The problem with finishing is that you never really do finish. You produce your text, replete with footnotes — and you think it is done. You feel that you should receive advice from your peers and betters, and so you importune others to read it, some of who do, and you revise (probably not as much as you should) in light of their feedback and your own re-reading — and you think it is done. You submit it, you receive further comments, you have it accepted — and you think it is done. You receive queries from the copy-editor and you are grateful for being saved from several slips and refine it accordingly — and you think it is done. You see the proofs and realise that there is more to be corrected and you work by the midnight oil to improve it at that late stage — and you think it is done. Of course, it is not. It remains imperfect and provisional. Your last word is only part of the ongoing conversation.
I have very recent experience of this, with the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, Oxford. This is the work mainly of Ralph Hanna, but I helped at a late stage, updating the descriptions and adding some more (of sixteenth-century manuscripts), as well as expanding the introduction. In that introduction, we survey what little is known of books of the previous institution, whose Norman buildings provide now the college chapel which doubles as Oxford’s cathedral. Until their dissolution in 1524 by Cardinal Wolsey, making way for his new foundation of Cardinal College, these were the buildings of the Augustinian priory of St Frideswide’s. As we say in the introduction, it was not known for being a place of learning, and only a few manuscripts are associated with it. We also say that ‘only a single literary manuscript has been identified as being owned by’ it, and technically that is true: the bible of English medieval institutional provenances, Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, now available on-line as MLGB3 (thanks to James Willoughby and Richard Sharpe), mentions only that codex as the one literary survival. I have now, however, convinced myself that another volume should really be added to that list and so should have appeared in our introduction.
The manuscript is hardly unknown: it sits in the Bodleian with the shelfmark MS. Digby 177. It is an obvious candidate for coming from the priory, as it provides a unique copy of a description of the miracles attributed to St Frideswide, said to have been compiled in the 1180s by Prior Philip of the Oxford house. In revising W. D. Macray’s nineteenth-century catalogue of the manuscripts given to the Bodleian in 1634 by Sir Kenelm Digby, Andrew Watson, working with the materials of the late Richard Hunt, addressed the issue of this manuscript’s provenance and expressed unresolved ambivalence: ‘it is possible that [it] comes from St Frideswide’s Priory, Oxford, but … it may be no more than a section with an Oxford interest which has been detached from a larger book with no Oxford connection’. It was, of course, Andrew Watson who provided the Supplement to Ker’s MLGB and he saw no reason there even to hazard the suggestion that it is expressed so tentatively in the revision of the Digby catalogue. What, then, persuades me that the issue should be reviewed?
First, against the suggestion that this manuscript was part of a larger book, Watson’s own comment can be quoted: ‘the last page looks as though it had been the final page of a unit on its own’. The last recto is, indeed, rubbed, and so is the first recto, suggesting that this fascicule travelled alone for some of its life. Morever, as Watson also notes, it reached Digby from the Oxford antiquary, Thomas Allen and it appears in his catalogue, listed alone as an item (‘fo. 7’), in contrast to the volumes entered immediately before and after it where multiple contents are listed. In other words, it is likely that Allen came by it in its present state, unencumbered with other material, and this may well have continued its prior existence, as a discrete codex.
The codicology of the manuscript is strongly suggestive of its Oxford provenance. The main part is written in an elegant bookhand on the cusp between so-called protogothic and a textura rotunda. The final columns (fol. 28vb– 30rb) are in a darker ink and by different hand, spikier and yet closer to being fully gothic. That addition provides the tale of an extra miracle which, it says, happened ‘in ciuitate oxoneforde eciam nostris temporibus’ — it appears, in other words, to be updating the collection with a recent occurrence. Even if the main text was not produced in Oxford, it would seem likely that this addition was made there.
In addition, the title added at top left of fol. 1 may be notable in its phrasing: ‘Incipit prologus domini philippi prioris de miraculis sancte fridwide’. That the author is known but it is felt unnecessary to state of where Philip was prior hints that this was written within the community. Moreover, there are signs of later use of the volume, not just notes in plummet the bottom margin of fol. 15v-16, showing that there was continuing interest in the text, but also at the top right of the final verso where an acrostic is added, in a thirteenth-century anglicana hand, on the name ‘Fridesuuida’. Wherever this was, there was a continuing devotion to a saint whose cult was localised to Oxford and centred on the priory named after her.
The clinching evidence would, of course, be an ex libris. It seems to me that there was once one, near the top left of the first folio, just right of the later shelfmark, ‘A 14’. I have tried checking it under UV but to little avail. Its secret remains, for the moment, just beyond our grasp, as frustrating as any branch of fruit with which Tantalus was tormented.
