In its Season 7 premiere Sunday night, Game Of Thrones gave us a closer look at the massive library of the Citadel, complete with the recreation of an intriguing Medieval tradition, albeit one that’s not entirely historically accurate.
In the premiere, Samwell Tarly, who is studying to be a Maester at the Citadel, ends up with what appears to be a thankless entry level job at the library.
As we follow Sam’s day to day chores, we get a good look at the grandest library in the Game Of Thrones universe with all its Medieval inspired detail, including chains on all the books.
While keeping books locked up on the shelves with chains was common in early Medieval era libraries, Game of Thrones was somewhat off with its portrayal of the functionality of the chains.
In the episode, Sam is shown repeatedly returning books to the shelves, simply reaching through the chains hanging from the shelves to place the books back where they belong.
The value of books was tremendous back in the Medieval ages, and the chains were designed to prevent people from taking books away from the book shelves. So, all reading had to be done next to the shelf the book was attached to.
As Sam demonstrated, that’s not quite how it works in the fictional library of the Citadel.
In 1931, the Oxford scholar B.H. Streeter published a study on early libraries and explained where the chained book tradition came from.
“In the Middle Ages books were rare, and so was honesty. A book, it was said, was worth as much as a farm; unlike a farm, it was portable property that could easily be purloined. Valuables in all ages require protection. Books, therefore, were kept under lock and key. This was done in two ways: they were either shut up in a cupboard (almery or armarium) or a chest, or they were chained, sometimes four or five together, to a desk…”
In his 2010 history of books and their shelves, Henry Petroski explained how if someone were to remove a book from a shelf, it would be a major hassle.
“The fixture holding the iron rod in place had to be unsecured and all the chain rings removed until the one associated with the desired book was reached,” he writes. “The book could then have been taken from the lectern, and all the other chain rings would have had to be replaced on the rod in their original order, lest there be tangled chains and confusion about a book’s location.”
The whole point of the chains was to keep the books from going anywhere, so the re-shelving work that Sam does on the show would have been completely unnecessary, not to mention difficult.
Although to be fair, Sam would likely prefer re-stacking books to emptying bedpans any day.
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