I have — as far as I know — only made the acquaintance of one book thief. I do not include those students who illicitly ‘borrow’ books from the famously non-lending Bodleian in this count. I remember when I was a doctoral student, a fellow graduate casually mentioning that he had called up a thesis but could not be bothered to read it in the library so smuggled it out wrapped up in his jumper in order to photocopy it in its entirety; he later returned it. I found this all the more shocking because he had removed, albeit temporarily, an unpublished dissertation, the number of copies of which would be in single digits. I was more ambivalent a few years later about the student of mine who came for confession: in September 1997, he had wanted to use the Bodleian at the weekend only to discover it was to close on what he — and I — considered the spurious grounds of respecting the funeral of the former Princess of Wales. He had selected the book he wanted to study, removed it on the Friday and returned it on the Monday. Should he have been praised for his determination to read or condemned for breaking the library’s rules?
Those examples do not compare with actual campaigns of book-stealing. The one thief I have met was an academic who stole from Oxford and London libraries, and then sold them to auctioneers and dealers in the capital, claiming that he had inherited them from a late relative. A wise librarian called John eventually uncovered his deeds. The man was arrested and served time in prison. He is now, I believe, a radio presenter.
There is a detail of this case that came back to me last weekend, when I was reading The Financial Times‘ feature on book-stealing. John, the librarian, told me that the police had recovered some of the books from under the thief’s bed. He had hidden them there because he had to remove signs of their former, or rightful, ownership. He did not tear off the front boards, as some thieves do, or tear out pages with provenance marks. Instead, he spent his evenings painstakingly washing away the book-plates in the front of the volumes. John particularly remarked on this: the thief had done it as ‘a labour of love’, a sign of respect for the books he had purloined.
What brought this back to me was reading of the case of Stanislas Gosse, the young Alsatian who stole hundreds of volumes, including manuscripts, from the Mont Sainte-Odile monastery in Alsace. At his trial in 2003, he explained , or exculpated, his actions: ‘It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more’. Like the thief I knew, he respected what he stole.
The Financial Times parallelled Gosse with a more recent thief, Farhad Hakimzadeh, who (in a line which is surely to become notorious) loved his books so much, he spent his wedding night in their company. But Hakimzadeh did not simply steal volumes and maps: he sliced pages out of them. For sure, he did it clinically, so much so that The Guardian reported at the time ‘to the untrained eye the damage is barely visible’. However, it was damage and it was vandalism. It seems to me that there is a different impulse at work in Hakimzadeh’s actions from Gosse’s.
What Gosse did has been written up as bibliokleptomania. Whether it was in truth an uncontrollable desire as this designation would suggest, we are not competent to judge, though it makes a handy defence in court. Indeed, the description of both his motivation and that of Hakimzadeh is suspect, coming as they do from their trials. But Gosse’s phrasing struck me as remarkably familiar, unintentionally echoing the words of a humanist at work nearly six hundred years earlier.
Readers of these pages will have met my friend, Poggio Bracciolini, before. One of his claims to renown in scholarly circles is his recovery of classical texts that had not circulated in the centuries immediately before his lifetime. In one famous letter, he describes how he and colleagues (no solitary activity, this) visited the monastery of St. Gall and ‘there amid a tremendous quantity of books which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mould and dust. For these books were not in the library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offence would have been stuck away’. Like Gosse, the humanists claimed that the owners had abandoned their books — respecting those volumes meant disrespecting the institutions that housed them.
Poggio and his colleagues would claim, 0f course, that what they were doing was not like Gosse’s actions because they would not admit to it being selfish. On the contrary, they insisted that they were acting in the interests of the republic of letters, not trying to hoard books but to make their texts available to the learned. The audience, it might be said, was select and hardly a wide public but their self-justification was much more bullish than a latterday defendant’s.
It also seems to me that the humanist impulse was at work a century after Poggio, in the early sixteenth century here in Oxford, when the old university library entered a period of decline. As it did, some of the manuscripts went missing from the chained library. Once again, those thefts might have been rationalised by their perpetrators as acts for the public good, saving venerable manuscripts from an institution incapable of caring for them properly. And, in a few cases, those books now survive because they were stolen.
In short, as I said in a lecture a couple of years ago, it is not only bad men who steal books. Nor is it the case that all thefts at all times have been considered heinous. The historians among us need to consider the shifting boundaries between safeguarding and appropriating, stealing and saving. We need to ask: when has the thieving of books been acceptable?
