bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The unbook and the library

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 13 May, 2019

This last weekend saw a small conference take place on the campus of UEA, entitled ‘Early Modern Matters. Materiality and the Archive’, most ably organised by two graduate students there, Blessin Adams and Anna Wyatt. They had invited me to give the closing lecture, and I chose to address the conference’s theme by speaking to the title ‘From Archive to Ark: materiality in the library’. In my lecture, I introduced the idea of the ‘unbook’ and this seemed to gain some interest. It is a new manner of expressing a fundamental truth and I am not yet certain it is a necessary additional concept, so I share it with you now, hoping for your engagement — however critical — as I think about it further.

The starting-point is the library. We use that term in a double sense: it can be a book collection or it can be a physical place where books are kept. A ‘book collection’ cannot exist without some material form, but let us leave that aside, for the focus in what follows is the early modern library room. It is obvious that to state it is the place where books are kept is an insufficient description. That is, in part, because books obviously did not live in a library alone — devotional books or ones filled with recipes would most often have had a different location in domestic or institutional buildings. What matters more for this discussion is that ‘where books are kept’ cannot conjure up the specificity of a library. Open the door and look into a space where books are piled from floor to ceiling with no space between the piles — that is a space where books are being kept but it is a storeroom, not a library. What makes a functional library is the combination of books with the physical arrangements which orders them and allows them to be read. This can involve the built fabric of the room — its location in a building and, particularly, the arrangement of its windows — but some libraries were inserted into pre-existing buildings. What is undoubtedly essential is the furniture: the shelves or lecterns or book-cases; with them come the fittings of chains to hold the books, and, if they are book-cases, often the wooden frames in which to place the listing of books at the end of each bay. In other words, the paper, parchment and leather of books come to be a library when placed with the wood and the metal of necessary furniture. The library is made by things which are not books, and so, if we think of a library having as its purpose the keeping of books, these are the unbooks that make it possible.

That is only the beginning to unbooks in a library. Any library is likely to have other non-book items in its space: nowadays, these may include works of art, a plaque recording its opening, display cases and notice boards. In early modern libraries, there were certainly some items which were thought particularly appropriate to be placed there — paintings on the walls, busts above the book-cases, and, in commanding positions in the aisle, globes (both celestial and terrestrial). These fixtures and fittings are the unbooks intended to suggest to the visitor the intellectual inspiration and ambition of the library. They would often share space with smaller unbooks: coins and medals are the most common example, but they could take other forms. One I discussed yesterday was the presence in the library of Christ Church, Oxford since 1686, of a silver case with two mandrakes inside it. Here our sense of the library collides with that of the Wunderkammer, suggesting we might want to query any perception of fixed boundaries between the two.

All these are unbooks but there are some other items that partake of this identity, and they take book form themselves. An early modern library was known for its ambition in languages, straining itself to include not just the Western learned languages of Latin and Greek and the modern vernaculars (often French, Italian, German and ­— more locally — English), but also the ancient languages of the Abrahamic tradition, Hebrew and Arabic. Even this, though, was not the edge of the library: it would, at times, go beyond to languages for which there were very few readers in the West: Chinese, Japanese, Indian languages… A single specimen might be included without an expectation of its being immediately deciphered. In that situation, it takes on a role like the mandrakes, suggesting wonder at God’s creation: its role is as an unbook.

As this is so, then also the role of unbook can extend to volumes produced in the western tradition. In my talk yesterday, I used as an example a gorgeous manuscript in Christ Church by a scribe of whom I have written before here: Esther Inglis. The small codex in question is a copy of the Psalms in French, created by her in 1599 for presentation to Elizabeth I, and presented to its home in Oxford in 1654, by Anne, countess of Ancram (née Stanley). The gendered nature of this volume, placed within a male-dominated institution, is striking, and was certainly considered significant at the point of donation. There surely speaks of a moment when, to royalist eyes, the national political order (characterised by Filmer as patriarchal) had been emasculated and so keeping alive the tradition was a matriarchal duty. It was, I suggest, for those resonances and for the innate beauty of the page before the eye that the donation was welcomed, rather than for any expectation that the Students of Christ Church would actually uses this as their copy of the Psalms. Its power, in other words, lies in its being an unbook.

There are several implications of this. Obviously, this discussion implies a dichotomy between book and unbook which has an implicit definition of a book as an object intended for reading. We might prefer simply to insist that is an impoverished definition of a book, and insist that it is an object which has many purposes, often more important than reading its text. The concept of the unbook is, indeed, intended to acknowledge that any book spends most of its life not being read, and that a library functions through this truth: it has a need for the majority of books to lie unused on its shelves to be able to present its identity. In discussion after my lecture, the interesting suggestion was raised that unbookishness of a book could be temporary: while a Latin book can be easily read if taken off the shelf, a Ceylonese manuscript will be deciphered, if we wait long enough. That is true, though we can put it the other way around: that the ‘resting state’ of a book is to be unbookish, and that only at certain points does it become bookish — and they may not be the moments when it has the most power. We should also add that, whether a book is legible or not also depends on the language skills of the user: there is something subjective about its bookishness.

This allows us to rephrase the opening statement: a library is a place for books made by its unbooks, whether they be its furniture, its decoration, its curiosities, or indeed its stock of volumes. Some of those volumes can be taken down from the shelf and descend to bookishness. Petrarch asked ‘what is the worth of a library without reading?’ I suggest the concept of the unbook helps us unpack those beyond-reading values.

