The book that opens a window on Lacock Abbey

A detail from the text of the manuscript of William Brito's Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae at Lacock Abbey.

We know very little about the everyday world of the nuns at Lacock Abbey. But one of the most important books in our collection gives us a remarkable and rare glimpse into how they might have lived their lives.

The book, Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae, was written by William Brito – sometimes known as Guillaume le Breton – in the 14th century. Written on parchment in Latin, it is an alphabetical list of difficult words in the Bible, giving explanations, origins and etymologies.

The Brito was once used by the nuns that lived at Lacock Abbey
Close up view of the text in a medieval document at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire
The Brito was once used by the nuns that lived at Lacock Abbey

It is one of very few monastic books to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, under Henry VIII in the 1530s, and still be in its original location – the others are all in cathedral libraries. The Brito was brought back to the Abbey after being bought at auction by the National Trust in 2011.

An opening from the manuscript of William Brito's Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae at Lacock Abbey
An opening from the manuscript of William Brito's Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae at Lacock Abbey
An opening from the manuscript of William Brito's Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae at Lacock Abbey

More than 700 years ago, the dictionary had a wide circulation and was regarded as an essential scholarly tool. The Brito would have been an important reference work in the library at Lacock Abbey, and tells us that the nuns studied the Bible closely and would have been literate.

The book, which is handwritten in several different hands, was rebound using 13th century parchment scraps from the Abbey’s financial accounts. Those fragments record both expenses and receipts, including the sale of wool (then an important trade in Lacock) which provided an income for the Abbey.

An open book showing parchment binding

Although it is known there was a book cupboard and a book room in the Abbey, the size of the nuns' library is not known. Only two other books from this period are known to have survived – an illuminated Psalter, currently at the Bodleian Library, and a collection of Anglo-French poems. Books such as the Brito would have been prized possessions and it still bears marks from the copper clasps that held it securely chained to a shelf.

The parchment is made from sheepskin – some of the pages shows flay marks, small holes in the skins with the words carefully written around the holes.

Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae by William Brito
Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae by William Brito
Expositiones Vocabulorum Bibliae by William Brito

Although Lacock Abbey was given to the National Trust in 1944, most of the collection was not purchased from the family until 2009. The Brito passed down through generations of the Talbot family until it was bought by the National Trust and returned to its original home.