This is shamelessly an advert, a promotion, a puff for some new pages that adorn and enhance the web. Their subject, the physical remains of Oxford’s medieval walls, may be a little removed from the humanist matters which are the usual fare of these postings but the pages are such an excellent addition that I’d hope that you would agree that they deserve as wide a public as possible. Not that this recherché site is a method for anyone to achieve fame.
But, to the point: the redoutable Stephanie Jenkins is known to some for her website that records both the present and the past of that ancient settlement of Headington, now represented on Oxford City Council by two Liberal Democrats, Ruth Wilkinson and another. Stephanie’s interests are not confined to that superior (in many senses) part of Oxford: she also deigns to add to our knowledge of the centre of the city itself. Recently, I have spied her wandering around the centre, studying in closer detail than one would imagine comfortable old stones and wishing she could clamber over people’s houses to see what their gardens hid. The result is very impressive: a photographic record of the line of the thirteenth-century walls of the city, rich in revealing annotation.
What those pages remind me is that we can take our surroundings so often for granted, paying little attention to the depth of what appears to us quotidian. I have lived here of over twenty years and still I am learning, happy to be educated by Stephanie’s expertise.
It was 29th January 2009 when Prof. George Holmes died. I was in Rome at the time – one of George’s favourite cities – and so I did not have the chance to attend his funeral or to mark his passing. When he was Chichele Professor of Medieval History in Oxford, organising and chairing seminars for new graduates I was starting my doctorate, and, a few years later, he was the internal examiner for my doctorate, so I remember him with real respect and affection. I have not seen the standard type of obituaries in the broadsheet newspapers. Presumably there will be a memoir to him eventually in the Proceedings of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. But it occurs to me that, now, in the months immediately after his death, we should reflect on the loss of not only a very human scholar but also of a style of historical writing which he represented. With him, I sense, there dies something of a particularly British tradition of Renaissance scholarship. I am not competent to write on his personal life so what follows are simply some thoughts on an intellectual obituary.
George’s wide-ranging publication record reflected the way his life was a mental odyssey. He began his academic career, in Cambridge, as an historian of late medieval England, his doctoral work published as The Estates of the Higher Nobility in fourteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1957). That research continued, with a text-book on later medieval England (Edinburgh, 1962) and, a decade later, his dissection of The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975). At the same time, however, his interests broadened beyond the Channel, inspired originally (I think) by his interest in the Italian bankers whose reach – to their own peril – stretched to England. The mercantile connexions between Italy and England was to become a topic he would return to on several occasions in significant articles. Those studies inspired an interest in Florentine history and, now based in Oxford, he set about learning Italian, for which he showed an enviable facility. His fascination led him to produce the work for which he is probably best remembered, his writings on the Italian Renaissance. These included his tellingly-titled The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400 – 1450 (Oxford, 1969) and Florence, Rome and the origins of the Renaissance (Oxford, 1986). He was not to be confined in either one country or one century.
Even this brief summary does not do justice to his interests. One of his works that I certainly still find useful in teaching was his text-book on late medieval Europe in the Fontana series, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320 – 1450 (London, 1975 [2nd ed: Oxford, 2000]). The study for that book kindled an interest in the Hussites, an interest which is reflected in the space given to them in that work.
What strikes me about George’s learned publications is the combination of detailed, specific articles alongside books in which he provided a lucid overview of a subject. A volume like Florentine Enlightenment or his later Renaissance (London, 1996) provide readable texts with forceful (if understated) arguments driving them forward. These seem to me to sit at the end of a tradition of British historical writing that goes back to Addington Symonds or even Roscoe: the ability to make accessible to an English-speaking audience a broad vista of Italian history. As his articles demonstrated, George could present a forensic analysis of a tightly-defined topic – what is now the main mode of academic writing – but that other style is perhaps less appreciated. It is less recognised as a mode of presentation because it is a particularly British style, a specifically British contribution to the understanding of the Renaissance.
George remained active until his last days. He had suffered two bouts of serious ill health in the previous decades – experiences that shaped and perhaps mellowed his view of the world. He was a regular presence in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian. The disappearance of his jacketed, open-necked, blue-shirted figure will leave the library a colder place.