I will, though, admit my own misgivings: I suspect the terminology ‘unbook’ is too negative and thus permits an undervaluing of those non-reading activities that books undertake. What would be a better term, do you think?


Mandrakes in the Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 6 November, 2017

One of the items which belongs to the Library of Christ Church, Oxford, is a silver box, in fine filigree, possibly an early eighteenth-century Parisian product. In it sit two mandrakes which look so much like miniature long-faced humans, complete with unkempt hair, that it is hard not to think of the sunken heads from a very different tradition that sit across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum. These mandrakes fascinate viewers but they also disconcert. That is not just because they hint at the magical qualities that lore claims these roots hold but also because their presence in a library seems so out of place. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, when the circumstances of their arrival in the Library was recognised, what was considered worthy of attention was the box in which they had been donated; the mandrakes themselves were all but ignored.

Christ Church Library Mandrakes

Christ Church Library’s mandrakes in their filigree box

The mandrakes set us a challenge. That they should have been given to a library and that the Library of this learned foundation should keep them — both facts seem decidedly odd. We know that a library, particularly in such a place of education, is a home for tomes, carefully classified and arranged on shelves. What shelfmark could a mandrake be given? How dare they offend the order of the place? It is not, though, these things alone: coins, clothing, instruments (scientific and musical), paintings, pottery and toys, all have come to live in Christ Church Library. All may appear incongruous interruptions or, worse, blemishes, specks of dirt in the system. To think like this is to find our sense of order colliding with that of the space itself, its genius.

The challenge, in other words, is to question our own perception of what makes a library. We know that it is formed not only of books; the volumes have to be corralled into order, with labels and a catalogue. We expect also furniture: shelves, desks, chairs. We know there must be sources of light (without endangering the books), so windows and, nowadays, electric lamps. We also know that other items are considered appropriate: works of art, for instance. If these things, then why not others? The decisions about what is suitable will change with time but a constant will be this: the other items put the books in context; the un-books make this book space. They are not in conflict with the library; they are constitutive of it.

The mandrakes and their box did not arrive alone. They were part of a bequest given in 1686 to the Library by the executors of Christ Church’s late dean, John Fell. He, who had presided over the building of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, had himself been a towering figure in Oxford. His whole life had been associated with Christ Church: he was the son of Dean Samuel Fell, who had been ejected from his position at the end of the Civil War. John never gave up his royalist and Anglican allegiances, making him a suitable candidate to be eventual successor to his father following the Restoration. He set about constructing Christ Church’s identity as a bastion of the restored establishment, committed to both tradition and educational advance. He continued as dean even when he was promoted to the role of bishop of Oxford in 1676. His passing was the end of an era.

What his executors considered a suitable bequest to the Library was eclectic. The donation included three printed books, as well as the ‘Two Mandrakes in a Silver Box’; in addition, there was ‘The Picture of King Henry 8th’ and ‘Libr. palmeum ling. Selanensi’, that is, a book on palm leaves in the Ceylonese language. The list suggests something of the range of items that were thought appropriate for a library. Its walls could be adorned with portraits and there was no more fitting act of piety than to display an image of Henry VIII, founder of the institution (if, though, there was not one in situ before this gift, that would be striking). Likewise, its books did not have to confine themselves to the Western tradition, and thus the book on palm leaves could take its place in the collection. This should give us pause for thought.

ChCh MS. LR 1 fol. 198a

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1, fol. 198a (detail): part of the record of the bequest from John Fell, 1686

We know a library is about the possibilities of intellectual interaction with the written word. We recognise that there might be volumes in its collection which may be in a language or in a style of writing we cannot decode but we are confident that they are there because somebody else will. What happens, though, if that polyglot decipherer of texts does not arrive? What if the words are so obscure to be permanently illegible? In the case of Fell’s Ceylonese book — which was perhaps testimony to his encouragement of missionary work — we can certainly doubt that he, with all his wide learning, or anyone else in Oxford at the time, could have sat down to read it. That being the case, was it status so very different from that of an object like the mandrakes? This book too borders on being an un-book. If this is so, it did not stand alone in the collection. To acknowledge that the supposedly out-of-place items in a library have a rationale for being there is to begin to ask how many of the books are considered merely or primarily repositories of texts and how far they had greater charisma as objects.

These are the questions which the new exhibition in Christ Church Upper Library is addressing. The display coincides with the publication of the Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, up to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford by Ralph Hanna and myself (published by Oxford Bibliographical Society). It grows out of the research undertaken for that work’s introduction, in which the changing place of the western manuscripts within the wider collection was reconstructed. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Neagu and myself, gives a sense of the array of objects that have, over time, become part of the Library’s identity and asks visitors to consider what that history can tell us about what we expect a library to be.

Leviathan in the Library

Posted in History of Political Thought, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 8 May, 2017

I am preparing the first of a brace of talks that I am to give this week. They are on a rather different topics from each other but they are both to be presented in the same location, the ball-room-like expanse of the Upper Library of Christ Church, Oxford. The setting is particularly appropriate for the first event, which takes place this evening. It is a speaker meeting of the Oxford Bibliographical Society and is entitled ‘More than a House for Books: collecting and Christ Church Library‘. It grows out of the work I have done reconstructing the history of the collection for the introduction to the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, and it also is in anticipation of an exhibition that will be staged in the autumn. My intention in this post, however, is not to pre-empt this evening’s discussion but briefly to introduce something which caught my eye while doing the research for it.

