The culture of biblioclasm — the traditions of intentional destruction of books — holds for me a fascination much as the candle does for the moth. I can not, then, let pass without comment the news that a pastor of a church of 50 members in a small town in Florida will liven up his Saturday by buying twenty copies of the Koran and then dispatching them into a bonfire.
The act itself is, of course, pitiful. Why twenty copies? Why not two thousand or two hundred thousand? When, of course, the figure reaches the tens of thousands, it would require industrial organisation to be in any way efficient — which would not be impossible to arrange, but beyond the pastor’s means. Even then, the destruction could hardly expect to be effective: the book would continue to exist. And, when the number is so confined, the fire so small, the overwhelming impression will not be the smell of burnt paper but the stench of impotence. How puny the pastor will seem: perhaps even he will wonder to himself how many copies of the Koran will have rolled of the world’s printing presses in the time it takes him to dispense with one score witnesses to the Prophet’s revelations.
Book burnings have had moments of being celebrated activities, as I have discussed before. The art of biblioclasm blossomed as the power of the act itself withered: a culture of print made it rare for the destruction of books to be anything other than symbolic. Even the Nazis, with their industrial efficiency which the Floridan pastor could only dream of emulating, proved less than successful at eradicating books they disliked. And so they moved on to people.
The futility of book-burning being so obvious, it leaves the question of why the act of a little-known pastor has received such international attention. In part, it is the circumstance: the coincidence of the anniversary of 11th September with the celebration of Eid, the involvement of a self-styled churchman who has failed to grasp the most basic tenet of Christianity. It is a story which takes little journalistic skill to conjure up copy, even without the emotive pull that it can command.
The emotive pull is multi-faceted, affecting equally disparate audiences. In Muslim cultures, the destruction of examples of the Holy Book could be taken as act of desecration. Some Islamic scholars have pointed out the difference between mushaf — the printed pages — and the Qu’ran — the revelation itself. Armed with that distinction, it could be argued that even if all printed copies somehow succumbed to the fire, then the Qu’ran would survive, not least on the tongues of those who have memorised its words. A textual community, in other words, could exist without a written text. So, any book burning can not lessen the prophecies themselves, which have an existence, both conceptual and oral, beyond any printed testimony. But this distinction may have little relevance for those who see each copy of the book as sacred, as something to be treasured even in its most dog-earred and delapidated state.
In the west, book burning tends most immediately to evoke memories, or learnt resonances, of the destructive force of the Nazis, bringing to mind images of Kirstallnacht and fears of a pogrom of books which could be both organised and popular. A fear of repetition — not just of the act but of both the complicity, through involvement or through silence, and the spiral into infernal inhumanity that it signified — drives some of the condemnation of what is planned in Florida.
That determination that what happened in the 1930s must not happen is worthy in itself, but in the desire for cleansing (as if full purification were even possible), there is the risk of becoming culpable yet once more: the incessant expressions of outrage simply make the flames rage higher. The media – the newspapers hoping to sell copies by its coverage — is in danger of giving an impotent act a significance, even a spurious power, that it lacks. It is as if they wanted to look into the fire and find something more substantial than a mean-spirited but futile act. And, of course, by drawing attention and so exacerbating the tensions, they may indeed will something more into existence and provide their own self-fulfilling prophecy. They are like the pyromaniac that can not turn away from his fire.
When Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave its secret to humanity, he was eternally punished for his pains. He managed to give us the power of fire, but not the capacity properly to control our use of the flames. Perhaps the gods were right.
In honour of the forthcoming conference on Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I have just fulfilled a request of that paragon of humanitas, Alessandra Petrina. She suggested last year that it was time for a new listing of extant manuscripts from the duke’s library to be compiled. It is something I have had in mind to do for some time, and it is now available as a pdf on this website.
Producing the list has given me the opportunity to reflect on the development of our knowledge of the duke’s library. The most recent listing was that produced by the late Alfonso Sammut for his 1980 volume. It might be thought that brief descriptions of all the manuscripts owned by the duke went beyond his particular remit to study Humfrey’s associations with the Italian humanists. I recall Tilly de la Mare telling me that she and others persuaded Sammut to add that section to his work and, in compiling it, he had the assistance of several scholars, including Ian Doyle. The result was a list of forty volumes. In the thirty years since then, two of the manuscripts he attributed to Humfrey have had to be excluded, but a further eight have been added – an increase of about a fifth (I say about because Sammut counted one manuscript, Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 as a single item, where, as it is formed of two parts only later brought together, I have counted it as two items,  and  in my listing).
