The factor which most dramatically affected ecclesiastical libraries at the time of the Reformation was the dissolution of the monasteries in which most such libraries were situated. It would be easy to assume that, in the majority of monasteries which simply ceased to exist, their libraries disappeared with them; that, in those monasteries which continued to exist as cathedrals or were newly transformed into cathedrals, the libraries were liable to some degree of continued existence; and that, in the non-monastic or secular cathedrals whose status was not significantly altered or interrupted, the libraries continued unchanged. The reality was less simple, and, owing to the limited and haphazard nature of the evidence available to us, is not easy to summarise. Each institution’s and each library’s history at this period is individual and far from being typical, and the pieces do not add up to a neatly coherent general picture.
When one first looks at Neil Ker’s Medieval libraries of Great Britain (MLGB), one is struck by the apparently large number of surviving volumes. This is a misleading impression. If Ker’s entries are compared with Knowles and Hadcock’s Medieval religious houses: England and Wales, it quickly becomes apparent that not a few sizeable houses which may be presumed to have possessed significant libraries are represented by minimal entries or none at all in Ker, and that the numbers of surviving books from the few continuing institutions vary considerably.