Categories: English Literature

Book History Journal

Book History Journal

Larger book collections in the Middle English period tended to be eclectic and restricted to wealthier individuals because of their price, but even lessmoneyed people frequently owned one or more volumes. A newly commissioned luxury book could cost as much as 35 pounds, a simpler missal 20 shillings. Nobility and courtiers often had collections of between five and fifteen books: Bibles, primers, and other religious writings, historical works, romances, and books of philosophy (see the image, “Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, before St. Anne,” p. 135). These tend predominantly to be in Latin or French but increasingly in English. Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester (1355–97), and Richard II’s uncle, has the largest recorded collection for the Middle English period, over 80 items. Richard II inherited 14 books in 1384–5. In the later fifteenth century, an inventory of one of the Johns Pastons lists 17 works, many of them compilations in English, including texts by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate, romances, and some of William Caxton’s printed books. Richard de Bury (1287–1345) was born near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk and went on to study at Oxford University. He became tutor to Edward, earl of Chester, the son of Edward II and Isabella of France. When Edward III assumed personal rule in 1330, Richard was made envoy to Pope John XXII at Avignon where he met Petrarch. He was consecrated bishop of Durham in 1333 and made High Chancellor of England in 1334 and Treasurer in 1336.

He was influential in the founding of Durham College at Oxford, and he intended that his large library, which he had developed throughout his life, would supply its basis (see the image, “New College, Oxford University,” p. 149). No list of the books he owned survives, although it is possible to piece together the kinds of books he preferred, which are fairly typical of his age: religious works, legal texts, rhetorics and grammars, philosophies, histories, and poetry and drama. Richard completed his Philobiblon in the last year of his life. It survives in 35 manuscripts from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which the modern editor Ernest Thomas collated for his translation. The Philobiblon contains praise for books, criticisms of their mistreatment, his stated preferences for the ancients over the moderns, and his reasons for favoring certain genres; he also extols the benefits of reading and pleads for the careful copying and preservation of manuscripts. That the treasure of wisdom is chiefly contained in books. . . . In books I find the dead as if they were alive, in books I foresee things to come, in books warlike affairs are set forth, from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books. Alexander, the conqueror of the earth; Julius, the invader of Rome and of the world who, the first in war and arts, assumed universal empire under his single rule; faithful Fabricius and stern Cato would now have been unknown to fame if the aid of books had been wanting. Towers have been razed to the ground, cities have been overthrown, triumphal arches have perished from decay, nor can either pope or king find any means of more easily conferring the privilege of perpetuity than by books.

The book that he has made renders its author this service in return, that so long as the book survives, its author remains immortal and cannot die, as Ptolemy declares in the Prologue to his Almagest: “He is not dead,” he says, “who has given life to science.” Who, therefore, will limit by anything of another kind the price of the infinite treasure of books, from which the scribe who is instructed bringeth forth things new and old? Truth that triumphs over all things, which overcomes the king, wine, and women, which it is reckoned holy to honour before friendship, which is the way without turning and the life without end, which holy Boethius considers to be threefold in thought, speech, and writing,1 seems to remain more usefully and to fructify to greater profit in books. For the meaning of the voice perishes with the sound. Truth latent in the mind is wisdom that is hid and treasure that is not seen, but truth which shines forth in books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense. It commends itself to the sight when it is read, to the hearing when it is heard, and moreover in a manner to the touch when it suffers itself to be transcribed, bound, corrected, and preserved. The undisclosed truth of the mind, although it is the possession of the noble soul, yet because it lacks a companion, is not certainly known to be delightful while neither sight nor hearing takes account of it. Further, the truth of the voice is patent only to the ear and eludes the sight, which reveals to us more of the qualities of things and, linked with the subtlest of motions, begins and perishes as it were in a breath. But the written truth of books, not transient but permanent, plainly offers itself to be observed and, by means of the pervious spherules of the eyes, passing through the vestibule of perception and the courts of imagination, enters the chamber of intellect, taking its place in the couch of memory, where it engenders the eternal truth of the mind . . .

The degree of affection that is properly due to books. . . . Let us next dwell a little on the recital of the wrongs with which they requite us, the contempts and cruelties of which we cannot recite an example in each kind, nay, scarcely the main classes of the several wrongs. In the first place, we are expelled by force and arms from the homes of the clergy, which are ours by hereditary right, who were used to have cells of quietness in the inner chamber, but alas! in these unhappy times we are altogether exiled, suffering poverty without the gates. For our places are seized now by dogs, now by hawks, now by that biped beast whose cohabitation with the clergy was forbidden of old, from which we have always taught our nurslings to flee more than from the asp and cockatrice; wherefore, she, always jealous of the love of us and never to be appeased, at length seeing us in some corner protected only by the web of some dead spider, with a frown abuses and reviles us with bitter words, declaring us alone of all the furniture in the house to be unnecessary and complaining that we are useless for any household purpose, and advises that we should speedily be converted into rich caps, sendal and silk and twice-dyed purple, robes and furs, wool and linen; and, indeed, not without reason if she could see our inmost hearts, if she had listened to our secret counsels, if she had read the book of Theophrastus or Valerius, or only heard the twenty-fifth chapter of Ecclesiasticus with understanding ears.And hence it is that we have to mourn for the homes of which we have been unjustly robbed . . . Now we would pursue a new kind of injury, by which we suffer alike in person and in fame, the dearest thing we have. Our purity of race is diminished every day, while new authors’ names are imposed upon us by worthless compilers, translators, and transformers and, losing our ancient nobility while we are reborn in successive generations, we become wholly degenerate; and thus against our will the name of some wretched step-father is affixed to us, and the sons are robbed of the names of their true fathers. The verses of Virgil, while he was yet living, were claimed by an impostor, and a certain Fidentinus mendaciously usurped the works of Martial, whom Martial thus deservedly rebuked: “The book you read is, Fidentinus! mine, Though read so badly, ’t well may pass for thine!” What marvel then, if, when our authors are dead, clerical apes use us to make broad their phylacteries since even while they are alive they try to seize us as soon as we are published? Ah! how often ye pretend that we who are ancient are but lately born and try to pass us off as sons who are really fathers, calling us who have made you clerks the production of your studies.

