Arts & crafts

Chained libraries

13 Jan 2023 | Written by By Mary Gorman

The Joy Club member Mary Gorman shares her musings, inspired by visiting a chained library where books were bound in more way than one…

We recently visited Hereford for the first time and on our wish list to see was the Mappa Mundi, one of the world’s unique medieval treasures. My husband has a love of maps so he was rather keen. I was less keen, but also curious. It was interesting and, as the guide finished her talk, she asked if we would like to see the chained library. I had never heard of a chained library and, as I have a love of books and writing, this did catch my attention. The largest surviving chained library in the world is at Hereford Cathedral in the UK, where all the books are still kept under lock and key in their original chains. It has been rebuilt in its original arrangement, exactly as it had been from 1611 to 1841.

As we entered the room and saw these books, bound in chains, a disturbing feeling arose from within. The guide started to explain but my mind was trying to understand what was happening within me. I retreated outside and as I walked around the majestic building, my subconscious began to link the reaction to experiences from my past, where I didn’t have a voice.

I realised, that it was not really about the chains around the books as I understood they were chained up because of their unique value. It was what it symbolised for me. I went back the next day, on my own, and sat with the chained books to allow the symbolic feeling to arise to the surface with my pen, unleashing the emotions. 

My initial anger, I believe, was touching something deeper within myself. A time, growing up in Catholic Ireland, when the Church held great powers over the laity. There were books on a list, banned from reading. Anyone who dared to disobey would have been deemed to be sinful and need forgiveness from within the confessional box or indeed excommunication from the Church. The Index of Forbidden Texts known as ILP was a list of material banned by the Catholic Church. It was published in the 1500’s, the last edition in 1948. It wasn’t until 1966 that it was abolished by the Pope.  At the time of the chained books, the ordinary person couldn’t read or write, but rather than equipping them with these skills the monks preferred to control their understanding of the written word.  

Having gone to a Convent Boarding Grammar school as a day pupil in the early sixties, I struggled with the amount of control the nuns had over the boarders. Every letter that they wrote home to their family had to be censored by the nuns. Often, one of the boarders would ask me to post a letter for them, obviously in secret (which I did). We got caught one day which resulted in corporal punishment and we were told that we had been doing the work of the devil. 

The chains that bound us in those early years lie dormant in the recesses of my subconscious. I wasn’t aware of that until they were awakened by the sight of the chains.

Thankfully, today a lot of that has changed. I welcome the freedom to now think for myself. The power of the written word moves each of us from our unique perspective. Book clubs, which have sprung up over the years, gives us a wonderful opportunity to share and listen to how the same words can tell a different story to another reader. Allowing your subconscious to come alive through our creative writing opens up many doors from the past, which had been closed through the controlling elements. 


If you have some of your own thoughts and experiences which you’d like to share with us, please send it to submissions@thejoyclub.com for the chance to get paid and published on our blog. 

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