Whittington’s Gift: Reconstructing the Lost Common Library of London’s Guildhall

A new project on fifteenth century London book culture.

Led by Dr Ryan Perry, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature and Co-Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and Dr Stephen Kelly, Queen’s University Belfast, Whittington’s Gift aims to demonstrate that London citizens created new programmes of religious education for both the City’s clergy and for literate lay communities that have hitherto gone largely unnoticed by scholarship.

Thanks to the legacy of Richard Whittington (d. 1423), perhaps London’s most storied mayor, an extraordinary resource for religious education emerged under the auspices of Whittington’s innovative executor, John Carpenter, common clerk of London’s Guildhall.

By tracking the transmission of texts that the investigators contend were sourced from the Guildhall Library, the project aims to radically complicate understanding of fifteenth century devotional culture in the capital and beyond. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust (UK), this project will assess systematically what is hypothesised is material evidence that the Guildhall book collection caused a revolution in models for pastoral learning in London.

Created for the use of both the college of priests attached to the Guildhall building complex, but also for those directly involved in lay spiritual instruction – for those described in Carpenter’s will as, ‘sermonizancium communi populo’ (discoursing to the common people) – it fuelled a thriving culture of religio-literary production.

It is the project’s contention that the manuscript record, which reveals an extraordinary explosion in the production of miscellaneous religious books in London, testifies to a pastoral drive, a ‘ground up’ movement driven by the city’s poorer clerisy in concert with an aspirational mercantile citizenry, simultaneously facilitating clerical ministrations and a growing demand for spiritually improving literature amongst Londoners. Two postdoctoral researchers, Dr Hannah Schulhe-Lewis and Dr Natalie Calder, began work at the University of Kent and at Queen’s University Belfast in October 2020, and the project was officially launched in a seminar at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies on 1 October.

The project will yield a collaboratively-written monograph, ‘Multiplicacioun of manye bokes’: the Guildhall Library and London’s Pastoral Revolution, and a research anthology of fifteenth-century pastoral and devotional literature entitled ‘Meke Reverence and Devotion’: A Reader in Late Medieval English Religious Writing.

The anthology will provide a truly representative assemblage of Middle English devotional and theological writing for the first time since Carl Horstmann’s Yorkshire Writers (1895-96), with up to 50% of its texts never having been edited for publication before.

For further information, contact Dr Ryan Perry (r.perry@kent.ac.uk) and Dr Stephen Kelly (s.p.kelly@qub.ac.uk)