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From the notebooks

January 31, 2007

I posted this over at my personal blog, but the more I think about it, the more this is appropriate for Rogue Dispatches. I have a lot of stuff rattling around in my various notebooks, and some of this will never see the light of day. A lot of this material is simply notes for ideas, that at the time of their creation, I thought were good. Sadly after reading though them a lot are not worth the effort to type and fix. Some however, are either small pieces that had no home, or fleshed out articles.

This is an example of a small piece that had no home. I will probably post more of these in the weeks and months to come. This one deals with a subject near and dear to my heart, libraries.


Libraries and their use in Fantasy RPGs
© 2007, Richard Iorio II

With the amount of books PCs come into contact with during the course of their adventuring career, the utility of the library is often overlooked. From serving as a springboard for adventures, to research tools for scholarly PCs, the library offers many options to GMs looking to interject something new into their game. Since most fantasy based RPGs are set in a pseudo-Medieval world, libraries from our medieval history can be used as templates for libraries within the game. The question remains: what were libraries like during the Middle Ages, and how can they be used in the game? This article attempts to answer this question.

Historically, libraries as we know them, were mostly rare in medieval Europe. When they existed they were typically connected to a monastery, cathedral or church. It was not until the High Middle Ages that libraries became more widespread. The early libraries were mendicant’s libraries. Friars established these libraries and since their vow of poverty did not allow for owning books, friars relied on donations to build their own libraries. The mendicant library was used for education and is considered by many scholars to be the model used for university libraries.

During the High Middle Ages, education moved away from the monastery to urban universities. It was the growth of these universities that led many to seek an education, and often this education was not one based in theology. With the high cost books have in the era before printing, most students could not afford their own books. Students studying theology at a monastery might be given their essential books from the monastic order. In 1228 the General Chapter of the Dominicans ruled that all brothers sent to study at a university had to have three books. These books usually consisted of the Bible, Book of Sentences and Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholostica. Students not attending monasteries or church run universities relied on lending libraries for their books.

Lending libraries were private libraries maintained by stationers, who for a fee, copied books and rented text books out by sections. Students would rent a book section by section and make their own copy. This gave the student access to the needed books and allowed them to build their own library of books. University authorities supervised this closely and regulated the fees stationers could charge and the worthiness of the rented texts.

Before movable type was invented all books were copied by hand. Monks, or stationers, would copy a book word for word and the process could take months, and in the case of the Bible. Monks would not only copy the text, but illuminate the pages with illustrations and create a work of art. The act of copying was such an expensive endeavor that only the very wealthy could afford to own a book. When movable type was invented this changed, and allowed books to cheaply and quickly be reproduced.

In the early Middle Ages the rarity of books, meant that most of a library’s collection consisted of scrolls and loose pages. The contents for these pages were ancient texts dating to the time of the Greeks and Romans and the organization of them was often haphazard. Libraries of this time were very small, and most could store all their books in a locked cabinet. By the late Middle Ages collections became large and libraries were divided into two sections.

The main section of the library was known as the magna libraria or public library. This section was a large room where scholars could go to consult a large reference collection of important books. These books could not leave the library and in the case of Merton College, Oxford, the best copy of each book the library owned was chained to the shelves. The second section was a communal library, or parva libraria, and was open at regular hours and loaned out duplicate books and specialized works to members of the institutions. Others could consult these books, but they could not remove them from the library.

Libraries spent a great deal of their time safeguarding their collections. From chaining books and locking extra copies in chests, libraries wanted to ensure their books stayed in the library and remained intact. Libraries throughout Europe had many rules dealing with book treatment and storage. In the Sorbonne library, rules prohibited anyone from carrying a light into the library for fear it would cause a fire. Some libraries had rules stating that books had to be arranged in such a way that they were separate from each other. This prevented tightly packed shelves from damaging books as they were used. Swearing of oaths to not damage books was not unheard of either and the Heidelberg library required anyone wishing to use their library to take such an oath.

For people wanting to borrow a book it was customary to pledge another book or item of equal value as a deposit guaranteeing the return of the borrowed book. For some libraries, this was an acceptable arrangement and allowed access to new titles. Monasteries did not lend out their books and threatened to excommunicate monks caught lending books. The church frowned on this and encouraged leniency or annulled penalties so that poor scholars could have access. Some libraries went further and required all borrowers to return a new copy of each book borrowed along with the original.

Introducing libraries into a fantasy RPGs is an easy task and all it takes is a little work on the GMs part. Libraries can be a source of adventure. New books can be added by the PCs who are hired by a library to find them. This can be accomplished many ways, but perhaps having the PCs steal books from other libraries offers the most opportunity. Besides being hired to acquire new texts, PCs can be hired to track down books thieves, book vandals and delinquent borrowers. Besides their source of adventure libraries can be used by PCs for research. From researching new spells, or historical facts dealing with a current campaign, the library can be a viable tool for GMs to dispense information.

Libraries are a great device for GMs and with a little work they can add a new dimension to games.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2007 1:35 pm

    Great little essay, Richard. I really enjoyed it.

  2. February 2, 2007 1:41 pm

    Thanks Jess! I got a lot of these little things knocking around in my various notebooks, so I plan on typing them up and posting them from time to time. A lot of these things are ideas I had either: never went anywhere, or were two short for actual usage. I figure why let them go to waste.

  3. April 26, 2007 6:26 am

    Thank you, Grigoris.

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