I have been poring over the Library’s Donors’ Book, a hefty volume which was created in 1614 in imitation of the equivalent made for the Bodleian. Its original purpose was to celebrate the generosity of Otho Nicholson, a Londoner with no previous connexion to Christ Church, who bank-rolled the ‘restoration’ of the Library (then situated in the cloisters, behind the grand Hall built by Thomas Wolsey). After a few years of enthusiastic record-keeping, the entries became more erratic, but were kept more consistently in the 1650s. This is a striking moment: the Founder’s descendant, who had also set up his palace in its quads during the Civil War, had suffered the removal of his head from his body; the institution’s dual status as college and cathedral had been diminished by the Republic’s opposition to the episcopacy. Christ Church itself, however, survived, and in some ways (which I will discuss this evening) became a symbol of continuing royalist loyalty. This is reflected in some of the gifts the Library received but not, perhaps, in the one to which I draw your attention now. Here is the entry:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1 (Donors’ Book), p. 108

That an Oxford library should receive a copy, soon after publication (it appeared in 1651) of a work which we consider a classic, might not seem surprising. But Hobbes’s Leviathan was such a controversial work that, only a couple of decades later, just a few hundred yards north of Christ Church’s library, the University’s authorities ceremoniously burnt copies of it. In its presentation of a ‘science’ of princely power, it was seen to undermine the very moral order that justified such power; it was considered the enemy of legitimate kingship, rather than its supporter.

It is not just this potential incongruity that struck me when reading this entry; it was also the description of its donor, Vincent Denne, himself an alumnus of Christ Church. He is here described as in supremis Regni consiliis municeps, participating in the ‘supreme councils of the Kingdom’. Is that noun simply a slip, a failure to remember that the kingdom was now a republic or is it some sort of wishful thinking? Does it hint at how the librarian would have read Leviathan?

The ‘supreme councils’ is an euphemistic phrase which presumably refers to Denne’s status as Member of Parliament for his hometown of Canterbury; he was elected in 1656. The librarian who makes this entry is rarely given to periphrasis: is this some sign that the legitimacy of a Parliament called into being without royal authority was considered problematic? Would the donor have shared such misgivings? The very fact that he was an MP and also a JP for Kent in these republican years suggests he had made his peace with the new regime. The result was that at the Restoration, he found himself in difficulties, though he himself claimed his family had shown their loyalty to their king.

So, what was Denne thinking when he offered to them this recent work on government? Did he consider it a counter-balance to the nostalgic royalism apparent in his college’s library? Or was the act of donation to his alma mater a suggestion of his continuing loyalties in new times which required new ways of acting and of thinking? And what was the Librarian thinking when he accepted and entered the gift in the Register?

Without other evidence, we will not know. The volume itself has disappeared from the library — the only copy of the 1651 edition now present was given by a grander old boy, William Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1738; probably after this point, Denne’s book was considered surplus to requirements and, like many others, de-accessioned. There is an intriguing issue lying behind this short entry: how far were gifts and their recording a coded language in this unquiet years? It deserves further consideration — but I better write my paper for this evening, instead.


William Cecil’s copy of Henry VIII’s Assertio

Posted in British History, Libraries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 17 August, 2014

On the other hand, this could be entitled ‘Notes from Christ Church Library’ and be a contribution to that beguiling but non-existent journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.

My work in Christ Church has seen me pore over the earlier catalogues of the library or, more precisely, of its ‘archives’ in an attempt to reconstruct the physical history of the manuscript collection. The codices have only been held in the ‘New Library’ since it was opened in the 1760s. Before that, the books of Christ Church were held in a room — I remember it being used in my day (as the old say) as an undergraduate set — off the cloister of St Frideswide’s. Not quite all manuscripts were kept there as some were considered to belong to the Chapter as opposed to the ‘college’ (a misnomer in this dual institution but a usage that appears often enough in the records of the place that likes to call itself the House). It was, in fact, only with the move into new premises that a space was set aside as the near-exclusive preserve of manuscripts. Earlier, what was considered fit for the ‘archives’ combined printed books with some handwritten codices. It was an arrangement that existed from the 1670s, but which underwent a significant transformation in the wake of the death in 1710 of Henry Aldrich, dean of Christ Church and polymathic bon-viveur, whose interests ranged across languages and disciplines. His collection in large part became the property of the House, and the contents of the Archives came to be dominated by his music collection, skilfully described by John Milsom in the excellent on-line catalogue. What, curiously, seems not to have been included in that section of the library at that point were the few manuscripts Aldrich himself owned. It was only with the move and the re-organisation work overseen by Edward Smallwell, later bishop of Oxford, that the books created by Aldrich and some owned by him were given pride of place in the new ordering of the Archives.

I have described the archives of the 1760s as providing a ‘near-exclusive’ preserve for hand-written volumes. There are some exceptions, usually there because of a direct association with the former Dean, including, for instance, ‘Aldrich’s Logick’ a volume which combines two printed editions of that work. Close by that volume in the catalogue compiled by Smallwell is an entry, A.13, for ‘Henricus octavus de Sacramentis. 8o.’. Clearly, this is a copy of the anti-Lutheran tract, the Assertio septem sacramentorum, which announces Henry VIII as its author. After it had been printed in Richard Pynson’s workshop in 1521, several copies were all bound in the same style by John Reynes, with the Tudor Rose and English royal arms on the panels. The copy that is still resident in Christ Church, now with the shelfmark Z.e.6.4, is a fine example of this (I have Christ Church’s ever-helpful Special Collections librarian, Cristina Neagu, for the photographs shown here).ChCh e-6-4-lower board

