On the love of books

A book of which I am greatly fond is the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, an early fourteenth-century clergyman who was Bishop of Durham and Lord Chancellor under Edward III. For a text written by such an imposing figure, it is remarkably sweet; Philobiblon is literally “the love of books”. de Bury collected an immense amount of literature during his life – according to his biographer, “more than all the other English bishops put together”.

People, of course, found this a little odd, so he had to do something about it:

…we have resigned all thoughts of other earthly things, and have given ourselves up to a passion for acquiring books. That our intent and purpose, therefore, may be known to posterity as well as to our contemporaries, and that we may for ever stop the perverse tongues of gossipers as far as we are concerned, we have published a little treatise written in the lightest style of the moderns; for it is ridiculous to find a slight matter treated of in a pompous style. … And because it principally treats of the love of books, we have chosen, after the fashion of the ancient Romans, fondly to name it by a Greek word, Philobiblon.

The first section is devoted to explaining the importance of reading and learning, as it appeared to him.

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of the abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the whole progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

He explains the merits of reading:

…what pleasantness of teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant.

and the terrible temptations of power:

…we were reported to burn with such desire for books, and especially old ones, that it was more easy for any man to gain our favour by means of books than of money. Wherefore, since supported by the goodness of the aforesaid prince of worthy memory, we were able to requite a man well or ill, to benefit or injure mightily great as well as small, there flowed in, instead of presents and guerdons, and instead of gifts and jewels, soiled tracts and battered codices, gladsome alike to our eye and heart.

After a while, it becomes apparent that what we’re reading is, in its way, a text on basic librarianship, filtered down from the fourteenth-century collector with an eye on the future.

He discusses collection management, explaining why he has collected books of poetry (because it is hard to understand the great authors if one cannot understand their allusions) and downplayed civil law; why he has preferred the classical authors but not neglected modern writings. He explains the need to provide standard reference works – Greek and Hebrew grammars, and perhaps even Arabic (for the “numerous astronomical treatises”); indeed, if they’re not available, to commission them and make them available.

He even deals with weeding and stock replacement, in a more direct way than we normally have to:

But because all the appliances of mortal men with the lapse of time suffer the decay of mortality, it is needful to replace the volumes that are worn out with age by fresh successors, that the perpetuity of which the individual is by its nature incapable may be secured to the species; and hence it is that the Preacher says: Of making many books there is no end.

But then we come to probably the best part: his lengthy rant near the end about The Scholars Of Today, and How They Are Just Really Vile.

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 pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. … 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.

Other hazards, apparently, included people filling books with pressed violets, dropping cheese into them, cutting the margins and flyleaves off to write letters on, laymen holding them upside down, children grubbying the illustrated capitals by touching them, and the vague horror of the “smutty scullion reeking from his stewpots”. (I have never had problems with people cutting the margins off, but every other one of these is familiar in some way…) Not quite the image of the silent, austere, medieval monastery we have in mind most of the time!

He then explains why he has collected these books – “to found in perpetual charity a Hall in the reverend university of Oxford, the chief nursing mother of all liberal arts, and to endow it with the necessary revenues, for the maintenance of a number of scholars” – and includes, presumably so it wouldn’t get misplaced, a copy of the charter for its library.

It’s quite an interesting set of rules, as a historical document; a committee of five was to run the library, three of whom could agree to lend out anything the library had a duplicate copy of, if they were given a pledge of equal value in response, and the borrower’s name was carefully written down. Once a year books were to be brought back so that they could be seen by the librarians, and they were not allowed to be taken outside of the city or its environs. And, every year, the librarians were to check every volume was accounted for… which, to my great amusement, is recommended to happen in the first week of July, high summer and – these days – prime stock-checking time.

Sadly, de Bury’s excessive collecting took its toll – he died in exceptional poverty, and his personal library was broken up and sold to pay his debts. The college at Oxford was formed – the plan completed by his successor – and lasted until the Reformation, when it ceased to exist; a small amount of its buildings are now absorbed into Trinity College, if you look carefully enough. His library never made it there, and its catalogue is now lost; we only know of two volumes from it, one at the Bodleian and one at the British Library.

The book survived, though; given its appeal, it’s not hard to see why. The full text was digitised by the University of Virginia Library or by Project Gutenberg, and is worth an hour’s reading; the edition I have, a lovely pocket-sized hardback from 1902, has also been digitised by the Internet Archive with page images, if you prefer that sort of thing.

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