Indeed, we derived our origin from Athens, though we are now supposed to be from Rome, for Carmentis was always the pilferer of Cadmus, and we who were but lately born in England will tomorrow be born again in Paris, and thence being carried to Bologna, will obtain an Italian origin based upon no affinity of blood. Alas! how ye commit us to treacherous copyists to be written, how corruptly ye read us and kill us by medication while ye supposed ye were correcting us with pious zeal. Oftentimes we have to endure barbarous interpreters, and those who are ignorant of foreign idioms presume to translate us from one language into another, and thus all propriety of speech is lost and our sense is shamefully mutilated contrary to the meaning of the author! Truly noble would have been the condition of books if it had not been for the presumption of the tower of Babel, if but one kind of speech had been transmitted by the whole human race. We will add the last clause of our long lament, though far too short for the materials that we have. For in us the natural use is changed to that which is against nature, while we who are the light of faithful souls everywhere fall a prey to painters knowing nought of letters and are entrusted to goldsmiths to become, as though we were not sacred vessels of wisdom, repositories of gold-leaf. We fall undeservedly into the power of laymen, which is more bitter to us than any death, since they have sold our people for nought, and our enemies themselves are our judges . . . Of showing due propriety in the custody of books. We are not only rendering service to God in preparing volumes of new books but also exercising an office of sacred piety when we treat books carefully and again when we restore them to their proper places and commend them to inviolable custody that they may rejoice in purity while we have them in our hands and rest securely when they are put back in their repositories. And surely next to the vestments and vessels dedicated to the Lord’s body, holy books deserve to be rightly treated by the clergy, to which great injury is done so often as they are touched by unclean hands. Wherefore, we deem it expedient to warn our students of various negligences, which might always be easily avoided and do wonderful harm to books. And in the first place, as to the opening and closing of books, let there be due moderation that they be not unclasped in precipitate haste nor, when we have finished our inspection, be put away without being duly closed. For it behoves us to guard a book much more carefully than a boot.

But the race of scholars is commonly badly brought up and, unless they are bridled in by the rules of their elders, they indulge in infinite puerilities. They behave with petulance and are puffed up with presumption, judging of everything as if they were certain though they are altogether inexperienced. You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies and, when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pockethandkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. Would that he had before him no book but a cobbler’s apron! His nails are stuffed with fetid filth as black as jet, with which he marks any passage that pleases him. He distributes a multitude of straws, which he inserts to stick out in different places so that the halm may remind him of what his memory cannot retain. These straws, because the book has no stomach to digest them and no one takes them out, first distend the book from its wonted closing and, at length, being carelessly abandoned to oblivion, go to decay. He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth and, because he has no wallet at hand, he drops into books the fragments that are left. Continually chattering, he is never weary of disputing with his companions and, while he alleges a crowd of senseless arguments, he wets the book lying half open on his lap with sputtering showers. Aye, and then hastily folding his arms, he leans on the book and, by a brief spell of study, invites a long nap; and then, by way of mending the wrinkles, he folds back the margin of the leaves to the no small injury of the book. Now the rain is over and gone, and the flowers have appeared in our land.

Then the scholar we are speaking of, a neglecter rather than an inspector of books, will stuff his volume with violets and primroses, with roses and quatrefoil. Then he will use his wet and perspiring hands to turn over the volumes; then he will thump the white vellum with gloves covered with all kinds of dust and, with his finger clad in long-used leather, will hunt line by line through the page; then, at the sting of the biting flea, the sacred book is flung aside and is hardly shut for another month until it is so full of dust that has found its way within that it resists the effort to close it. But the handling of books is specially to be forbidden to those shameless youths who, as soon as they have learned to form the shapes of letters, straightway, if they have the opportunity, become unhappy commentators and, wherever they find an extra margin about the text, furnish it with monstrous alphabets, or if any other frivolity strikes their fancy, at once their pen begins to write it. There the Latinist and sophister and every unlearned writer tries the fitness of his pen, a practice that we have frequently seen injuring the usefulness and value of the most beautiful books. Again, there is a class of thieves shamefully mutilating books, who cut away the margins from the sides to use as materials for letters, leaving only the text, or employ the leaves from the end, inserted for the protection of the book, for various uses and abuses – a kind of sacrilege which should be prohibited by the threat of anathema. Again, it is part of the decency of scholars that whenever they return from meals to their study, washing should invariably precede reading and that no grease-stained finger should unfasten the clasps or turn the leaves of a book. Nor let a crying child admire the pictures in the capital letters lest he soil the parchment with wet fingers, for a child instantly touches whatever he sees. Moreover, the laity, who look at a book turned upside down just as if it were open in the right way, are utterly unworthy of any communion with books. Let the clerk take care also that the smutty scullion reeking from his stewpots does not touch the lily leaves of books, all unwashed, but he who walketh without blemish shall minister to the precious volumes.

And, again, the cleanliness of decent hands would be of great benefit to books as well as scholars if it were not that the itch and pimples are characteristic of the clergy.Whenever defects are noticed in books, they should be promptly repaired, since nothing spreads more quickly than a tear, and a rent which is neglected at the time will have to be repaired afterwards with usury.

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