This much is relatively well known. It has also been surmised that the intention of these bindings was to beautify some copies so that they could act as diplomatic gifts or presents to favoured subjects.We do not know who the first recipient of the Christ Church copy was but what perhaps is not as well known is that we can say something of the volume’s history, for at its title-page it has a signature.ChCh e-6-4-title pageAs is clear, this was owned by William Cecil, who was to be first minister to Henry VIII’s younger daughter. The script is close enough to other ex libris he wrote to be definably his, though it style, and the absence of any reference to his title of Lord Burghley, might suggest this was written fairly early in his career (for a contrast, see his note at fol. 1 of BL, MS. Harl. 2471, for instance). Given that he was born only in the year that the Assertio was published (or perhaps the year before), then Cecil could not have been its first owner. But, clearly, he thought this work was worth owning, however far the Church of England which he did much to support had moved away from the doctrinal position espoused in the text.

It would appear that the volume remained in the Cecil family until the famous sale of the collection in 1687: the work is recorded in the sale catalogue as ‘libri theologici, in quarto’, no. 23. At that point or soon after, it must have reached the hands of Henry Aldrich. It was not his habit to add his ownership note to his books but a listing of his library made after his death does include this work and, as I have said, its placing in Smallwell’s arrangement of the Archives is suggestive of that provenance. When the future bishop of Oxford came to look at this book, he might have considered there to be something pleasing about having a distinguished copy of the Assertio in the foundation created by the text’s acclaimed author.

A manuscript, an instrument and a marble disc

Posted in Libraries, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 24 January, 2013

My wife said to me the other evening: ‘You don’t like being in your comfort zone, do you?’ She knows me.

It is perhaps one reason why I enjoy working with manuscripts that to understand their history you have to move far, far away from any area in which you might be a specialist. And so it was with a small, slightly damaged and utterly undistinguished small codex I was looking at in Christ Church last week. As I have mentioned before, the foundation’s Library holds one of the more eclectic collections of the Oxford colleges, the gifts of grateful graduates, Students (that is, Fellows in the real world that is Oxford elsewhere) or simply friends. The manuscript I was looking at — MS. 122, a commentary on the decretals – was given in the 1640s by a Student of Christ Church, Robert Payne.

Robert Payne has a certain fame, less for the fact that he was a translator of Galileo (his rendition was never printed) than for his friendship with Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, Noel Malcolm has shown that some of the papers and works, now at Chatsworth, attributed to Hobbes should, in fact be credited to Payne. He was an undergraduate at Christ Church in the 1610s and in his time there seems to have become a protégé of Edmund Gunter, mathematician and designer of scientific instruments. Payne proved a loyal son of his alma mater, and in the 1640s made two gifts to Christ Church of books, the manuscript I was studying and, as the donation note records, ‘insuper dono suo adjecit Concavuum Marmortum & Instrumentum æneum Magstri Gunteri’. This much is well-known but what has not been done is to marry up the surviving books and artefacts with his donations.

It could well be said that the fortunes of his other gifts was of tangential interest to the manuscript he presented but I wanted to understand how it may fit into his wider act of largesse. So, I checked the catalogues for matches with the printed books he gave. In many cases, the works and even the editions matched but could not be equated with the ones he gave, presumably because his had been sold off later as a duplicate (there were several such sales in the nineteenth century). So, for instance, for one edition of Euclid given by Payne we have a copy but it cannot be his because it carries a note recording Sir Charles Scarborough’s ownership at the end of the seventeenth century — that note also draws attention to the fact that there are inserted quires of  handwritten notes, in the script, it is said, of Edmund Gunter. He was perhaps remembered longer in Christ Church than was Payne.

In other cases, we can be more confident that there is a match when, for instance, a volume combines editions listed consecutively in the donation note. And we can be absolutely certain when Payne’s script is found in the book — a script which is present in several of the Savile collection in the Bodleian and which I can identify with notes in at least two Christ Church volumes. Of those, the one which will attract more interest is the edition of De systemate mundi of Galileo, the author whom Payne translated. The edition has a donation note clearly in Payne’s hand. It is now crossed out but is legible as ‘Ex dono Petri Earle’. Who Mr Earle may have been, I admit I do not yet know.

But what of the objects Payne also gave? As my hospitable host in Christ Church, Cristina Neagu, taught me, the scientific instruments held there had been sent on long-term loan to the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. They have an excellent on-line catalogue and it did not take much searching to narrow down the possibilities for the ‘instrumentum aeneum’ to one item, a bronze sector made to Gunter’s design in the 1620s and 1630s. The term ‘concauum marmortum’ confused me more and even when I turned to those with expertise, there was further scratching of pates. It took some lateral thinking to find in the same Museum’s on-line catalogue something which could answer to a ‘marbled concave’: it is described as a ‘concave marble disc, for lens polishing?’. The interrogative suggests the cataloguer’s own uncertainty when faced with the object, as does the proposed date of ‘c. 1700?’, which, we can now know, postdates its shaping by over half a century. But that cataloguer was probably not the first to be perplexed by the object — having discovered its identity, it struck me that a similar uncertainty most likely affected the librarian who had to record it in Christ Church’s donation book and, more used to listing paper volumes by their title, could think of no better phrase for what sat on his desk before him than ‘concauum marmortum’. Even the donor’s own lifetime, part of his gift may not have been fully appreciated.

