John Foxe (1516/17 – 18 April 1587) was an English Historian and martyrologist. His book Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, was first published in 1563. It is commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and is an account of Christian martyrs throughout Western history, emphasizing the sufferings of English Protestants. This edition was published in London for the Company of Stationers in 1641. The book has a chain attached to the top of the front and back covers, showing that it was once part of a chained library. Book chains served as a security system in Medieval and Renaissance libraries to ensure that books were not removed from shelves without assistance or authorization. There are currently only five chained libraries in the world today that remain intact with all of their books, furniture, and chains.
Chaining books to shelves, lecterns, or reading pews began during the Middle Ages before the popularity of the Gutenberg press, when all books were handwritten and therefore expensive. By chaining the books to a shelf, libraries could allow more people to access their collections, because they would not have to worry about people misplacing or stealing books due to increased usage. However, not all libraries chained their books as the process was expensive. Only books that merited this extra cost, either because they were especially valuable or because they were part of a reference collection that would have heavy traffic, warranted the extra expense.
Books stored on shelves were typically placed with the spine facing the back of the shelf, in order to allow the chains to hang over the edge. The chains were always attached to one of the edges or corners of the covers, never to the spines, to avoid causing greater wear. This also allowed readers to take down the book and open it without twisting the chain. Often a design was drawn across the edges of the pages in order to identify the shelved books.
In libraries with a smaller collection, books would usually be chained to lecterns or pews, which provided a seat for patrons at each book. One library in Dublin even constructed three wire alcoves, or “cages” in the 1770s where patrons would be locked inside, in response to thefts in the library.
We encourage anyone with an interest in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or in the history of books to drop by Special Collections. Special Collections and Archives is open to the public 1:30–5 p.m. Monday through Friday and mornings by appointment.