Imagine holding the only copy of a centuries-old manuscript. Now, imagine using it to line a pie tin or clean your boots. As the historian Elizabeth Yale explains in the journal Book History, that’s what many people did with old writing in Early Modern England, before the invention of the kind of library archive we’re used to today.
As the Protestant Reformation took hold of the country, Yale writes, Parliament, in 1536, passed an act suppressing monasteries. Over the next two decades, England emptied the monastic libraries. While a few antiquarians tried to salvage the material, there really wasn’t anywhere to safely store large volumes of books and paper.