At least, for the librarian, our little manuscript had the advantage of being within his comfort zone. But where does it sit within the rationale Payne must have had for his gifts? The answer is that, in the context of works of science and of Greek and Italian texts, it does not fit. But that is not a negative answer but rather a revelation in itself: the way that a manuscript could be bought as a curiosity, rather than being central to a collection. It rather puts a palaeographer’s interests into a corner.

In short, what we have in these gifts is a tension between two concepts of the library, one which sees it primarily as a stock of books, some new, many old, while the other sees it as a repository of knowledge in all its forms, with an emphasis in novelty and innovation. The latter concept — that of Payne — did not, of course, win out, some might be pleased to remember.

Books that need no reading

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 12 June, 2012

Last Friday saw me take the train to Reading where I gave a paper at an enjoyable colloquium on Libraries: New Research Directions, organised by Rebecca Bullard under the aegis of her University’s Early Modern Research Centre. My contribution was on ‘How Libraries Die, or what the fate of medieval manuscripts in early modern England can teach us’ but I do not intend here to bore you with a reprise of my discussion of the decline and demise of the Library of the University of Oxford and its wider significance. What is surely more interesting was the colloquial element of the day itself, the development of the discussion around varying concepts of libraries.

In particular, the discussion was framed by Matthew Nicholls’ opening distinction between the library as a store-house and the ancient bibliothecae of which he spoke as points of communication. My own talk saw the library more in the role of the former and – developing thoughts inspired by an earlier conference on the Medieval Library – I emphasised how books lived beyond the walls of the rectangular, first-floor room which was the conventional library; indeed, how, in some circumstances, it was only by being beyond those walls that they could survive. The axiom I presented was that a library is where books come to rest, not where they are alive. The final discussion, ably chaired by Warren Boutcher, returned to these issues with one participant mentioning that, in the educational library he is cataloguing, he comes across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books which remain uncut: what does this tell us about the workings of that library? Are these books dead or sleeping? An impassioned response was that an unread book is a book waiting for its reader – and it is that insight which has set me thinking further.

The unread book in the role of Sleeping Beauty has its allure but I do wonder whether it is a concept reflective of a consciousness born of mechanised mass book-production – a consciousness, then, which became possible in the later generations of print technology. The proposition that I want to put to you is that the assumption that the library is a place where books wait for their readers involves a narrow conception of what the book is.

Let me first have your agreement that we all know of texts that are too ephemeral or too personal for reading – for instance, the diary with ‘Do NOT Read’ on its first page (which, of course, stands as an encouragement to furtive perusal if ever there was one). A diary, of course, is not intended to be housed in a library, though if fame falls on the unfortunate shoulders of the author, it may end up there.

If, though, we allow the possibility that a book can be intended not to be read, we then begin thinking about what might its purpose be: it must surely lie not in what happens after it is completed but in the process of its creation. To put this in historical terms, in manuscript culture, in the midst of the processes of fabricating a book – the preparation of the parchment, the stitching of the leaves and the binding them – there was necessarily an extended session of intellectual engagement when the strokes of ink deposited on the animal skin created a text endowed with sense by its creator. We might sometimes wish that that intellectual engagement was greater – there were too many sloppy scribes but their work can sometimes be the only witness we have to a text. Here is a central point: a work could be produced without a thought to its wider circulation. It may be intended only for the author’s edification; it may be created in one copy for presentation to a potential patron (in which case the canny author would not put too much hope in the thought that the patron would actually peruse the work: only a fool thinks princes read books) or its ideal readership might be God alone. The process of creation was sufficient in itself; if we are looking to associate the book with reading, we can find it integral to every act of production. The movement of the codex and its coming to rest in a library could be seen, in this context, as its afterlife. By its presence in a library, further reading became a possibility, not an expectation – an added bonus, if it were.

I should nuance this in two ways. It is certainly the case that authors in manuscript culture did not necessarily lack a concept of publication – and some authors (I think, from the fifteenth century, of John Capgrave and John Whethamstede) combined the practices of producing what we can call the singular and the plural book (I leave aside the middle possibility where text is intended for a tightly limited local audience). However, publication – that process of multiple production and intentional circulation by author or a promoter – rarely centred on the physical space that European tradition defines as a library. Individual scholars might visit books in one of those rooms, rattle their chains and make a transcript from a copy resident there, but that is a process we would define as closer to research than publication. In some cases for which I have evidence, it would seem that a transcript was made from the library volume and then multiple versions made from that copy (the Virtue and Vice compilation about which I have talked in print is useful evidence for this) – not philological good practice, for sure, but a case where the object in the library can seen as the originator of a tradition, but only at one remove.

The second way in which I should nuance what I have said is by acknowledging that the dynamics of print did not immediately and entirely wipe clean the mentality of bespoke production: many early print-runs were not large-scale nor were they driven by economic speculation but occurred in the relative security of sponsored publication.

It may, then, only be with the mass production of books which appears to distance writer from written page that the sense of book-making as reading has evaporated. And we should not be too hasty to read this as a gain: mass production can be over-production in which the economics mean it is cheap to supply a surplus of volumes and then cheaper not to store them but to declare them obsolete and pulp them. In this context, the library book becomes the lucky survivor, and the library the safe haven where the book can have a life. There again, as my talk on Friday suggested, we should not be too certain all libraries are truly safe.

