bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A good day for book-burning

Posted in Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 31 October, 2012

It is rare enough to find a scholarly discussion of the destruction of books that rises above the emotional response our culture’s rationale demands of us. To have a set of four disquistions dedicated to ‘Bibliophobia’ — as Brian Cummings has titled his Clarendon Lectures that started in Oxford yesterday — is surely cause to celebrate, to sound the horns or to light the bonfire.

Let us first pause on the overall title for the series. Prof. Cummings played with various concepts in the opening section of his characteristically well-crafted and wide-ranging lecture: bibliophilia, bibliomania and bibliofetishism. He places bibliophobia in a natural binary opposition with bibliophilia, but if we think of other contemporary usages, we might use different terminology: those who hate not the Devil but the European Union and all its works call their own opponents Europhiles and themselves Eurosceptics. That is a rare case where a cabal has been able to choose a positive sobriquet for themselves, one which plays down their visceral dislike and presents their position as a reasoned and reasonable critique. And if the Europhobes are allowed to redescribe themselves, I wonder whether we should not talk, in this more intellectual context, of biblioscepticism. It is to Cummings’ purpose to talk of a phobia since he is providing, as he put it, not so much a history as an anthropology of the book (with requisite nods to Freud). But it also strikes me that his discussion is likely to lead us to a recognition of book destruction as elemental, certainly, and ritualistic most often but also rational — and, indeed, ironically affirmative of books.

His first lecture was entitled ‘Book-burnings’ and he did his subject proud. I have argued elsewhere that our emotive responses to book-burnings, conditioned by associations with both Kristallnacht and the subsequent mass incineration of humans, tends to overlook their futility — for each book burnt, several more can come off the printing press. So, it was pleasing to hear Brian Cummings stress that the association made between book-burnings and censorship is over-done. He moved us towards a clearer realisation of book-burnings as symbolic, in which the use of fire has connotations of both the purgative (and thus the punitive) and the festive.

Cummings’ particular focus was on the sixteenth century, with much space given to Martin Luther’s contribution to the history of book-burning, here presented as a riposte to the more ambitious attempts to destroy his own work by the pope’s agent, Girolamo Aleandro. That focus also, of course, invites comparisons between the information technology revolution through which we are living and the one which Luther harnessed to such earth-shattering success. However, in questions afterwards, I proffered the suggestion that the coming of age of book-burnings came not with print but with paper. Anyone who has consulted the re-mounted fragments of Cottonian manuscripts damaged in the 1732 fire will have seen how flame can distort, shrink and make translucent sheets of parchment, without necessarily managing efficiently to destroy it or even make its text illegible. Paper, on the other hand, while it might have to wait for 450 degrees Celsius (not Bradbury’s Fahrenheit), is more effective material for the fire. But even then, as was implicit in my comment and as two separate people mentioned to me afterwards, the other physical aspects of the book could also affect its perishability: in particular, its binding. Early modern images of biblioclasm often show a whole bound volume being thrown into the flames, as in Le Sueur’s wonderfully anachronistic image of St Paul at Ephesus (one which Cumming had as his opening image, using the National Gallery copy while I  have concentrated my attention in the one in the Louvre). Yet, if one wanted to speed up the burning process, one would presumably tear a book from the wood, leather, metal and other materials that had been designed to protect it: in other words, a process of destruction by tearing apart would proceed the conflagration. Or, to put it another way, the book would already have been maimed and died before its inwards were consigned to the flames. Of course, many printed books circulated and were sold unbound; others were mere pamphlets — when Luther in December 1520 threw the bull of excommunication on the fire, the pope had little chance: such an ephemeral printing would burn easily. Yet, of course, the reformer did not destroy the pope or his bull; there were available far too many other copies of Leo X’s words to make that possible. And this is the way in which print makes book-burnings all the more futile: a technology based on paper makes the destruction of the individual object easier, but also makes the individual one of a collective most often too large to be eradicated utterly.

The culture or cult of biblioclasm by flame, then, is an activity inherited by the Reformation period from earlier centuries, when a volume would necessarily be unique but when fire would be less efficacious as a method of destruction. This is to reinforce Cummings’ point that the symbolic and ritualistic, rather than the ruthlessly practical, are central to the practice of book-burning. I would take it further: there is a pitting in battle of two conceptions of man’s uniqueness in the activity of consigning a codex or a scroll to flames. The burning pyre is witness to the Promethean myth, the idea that humanity, among all the creatures, has mastered the secret of fire, so that it need not merely be fleed (like animals from the burning forest) but could be controlled and deployed. Meanwhile, the manuscript which is to be consigned to that fire is testimony to the classical belief in the miracle of human communication that goes beyond the spoken and can be persuasive even when it is a plethora of inky flecks painted on animal skin. But if this is a battle, who wins?

When I was in Ravenna a couple of months ago, I facetiously commented on the mosaic of St Laurence in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia — ‘they shouldn’t allow those flames so close to the bookchest’.

St Laurence and his gridiron, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

It occurs to me now that the proximity is the point: Laurence may be about to writhe in agony on the gridiron but his death will not be in vain because the Holy Book will survive — the bookchest holds four volumes, each of them carrying the name of the Evangelist who composed it. Both a manuscript, pre-paper, and a human body is made of flesh, but the book does not so easily become a dead thing. The adoption by the Church of the Martyrs of the technique of book-burning suggested a determination to demonstrate control not just of the methods of survival but also of the means of destruction that had been used against them. As Brian Cummings noted yesterday, all the Abrahamic traditions are religions of the book which have also histories of iconoclasm.

Pedro Berrugreute, St Dominic and the burning of Albigensian heretical books (El Prado, Madrid)

There is, however, something yet more in the combination of fire and parchment. The late medieval mythology of Saint Dominic credits him with many virtues, main among them his persecution of the Albigensians. In one scene, depicted in a painting of the 1490s now in the Prado by Pedro Berrugruete, the saint presides over the burning of heretical illuminated manuscripts, but among them happened to be one of his own books which, miraculously, jumps out of the fire. This tale tells of flames not being fully under human control: they are still a mystery, despite Prometheus. What is more, the flames have knowledge of what is worth saving — or, indeed, the flames are knowledge, consuming ignorance, and only that. In this myth or miracle, God (to whom The Book bears witness) is in the burning fire.


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