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.