Water in the Library

Posted in Biblioclasm, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 3 June, 2012

I am out of touch with the times. To those who know me that much has been clear for many years but it has only struck home with me in recent months. Over a decade ago, when I was teaching at Mansfield, the Librarian would thank me if I reprimanded a reader who was found in the library showing such numb-skulled disrespect to books that they had brought in something to drink. Now, when I step into the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (which, in my imagination, remains a timeless haven for protecting learning) and see so many desks adorned with plastic bottles and watch readers swigging water from them, I have to restrain myself from breaking the silence with a call to the custodians who, I still assume, would rush to catch these culprits who have so clearly infringed the spirit if not the letter of the Bodleian oath that they should be summarily escorted from the hallowed premises, divested of their University Card and advised to leave Oxford with all their belongings on the first train.

But, of course, they are not culprits, as the Reading Room staff patiently explained to me when I remonstrated with them a few months back: the rules were changed in 2011. The previous ban on all food and drink was, so to speak, watered down to allow water in the reading rooms. And, as the staff went on, it has proved very popular (popular, I wanted to shout, but saving the Library’s patrimony for future generations is not about seeking fleeting popularity). They provided the ‘lesser evil’ defence: there had been readers who wanted to bring in tea or coffee or cola, and so, confining them only to water was some sort of success. I asked the staff why water was so much better than other drinks; they guessed the reason was that it would not stain, which made me wonder whether it would be acceptable to bring in white but not brown spirits, vodka but not brandy, mother’s ruin but not the water of life.

I am not, however, writing this to be a grumpy Ciceronian, declaiming ‘o tempora, o mores’; my palpitations have subsided. The purpose of these paragraphs is not to condemn but to understand, for I sense there is here a cultural change that deserves to be analysed and understood. When I was an undergraduate twenty – sorry, twenty-five – years ago, very few students would have thought that taking water into the Bodleian could be acceptable. A delight of owning a book was that you could do what you wanted with it: you could have it at your desk and have a cup or glass to hand, something you could not contemplate doing in the college library, let alone in the Bodleian with its national status as a copyright collection.

It was not considered either acceptable or, for that matter, necessary: my impressionistic memory is that water was drunk far less often than it is a couple of decades later. Perhaps I am misremembering or post-dating the development. After all, the internal design of the British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1997, included plentiful water fountains, though, again, my impression is that they began as something of a curiosity and have become more of a welcome feature. I will not speculate on reasons for the apparent life-style change, beyond noting that the dietician’s advice to drink H2O regularly seems even to inform the Bodleian’s new reading room rule, which reads: ‘Remember that water is permitted in the reading room…’. It is an injunction that seems not just to condone but to encourage water-drinking in the library.

But how does this arrangement accord with the Bodleian oath that I remember reading aloud as a Fresher in 1987? What is usually remembered is the phrase about not kindling flame, but that is a specific injunction within a more general prohibition about not defacing or damaging books in any way. And, as William Blades wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘next to fire, we must rank water … as the greatest destroyer of books’. It could be fairly retorted that he had in mind primarily loss of volumes at sea, to which should be added the destructive power of floods: not for nothing is the traditional library built on the first floor, not at ground level. In comparison to the quantity of liquid that causes the calamities of drowning or flooding, it might be said, the water students bring into the Bodleian is a mere puddle. It might be added that with the teats through which most imbibe soft drinks now, the danger of spillage is minimised (you will note that the reading room rule talks only of water without specifying how it is carried, allowing the possibility of it being in a paper cup or a glass or – like the farmer presenting his meagre gift to Artaxerxes – in cupped hands, but other information shows that the Library’s expectation is that the water will be bottled. Whether it could be San Pellegrino held in green glass is not made transparent, if you pardon the pun). The danger of spillage may be minimised, but it is still there; even if a litre and a half would not turn pages to papier-mâché, it could cause the sort of damage Bodley’s oath is intended to guard against happening.  Perhaps, though, we have become purblind to this; perhaps we are culturally conditioned to downplay the possibility of water as one of what Blades called the enemies of books. What I have in mind is less the benign nature of water at a time when we perceive it to be increasingly scarce but, rather, the association that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive forces.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not all the Bodleian’s rooms which are as insouciant about the presence of drink. Go down the few steps from the Upper Reading Room into the Arts End of the old library and the notice at the entrance into Duke Humfrey’s, complete with graceless cartoon graphics, states boldly that ‘no food or drink (including water bottles) are allowed [sic] in this reading room’. Duke Humfrey’s has been lamentably denuded of its status as the prime location for manuscript consultation but it still has a certain aura of the inner sanctum – indeed, the distinction between reading rooms as watering holes, on the one hand, and spaces of scholarship where full abstinence is required, on the other, is surely increasing that divide. It also, of course, assumes a gradation in the books themselves – those that can be consulted in one of the general spaces being considered less valuable or, perhaps, more dispensable than those that are confined to places like Duke Humfrey’s. Whether a legal deposit library should promote such a distinction when all its collection needs protecting for posterity is, of course, a wider debate.

That a process of gradation exists could be seen as an admission of failure: an inability to protect all so the inner bastions become the line of defence. Even there barbarians might lurk: we should not be too dewy-eyed about Duke Humfrey’s as a special haven when Judith Loades can remind us of the time in the 1970s that Margaret Crum happened upon a reader in the room with a Thermos flask of tomato soup. If policing a collection has been a perennial concern, it may shed a different light on the decision to soften the rules about no food and drink in the library.  I mentioned that the staff used the ‘lesser evil’ defence. One can imagine that argument being made in starker form: if readers do not feel comfortable in the library, they may either not use it (which would be their loss, not the Bodleian’s) or, worse, abuse it by stealing books from it. The possibility of water-damage to some volumes might then be calculated to be a risk worth taking if it reduced the rate of theft. If, though, that was in the authorities’ thinking, it suggests a deeper malaise: what standards of comfort are these? A reader needs to be able sit painlessly and to read without straining their eyes – but why has the requirement for acceptable seating and adequate lighting been supplemented by an insistence on being able to hydrate oneself?

