Medieval Storytelling: Books and Libraries

medieval library
Depiction of a run-down medieval library interior from my current work in progress “Sir Kaye the Boy Knight Book 2: The Lost Castle Treasure” Artwork by Dave Allred.

I’ve invited medieval enthusiast Garrison Martt to share some information about storytelling in the Middle Ages. Last week I posted his answers to some of my questions about spoken-word storytelling; this week he talks about books and libraries in the Middle Ages. Again, he’s written it especially for kids, so feel free to use this information for teaching purposes.

  1. What were medieval books like?
    Medieval books were all handmade, so each one was different. The covers were often made of leather or wood and may have been decorated with paint or gems. The pages were made from a thin form of leather known as vellum. Later books had paper pages.
    Many books were religious, others included famous stories, poems or legends of the past. Many were written in Latin, others were written in the local languages of the time.
  2. Were there libraries during the middle ages? Where were they? Who had them?
    Medieval books were expensive, so they were usually purchased by the church or noble families. There were no public libraries. Many people could not read, even the people who owned books!
    Those who could read might become teachers, physicians, geographers, astronomers, engineers or mathematicians. Reading was a doorway to the universe.
  3. Would it have been likely for some nobles who valued books to have their own private libraries?
    The church had monks who could create books. They also made many copies of books, each one by hand. A noble family would be more likely to purchase a book from a skilled bookbinder or a passing merchant. Private libraries included almost any kind of book that was available— because books were so rare.
  4. If there was a 12-year-old boy who liked stories and could read a little bit and had access to books during the Middle Ages, what kinds of typical medieval books would he have been drawn to? (Obviously there were no medieval illustrationscomic books).
     A 12-year old boy who liked stories (and most do) who could also read (few could) and had access to books would read anything he could get his hands on! If it was me, I would try to get a copy of a 12th Century hit named the History of the Kings of Britain because it included some of the earliest written stories of King Arthur— that is, if I could read Latin.
    Another medieval hit was the Song of Roland written in Old French, a great adventure about Charlemagne and his brave knights.
    There were no comic books, however some books included illustrated pages of a particular scene. These were always great to see!

Note from Don: The picture to the above right is an illustration of the Tower of Babel from a book made in the late Middle Ages.

Garrison Martt likes to read and perform medieval stories for his friends. He is a lifetime member of the Austin Poetry Society and the director of the Past Poetry Project.

Medieval Book
Medieval Book


  1. Lynne Holder says:

    I had an opportunity to see some ancient tomes when in Ireland-the same trip that caused me to become a falconer. Interesting….


    1. Don M. Winn says:

      I’d love to visit Ireland, Scotland and England one of these days…when time allows…

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