Reviewing the expansion of our knowledge, it strikes me that the new information we now have tends to corroborate rather than challenge our understanding of the duke’s library. The attribution of the Thorney Computus to his collection  comes through the deciphering of his ex libris which reveals that he was given the manuscript by the abbot of Thorney in 1431. It reminds us of John Leland’s comment in the mid-sixteenth century that the duke had been given many beautiful manuscripts by abbots. It is also notable that, in this case, as in others already known, the duke was willing to part with a book less than a decade after receiving it – the Computus was given to the University of Oxford in 1439. The Computus is the oldest manuscript, to date, to come from the duke’s collection: many were produced with his lifetime, if not originally for him. This would seem appropriate for a collection famous for its humanist content, and the recent discoveries, three of which fit into this category (items ,  and ), would seem to reinforce that impression. But there needs to be a word of caution expressed: humanist and refound classical texts were, we can be fairly certain, only ever a minority in his library. Even in the Oxford donation lists which are famous for this type of text, they play a relatively small role. The fact that our knowledge is now slanted towards them is surely not simply an accident of survival; it is probably a reflection of where scholarly interest has concentrated – for Tilly de la Mare and myself, the humanist subset of his library has held the greatest fascination. If we move our focus, we may find there is more waiting to be discovered, a point to which I will return in a moment.
If we do move our focus, it may, however, only underline further a factor in the vagaries of survival. Of the new discoveries, three were among the books given to Oxford; five were not. This reflects the imbalance that already existed: of the 47 extant manuscripts, only 12 were among those given to the University. If we were to assume that there had been an even distribution of destruction across all his books, this would suggest that he gave only a quarter of his volumes to Oxford and so had a collection which totalled over a thousand items. This seems to be a implausibly high number for a private library gathered over, at most, one lifetime. That is to say, it is likely that the total was lower, and consequently that the level of loss of the ‘non-Oxford’ books much lower than for those he gave to the University. In short, Humfrey did his books no favours when he gave them to England’s first university.
I have used the term ‘new discoveries’ and that, in itself, needs a gloss, for there was one book (item ) which had been identified in the 1870s but then was not noticed by other scholars: it has only recently been ‘re-discovered’, both by myself and independently by Godfried Croenen and others. I mention this because it helps bring home another insight afforded by listing Humfrey’s manuscripts: it is the process of the development of our knowledge. The late nineteenth century saw increased interest in the provenance of manuscripts (alongside a fascination with ‘autographs’), and scholars like Francis Madden did much to gather together the core of information about Humfrey’s manuscripts. But it was not with those ‘professionals’ that knowledge began: my work on this listing has served to confirm my admiration of Thomas Warton, an author whom I also discuss in my introduction, soon to be on-line, to the new edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England. His History of English Poetry, published in the 1770s and 1780s, was not to everyone’s taste, partly because it had so many digressions, but those digressions reveal the depth of Warton’s learning. It was Warton who first compiled a list of manuscripts once owned by Humfrey, drawing, it should be said, on the detailed information available in Leland’s notebooks. The late nineteenth century did not create our understanding of a library like Humfrey’s; it developed it by marrying knowledge of what was available in England with attention to what survived across the Channel. Even then, manuscripts obviously associated with the duke could be missed: a book, partly in the autograph of the French scholar, Nicolas da Clamanges, with the duke’s ex libris written in it several times, had entered the Bodleian in the mid-seventeenth century; its princely provenance was only noticed at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century . At the same time, as I have already mentioned, there was a process of forgetting that worked concurrently with the serendipidity of discovery – a helpful reminder, if we need one, that scholarship rarely strides forward on an unhindered path to complete enlightenment.
This brings me to the last set of thoughts with which I wish to leave you: where next for discoveries of Humfrey books? I am too much of a romantic or an optimist to imagine that we have exhausted the possibilities of identification. What the recent decades have taught us, in a phrase that I admit to have used elsewhere, is that manuscripts turn up in the most likely places. Deeper understanding of famous, outsize collections – so outsize that all their contents have not received close scrutiny – may lead to further revelations. The libraries where we should look, though, are not confined to the British Isles, or to north-western Europe. The dislocation that occurred in the sixteenth century, in part through the Reformation, saw many manuscripts depart these shores. Thus, one of Humfrey’s treasures eventually reached Rome . But it was not to Italy that contemporaries complained England’s patrimony was emigrating: John Bale specifically mentioned Germany. Not one Humfrey manuscript has yet been found in the libraries of that country. Yet.
To those of you who have spent years in the company of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester – and, in particular, to Alessandra who asked for this to be compiled – I dedicate the latest listing, in the unselfish hope that you will soon make it outdated.