The answer surely lies in expectations imported from other libraries and from new technology. Students’ experience of other libraries can make the absence of water seem a deprivation: after all, most if not all Oxford college libraries now allow bottles in, often on the basis that as they are open 24 hours they cannot stop it happening. What is more, one can e-mail, one can check Facebook, one can text in a reading room, so why should not one be able to fulfil a bodily need for liquid there? I sometimes regret the ability to be on the internet in the library – I am nostalgic for the times when it was a place where you were beyond communication, a hiding-place from the demands of every-day life – but, of course, I could not work without the resources it provides. My point is that the new connectivity has broken down walls in ways which sets new challenges for libraries like the Bodleian. It is not just barriers to learning that have been removed; the separation of ‘library’ from other, mundane space has been reduced as the outside world seeps into the reading room through the computer screen. Perhaps, indeed, the increasing need to make distinctions between reading rooms is a result of this logic, a need to internalise differences within the library where it previously existed between library and beyond.

Water in the library dilutes the space: it is a symptom of how the stone walls have become porous. I am not suggesting that the fabric of Schools Quad will suffer the fate of Jericho before the trumpets of Joshua. Thomas Bodley chose for his library the motto ‘quarta perennis’ – the fourth will last forever, where the previous three libraries of the University of Oxford, the mythical one of Alfred’s and the more real ones of Bishop Cobham and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had all perished. Libraries do die, but we need not predict the Bodleian’s demise. Cultural shifts are making the old rules indefensible, but with the loss of those rules something less tangible but more essential also dissipates – the aura or charisma of the space. The challenge is this: how, in the emerging world order, can the library be re-endowed with fresh charisma?

Who needs Treasure when you have the everyday?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2011

My local library has opened an exhibition celebrating itself. Considering that that library is one of the largest in Britain and surely the most iconic university library in the world, no one could blame the Bodleian for doing that. Some might complain that the event is a tad unoriginal — the title, Treasures of the Bodleian, is also that of a volume from some twenty years ago. But, the answer could come, this has an elegant and interactive website, which includes a section looking forward to the opening of the New New Bodleian (Oxford’s answer to the game of Mornington Crescent, there) with an on-line ballot — albeit merely first-past-the-post — for what should be on display. And there’s even a write-in section for the ballot: ‘The People’s Choice’ it is called, which must be a sort of self-aggrandizing synecdoche, where the cultured bourgeoisie count as all ‘people’.

With my research interests, I was curious to see what the curators had decided was a ‘treasure’ and, in particular, what late medieval manuscripts they had on show. The answer is very few and nothing at all to do with the University Library’s second founder, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. And that’s even in the section called ‘A Bodleian Treasure’ with items, like Hilliard’s miniature of Thomas Bodley, providing visual vignettes of the library’s history. It is true that because of the early-sixteenth-century decline of the University Library and its eventual closure around 1549 — not all the fault of Richard Cox, despite what the commentary to the exhibition says — none of duke Humfrey’s manuscripts remained in the room now named after him, but some have returned. And if I was to propose a write-in campaign it would probably be for what is now MS. Duke Humfrey d. 1, a fairly small but refined manuscript of Pliny the Younger, with the duke’s ex libris and written in the hand of the Milanese humanist, Pier Candido Decembrio, who was then seeking the distant duke’s patronage. It encapsulates very well a particular element of Humfrey’s collecting and the international network that lay behind it.

And, yet, when thinking what makes for me the Bodleian such a remarkable place — my local haven for scholarship — I realised that much of what is redolent to me is immovable or intangible. They could hardly take down the original donors’ plaque for the south staircase to put on exhibition; and they certainly could not move the view from the Arts End of the original Library across Bodley’s Quad. Even more of a challenge would be to capture and to bottle the sensation when the light rakes across Duke Humfrey’s on an autumn morning; the yellowish tinge to the lighting in the north range of the Upper Reading Room is little imitated; and the echo of the dome of the Upper Camera — admittedly not as sonorous as that in Manchester’s Central Library — could hardly be on display. Then there are the little things which make the Bodleian, for me, what it is: the snakes of beads used to hold down manuscript leaves (held in a box called the snake pit); the curve of the back of the chairs in the old reading rooms; the out-dated clocks, often now most often stopped, that stand guard over the corner of the reading areas. It is these comforts of the quotidian that make the Bodleian a home to scholars — and that is surely something to be treasured.

A book-lover’s pilgrimage: the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena

Posted in Libraries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 6 June, 2011

Never let it be said that I avoid going the extra mile for my graduate students. Indeed, in the past day, I have been an extra fifty-five miles – and back again. Ahead of the Translating the Past course visiting the library of Florence’s Convent of San Marco tomorrow, I went to make the acquaintance of its little sister, the Biblioteca Malatestiana at Cesena.

I must admit that I had an ulterior motive for going there: to consult a manuscript partially in the hand of the Scottish humanist scribe who I have been studying recently, George of Kynninmond. I could not have hoped for a more welcoming and helpful visit, for which I have to thank the kind and learned D.ssa Paola Errani, in particular. What is more, George obligingly revealed yet more about himself and his career – but, on that, I will write another time.

