Game of Thrones: Why Medieval Libraries Chained Their Books

Contains minor spoilers for “Dragonstone,” the Season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones

In Sunday night’s season premiere, Game of Thrones continued its long streak of drawing on the real past to make Westeros come alive by using Samwell Tarly to make a point about real medieval libraries — sort of.

As Sam gets to know the ropes of the Citadel, part of his thankless job is to work at the library, which offers viewers a chance to get a good look at the grandest library in the Thrones universe. One of the details in that set is that the bookshelves, even outside of the restricted section, come with chains.

That detail is one that medieval-history buffs will recognize as true. Such chains were a common sight in early libraries, for a reason that Sam handily illustrates when he makes off with books that are clearly not intended for public circulation. In 1931, the Oxford scholar B.H. Streeter published a study of England’s early chained libraries, he explained where the 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…

Over time, those desks and lecterns were often replaced with early book shelves, known as presses, similar to the ones seen on Thrones. The most famous still-standing chained library is at Hereford Cathedral, where about 1,500 books are still kept.

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However, here those real chained libraries diverge from their fictional counterpart, as the whole point of the chains was that the books stayed attached to their shelves. As Streeter explained, the fact of the chain determined much of…

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