Lives of Medieval Books in the National Trust Libraries

Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at The Open University, in partnership with The National Trust.

This fully-funded studentship is available from October 2024. Further details about the value of an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP award are available on the DTP’s studentships page.

Closing date: 10 January 2024 (12:00 midday UK time)

Project overview

The story of the medieval book is materially present across the National Trust; this project aims to reveal the potential for joining up people, places and pages, led by the material histories of the medieval books.

The libraries of the National Trust include approximately 60 medieval manuscript books (half of which are at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire). Some are known to the wider research world, others are not. Highlights include the Leconfield Chaucer, a manuscript copy of the Canterbury Tales written in England c.1425; and the Bankes Fragment, a leaf from one of the first copies of the Bible to be produced in England c.698-716. Medieval manuscript books form a tiny proportion of the c.400,000 titles held in 160+ historic houses but are rich in their historical significance.

The medieval books have a range of associated environments, ranging from their original production in monasteries or workshops, to their subsequent architectural settings in the private libraries of country houses. Depending on the student's interests, this project could draw on recent archaeological investigations relevant to book production at Fountains Abbey.

While each book is catalogued, there is currently no overview that assesses the nature and strengths of the total holdings. This will be the student's first research question, how can the Trust’s medieval books be understood within the contexts of current research on the production, circulation and uses of pre-1500 manuscript books?

The second material question concerns the relationship of the books to their current locations. Most National Trust library collections are in post-medieval buildings, as private libraries in domestic settings. Some houses have medieval origins, many do not. Some sites include monastic remains, which were typically centres for manuscript production, from raw materials to bound copies, but there may be no continuity of the presence of libraries. What is the potential for the Trust’s sites to tell the story of the medieval book?

These two major questions address the challenges of tracing the production of most of these books (many being from mainland Europe) and their subsequent lives in what have become National Trust collections (their provenance histories). One possible approach to the project could take an object biography approach, established within material culture studies. This is what the project means by ‘lives of objects’. Individual books, viewed as objects as well as texts, have individual biographies, as well as a characteristic life cycle which structures the biography: production, patronage, and provenance.

Further secondary questions that the student might choose to address are:

  • Can any books be identified with a production relationship to a National Trust monastic site?
  • Are there books with identifiable patrons who commissioned them, including from Continental workshops?
  • Are there books which were collected shortly after the English Reformation dispersed monastic libraries, and why were they ‘saved’?
  • Which medieval books entered post-medieval library collections through later inheritance and collecting practices?

The potential of the ‘lives of objects’ approach suggests that the research results could be organised to show that:

  • books demonstrating a continuous relationship with a NT site have ‘origin stories’
  • books that arrive into NT collections have ‘collection stories’


How the research is designed and undertaken will vary according to the initial development of the project in its first year but it is expected to be inter-disciplinary. Appropriate methods of enquiry will include access to archaeological surveys, for monastic sites; enhanced cataloguing of medieval books in the collections; manuscript studies methods for questions of production, patronage and provenance; and architectural research methods for associated ‘spaces for books’.

The results of the project will benefit the Trust by providing the academic research to underpin new interpretations available to the curators. This project sits within the history of the book, which treats the book in society, and it will contribute new knowledge of the origins and survival of a significant group of English and Continental manuscript books, providing a contextual approach that places them into new relationships with their material histories. The methods offer an innovative model for interrogating disparate objects across multiple collections by capitalising on the significance of place. The successful candidate will gain exceptional access to National Trust collections and specialists, and will gain hands-on experience of skills associated with collections management and of the realities of caring for collections in situ with a large and diverse public audience.


Dr Susie West, Department of Art History, The Open University and Yvonne Lewis, Assistant National Curator (Libraries), The National Trust, will supervise the research project.

The successful candidate will have access to a range of professional expertise and training opportunities throughout their placement. They will become an integral part of the NT network of subject specialists in fields such as: heritage interiors, art, archaeology, architecture, ethnography, library history, furniture, oral history, silver. As members of a wide and varied range of external special interest groups and cultural organisations, NT senior specialist staff can provide tailor-made mentorship to candidates. With over 160 properties with libraries, and over 200 properties, the student will also have behind-the-scenes access to collections and staff on-site throughout the three nations (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

You are strongly advised to use the following links to establish the nature and scope of libraries research at the National Trust.

Books and libraries guide | National Trust Collections

Library hub discover - National Trust (

Strategic Framework for Research 2022-2027 | National Trust

How to apply

We invite applications from candidates from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Applicants will ideally have a good relevant first degree in the humanities and a masters’ degree in a historical subject (or will have completed their masters’ degree by the start of the project) or demonstrate equivalent professional experience which might include library experience with manuscript or rare book collections.. Your application should i) respond to the project, by discussing how you understand the proposal and what your particular interests might be in developing it; ii) indicate how your experience of study and any other relevant experience informs your response to the research project; iii) outline what you identify as the opportunities for your career development. Applicants should meet the eligibility criteria for Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC studentships.

For an informal discussion about the opportunity and how you might frame your approach to the CDA project, please contact Dr Susie West,  in the first instance.

You should apply to the Open University by 10 January 2024 (midday, UK time) via, indicate your interest in being considered for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP studentship and submit a completed copy of the OOC DTP Application Form at the same time. Further details on how to apply through the Open University and how to complete the OOC DTP Application Form can be found on the OOC How to Apply page.