For anyone with a love of books and their history, to go to Cesena is a pilgrimage, though one deprived of the hardships and travails usually associated with such voyages, for Cesena is an elegant and relaxed città. It is a pilgrimage, all the same, with the object of veneration being the Malatesta Library, opened in 1454 and often called a model of a Renaissance library. It is younger by about a decade than Michelozzo’s Florentine masterpiece but whereas in San Marco one stands and evokes in one’s mind the shadows of former book-stalls and imagines the clatter of the chains that kept the manuscripts in place, in Cesena all is still in situ– stalls, chains, books. The original wooden doors, locked with two keys, are opened for you so that the vista of the library, accentuated by the slender columns that divide each side from the central aisle, stretches ahead of you. If you are truly a book-lover, I defy you not to be dumbstruck by its beauty and its resonance.

Chaining the Books in Cesena

The precise association between the two libraries – how far Matteo Nuti, the architect in Cesena, was inspired by or independent of Michelozzo’s example – is a matter of debate. There is a similarity of setting: both libraries are located in convents, that of San Marco being Dominican (and including in its inmates Fra Angelico, who came in useful when the friars wanted some appropriate decoration in their cells), that in Cesena being dedicated to San Francesco. There is also the obvious parallel in layout, with both being rectangular, divided by their columns, with the benches or stalls arranged to jut out from the two long sides of the room. The stalls themselves were also, we can surmise, of a similar design, with slanted lecterns beneath which the books sat with the bottom edge outermost, attached to the stall by a chain.

In Cesena, the library was part of a longer structure with the dormitory stretching directly in front of the library door. One enters the library from the north, facing the rose-window which is the sole adornment of the south wall. To the left were placed secular books, to the right religious and theological. Walking down the central aisle, one sees on both sides the ends of the stalls, adorned with appropriate heraldic symbols.

Each sentence of that previous paragraph identifies differences between the Malatestiana and San Marco. A prize to the person who lists all five of them.

What is the point of a library?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 10 November, 2010

Saturday saw me in the stunning setting of Durham’s Castle, for a conference on the Medieval Library. It was organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, the publishers of Medium Ævum. The papers took us from the classical precedents (an excellent paper by Matthew Nicholls) to the arrival of print (James Willoughby on characteristically learned form), but through them I sensed some persistent questions.

Later modern societies might conceptualise ‘the library’ as an independent building, a specific pin-point on the map. But for centuries up to, perhaps, the eighteenth, the library was defined rather by its physical or conceptual proximity to other rooms. As Matthew Nicholls mentioned, a classical library might stand next to a mousieon where learned conversations could occur. In the medieval monastery, a library would take upper floor space; below might be the refectory in which the books themselves came alive by being read (as they did in Medingen, as described by Henrike Lähnemann). Similarly, academic libraries – like those in Cambridge about which Peter Clarke talked lucidly – would hold collections which may be useful for study, the focus of which was the lecture hall. For princes (a subject in which the conference’s speaker, Hanno Wijsman, is such an expert), there may be a place in their palace where their books were kept, as in the tower of the Louvre for the codices of the French kings, but the manuscripts would also be seen in the great hall or chamber, where acts of presentation are usually depicted as happening. In other words, we associate books pre-eminently with libraries but their lives were not confined to that specific space. To take this further, it could be said that the library was the place where the book went to rest, the busy-ness of its life occurring elsewhere in the building.

So, the papers at the conference made me think about the limits of libraries, their particular purpose and place in the odyssey of a book. The pre-eminent intention of a library was – as was clear from the discussions like Richard Gameson’s bravura review of images of libraries and their furniture – the safeguarding of knowledge through the protection of books. Yet, as Matthew Nicholls pointed out, this could be self-defeating: a library could itself succumb to fire, flood or other disaster, leaving us with only the titles of its books, not their contents. As Matthew put it ‘libraries can be bottlenecks rather than thoroughfares in the circulation of knowledge’. Presenting your work to a library-owner might gain you prestige and patronage, but not posterity. Thomas Bodley, famously, boasts in the motto of his Library quarta perennis – the fourth will last forever – and libraries now have an institutional certainty that is alien to their predecessors. Yet, that of the earlier Libraries of Oxford University, two died and one (that of Alfred) never existed, might give us pause for thought and remember that even libraries should have a memento mori perennially before them.

But if libraries are designed, however much they fail to do so, to safeguard knowledge – what knowledge? There seems to have been a long association of three concepts: the bibliotheca, religio and sapientia. The libraries are repositories for particular sorts of wisdom and what is interesting is what is excluded from the definition. Ovid complained that his books were banned from Rome’s libraries (which was to their advantage, as they now survive). The collecting of medieval libraries was – as the Cambridge examples discussed by Peter demonstrated – necessarily haphazard: even if there was an original rationale, that could be undermined by the addition of new gifts, and if a donation itself had a special focus, it would often join a collection that worked by different rules. There were also practical limits to a library – a physical space can only take so many books. In my experience, a large library in the later medieval England would include 500 volumes, a very large collection perhaps 800 – 900. The great challenge – as James Willoughby showed – came with print and the exponential increase in the number of books available at a cheap price. That, of course, made the limits of the library an all the more insistent issue. And so began the quixotic early-modern project to reverse Babel and gather together universal knowledge in one place. But, even then, the basic truth remained: whatever the quasi-religious status of learning with the library its temple, the bibliotheca was never the repository of knowledge, but of some knowledge. In that sense, at least, the medieval library may have the advantage over its latter-day successors: it was conscious of its own limits.