready for destruction.

Swalwell died around a month before the Dissolution of Durham Priory – which was enacted on New Years’ Eve, 1539.

View this manuscript, in full and free of charge, via this page on the Durham Priory Library Project website. This project, in partnership with Durham University, aims to fully digitise the surviving manuscripts and early printed books of Durham Priory Library’s pre-Dissolution collections. See the considerable list of digitised manuscripts on the project website.

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