Cataloguing the Museum’s Historic Library

Museum of the Order of St John Adriana Celmare - Project Librarian

Thanks to a donation from a generous Museum supporter, we have embarked on an inventorying and cataloguing project of our Historic Library, a collection of approximately 1200 early printed books and manuscripts currently housed in the West Tower of St John’s Gate.

Photograph of a room with a a grand fire place, a table and chairs in dark wood in the middle and some cabinets full of books.
The Historic Library in its current location

The beginnings of the Library of the Order of St John in England can be traced to more than 180 years ago. There is evidence that, as early as the year 1838, a small number of books gifted by members of the Order were being kept in a locked box at one of the higher Officers’ houses. Throughout the years, the collections gradually grew and diversified, mostly due to the generosity of the Order’s members, but also thanks to a newly adopted acquisition policy at the beginning of the 20th century, which allowed the librarian to purchase items of special value and significance to the history of the Order. Nowadays, the library is divided into two main collections, the Historic Library, containing volumes published before the year 1900 and the Reference Library, which houses modern materials and a large number of pamphlets, periodicals, catalogues and related publications to the foundation and ongoing development of the international first aid charity, St John Ambulance.

A photograph of the double-page spread of an open book with illustrations of coats of arms on the left hand page and handwritten text on the right hand page.
Little armorie of the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. 
LDOSJ C2.27 Image ©MOSJ/Jon Stokes 2020
Photograph of the double page spread of an open book with illustrations of the arms of the Priory of England of the Order of St John on the left and an annotated eight-pointed cross on the right.
Little armorie of the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. 
LDOSJ C2.27 Image ©MOSJ/Jon Stokes 2020

The project started with an inventory of the historic collection and an audit of the existing holdings against the old card catalogue system. During this stage, we discovered many unique and special materials that are representative for the Order’s continuous existence throughout the centuries. Some of the major themes reoccurring in the collection are the history of the Order of St John since its founding in Jerusalem by the Knights Hospitaller to its modern revival in England, the ecclesiastical, administrative and legislative aspects of the Order, the history of the crusades and of the military and religious orders in Europe and elsewhere.

Photograph of an unfolded hand drawn map of Malta and Gozo with the ports and towns marked.
Le calendrier militaire de l’Ordre de Malte. Marseille, [1742?]
LDOSJ C2.27 Image ©MOSJ/Jon Stokes 2020
Also well represented are geographic and historic descriptions of the main landmarks associated with the Knights Hospitallers (the Holy Land, Malta, Cyprus and the Priory of Clerkenwell in London), as well as various accounts of the sieges of Rhodes (1480 & 1522) and Malta (1565 & 1798-1800). There are several biographical and fictional works in the library, as well as publications on heraldry, genealogy, archaeology and numismatics.


Photograph of the front cover of a book with a coat of arms imprinted in gold.
Armorial binding of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Altieri
LDOSJ H2 Image ©MOSJ/Jon Stokes 2020

The Historic Library is also home to a surprisingly large number of manuscripts (about 115 of them), written in languages such as Italian, French, Latin, English and German and ranging in date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Many of the manuscripts deal with legislative aspects of the Order including the rules, statutes and privileges governing different langues, priories and commanderies throughout Europe. Others contain homage and patent rolls (in original or copied), hand-painted coat-of-arms of the Knights and Masters of the Order, letters and genealogical notes, Chapter minutes and deliberations of the Order in England, and there is even an old Roman Breviary written in Latin.

The second phase of the project involved cataloguing the historic collections and making them accessible on-line through a public catalogue that is fully searchable by keyword, author or title. The catalogue will be integrated into a library website, where further information and details about the collections will be available to researchers, members of the Order of St. John and the general public.


Le Grand-Prieuré d’Auvergne. Lyon, 1883 LDOSJ H6 Image ©MOSJ/Jon Stokes 2020


To mark the occasion of this year’s World Book Day (March 4th, 2021), the Project Librarian has selected a few special and unique items to display in a virtual exhibition of books and manuscripts available on the Museum website under Collections. Some of the items on display include: a first illustrated edition of the Statutes of the Order of St John (printed in Germany in 1496), a 17th century illuminated manuscript depicting the ceremony of profession for admission to the Order of St John in France, a book of laudatory poems written for and owned by the Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, a 19th century manuscript giving an account of various pilgrimages to historical places in London and others. Please visit the 2021 Virtual Book exhibition for a lovely selection of historic items from the Library collections!

Latest blog posts