Even without that, though, I feel there is enough to merit at least proposing an association with St Frideswide’s as probable, though by no means certain. With, however, the proofs of the introduction of the Catalogue now back with the type-setter, it is too late to add a footnote, and so that work is out-of-date before its off the press. I have half a mind to beg them to stop and not complete the publication process: we all have a duty only to publish when we can place our hand on our heart and promise we believe a work is as polished as it could possibly be. As I have said before, if a work is half-decent, then that is not good enough. But assuming for a second that the publishers would even countenance a delay, it would not be a momentary pause: this one hypothesis creates several ramifications which deserve to be pursued. Pitted against that, our society piles on the pressure to see texts in print — it prefers something to be available than to be perfect. The result, of course, is that the threads woven together to form the text begin unravelling as soon as the fabric is complete. If we are to be finishers, we are to be the heirs not to Tantalus but to Sisyphus.
Addendum: the delight of the online is that one can, of course, update. Having completed this draft, I came across this talk by Andrew Dunning which I was not able to attend but which, using different evidence, makes a persuasive case for the manuscript I discuss here being Prior Philip’s fair copy of his collection of the saint’s miracles. I am pleased that there will be someone to point out the oversight in the Christ Church catalogue.
A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae
One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.
We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.
A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?
These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.
Roberto Weiss, apart from being an émigré Italian count, a professor at UCL and a leading historian of humanism, was skilful with a pen. Among his papers now held in the Warburg, there are several examples of the Christmas cards he drew for friends. The portfolio also includes a depiction of the then-new building of the Bodleian, erected on the north side of Broad Street, with a caption describing it as Oxford’s Kremlin. When compared with the charm of the ramshackle cluster of shops and pubs that were demolished to make space for the library’s austere facade, the sense of loss might be understandable.
However, over the past months, this ugly duckling has quietly been shedding its young plumage, and now we can glimpse how it will look in its new guise. Today is the beginning of the culmination of the project which sees the unloved New Bod transformed into the Weston Library.
The first spaces to be opened in the building, unveiled today, are the reading rooms. Ahead of going across to Colchester for the start of term, I made a brief detour to glimpse what will be. Not everything is in place – and will not be, I understand, for some months – but already it is clear that this will be a vast improvement on the subterranean ice-chamber in the Radcliffe Science Library where Special Collections have been held for the past couple of years. I will admit that part of me wishes that modern papers and ‘old books’ were kept separately but as, in my work, I often emphasise how we should study incunables and manuscripts side-by-side, I can hardly complain when we have a combined ‘Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room’ (though the sequence surely puts things back to front). And the space, which I remember as once being the politics journals room, is a fine expanse, filled with adequate light, set off by its high – and impressive – wooden ceiling. The desks are ample and the round-backed seats perhaps too comfortable. There is also, as I was shown, goodly space for expansion of open stack material: the old reading room was better equipped with catalogues, reference works and periodicals than anywhere else I have worked, and this may now improve yet further. The staff, though, would not want us to judge the place on its first day of opening – this is the start of a period of transition and all of us readers should wait until mid-2016 before passing definitive comment.
I mentioned the old reading room and, of course, Duke Humfrey’s this is not. It is sad to think that it will be a rare occurrence when a manuscript can be studied in the space first designed for them, and it is a worry that we may lose the association of knowledge that was the post-War organisation of the Old Bodleian – manuscripts available on one floor, with classical and theological texts below, and historical and literary works above. The fate of the original haven of learning is not yet announced, as far as I know, and I can only hope it will be better served than by the clutter of drawers and instruments that recently squatted there. But the new space in the Weston Library has the potential to be an even better location for manuscript consultation. Not only that, but there is more to come. Next spring will see the opening of the main foyer of the Library which, from the quick viewing I was allowed today, will be an airy and impressive space to rival the renovated Ashmolean or the entrance hall of the British Library. There are exciting times ahead of us.
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?
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.
I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.
First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall. Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:
the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.
My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.
The latest instalment comes once more from the lavatorial nook of an esteemed library: this time, the loos marked ‘Male Readers’ in the Bodleian.
There has been, for what seems many moons, a notice on one of the electric hand-dryers, which reads:
OUT OF ORDER
This has set my mind wondering: where in the library’s collection has regret been misplaced? Is there a space in the section for negative emotions, between chagrin and disappointment, where it should have been? It has not been lost, merely wrongly shelved, so where now might it be? In the allied section of memories, snuggling up to nostalgia? Or in a completely counter-intuitive part of the library, like the poorly-lit room given over to gustatory sensations? The Bodleian, at least, is optimistic that it will be returned to its rightful place: does this mean there is even now a wise member of staff hunting down regret in the recesses of the stacks? We wish them luck in their search, and hope that they will take care handling it, when found: regret can be so fragile, so insubstantially bound.
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?