Carthusians and Their Books

The second most important building [at a Carthusian Charterhouse] is the library; Carthusians cherish books. A quarter century after [their founder] Bruno’s death, Peter the Venerable notes that the monks’ manual labour consists “chiefly of transcribing books.” The early Carthusian monks, in fact, made their libraries by borrowing and copying books. Three years after Bruno’s death, Guibert, the Benedictine Abbot of Nogent-Sous-Coucy, observes: “Although they submit to every kind of privation, they accumulate a very rich library.” Books are the monk’s most intimate companions; they nurture and sustain him throughout his life. In 1127, Guigo I instructed his monks: “Books forsooth, we wish to be kept very carefully as the everlasting food of our souls, and most industriously to be made, so that since we cannot do so by the mouth, we may preach the word of God with our hands.” The manuscript collection of each Charterhouse was its major treasure. In 1371, immediately after the monks had completed the restoration of the Grande Chartreuse after one of its innumerable fires, another fire broke out. When the Prior saw the severity of the flames, he shouted above the tumult, “My fathers, my fathers, ad libros, ad libros; let the rest burn, but save the books.”

—Nancy Klein Maguire, An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order