Rare book returned to historic Leeds abbey where it was studied by monks 500 years ago

A medieval book has been returned to the Yorkshire abbey where it was first studied by Cistercian monks more than 500 years ago.

Known as the Kirkstall Missal, the book was printed in Paris in 1516 and once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds.

It contains instructions and woodcut illustrations on how to worship, complete with Latin notes in the margins which were made by the monks. The volume contains the Mass of St Gregory’s Trental – popular in England towards the end of the Middle Ages –  handwritten in Latin using red and black ink in the practiced pre-Dissolution hand of an accomplished scribe. This writer also makes a number of insertions of unauthorised Saint’s names within the calendar, including that of St William of York.


Approved by the Order’s General Chapter in Citeaux, the Leeds book is one of three copies of the same edition known to have been in the North of England prior to the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Leeds Central Library acquired the Cistercian Missal from an auction at Sotheby’s in December 1901 for the sum of £5.

Known in Latin as the Missale ad usum Cistercienci, the historic book was recently rediscovered during a search of the library’s archives. It has been brought back to its original home at Kirkstall Abbey as part of a new display on the site’s history, with visitors able to download a digital version of the book.

Rhian Isaac, from the library’s special collections, said: “This remarkable text has been part of the city’s history for more than half a millennium, outlasting countless events, places and people which have come and gone while it has remained almost perfectly preserved.

“It’s humbling to think that today, we are looking at the very same words which were studied by monks here in Leeds all those centuries ago and which we’ve now returned to the abbey where the Missal was once so important to those who lived here.”

The Kirkstall Missal is one of just three copies which were known to have been in the north of England before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, which saw King Henry VIII destroy religious buildings and seize their property.

The book will later be put on display in Leeds Central Library.


Story by William Kelly, The Catholic Network

Pics: courtesy Leeds City Council