Yesterday, 16th December, I gave the Christmas Lecture to the Volunteer Guides of the Bodleian Library. The talk took place in the University’s Convocation House, with the convivial party following next door in the Divinity School. I would like to thank Marilyn Tresias for the invitation, and Felice Vermeulen for her skilful organisation. My talk was entitled ‘Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and biliophile’. As has become my usual practice, I spoke without notes, but I intend to provide here an approximation of what I said. This is the first instalment, with the second half appearing tomorrow:
When I was invited to talk to you about Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, on whose library I have worked intermittently for over a decade, I accepted with alacrity. Standing here now, I wonder whether I should have tread with more angelic steps. Sitting at the back of your business meeting a moment ago, it struck me that I was about to lecture to people all of whom are themselves expert in being the speaker, rather than the passive listener. Not only that but you are the guides to this institution, Thomas Bodley’s successor foundation to that endowed by the Good Duke, by Bodley’s own calculation the fourth Library of the University of Oxford – the third being Humfrey’s, the second that provided by Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester and the first (moving back beyond history into the mists of myth) that donated by King Alfred. What, I am wondering, can I tell you that you do not already know about the man largely responsible for the third library of the University of Oxford?
You certainly do not need me to remind you that Humfrey delighted in being described as the son, brother and uncle of kings. He was the youngest boy of Henry Bolingbroke who, when Humfrey was not yet ten, usurped the English throne from Richard II and was crowned Henry IV. Humfrey was brother to Henry V who, at Agincourt, saved his youngest sibling’s life when Humfrey, thrown from his horse, lay prone on the ground, with Henry standing over him, fighting off assailants until the duke of Gloucester could be pulled to safety. And he was uncle to Henry VI who, it has been said, moved from the inanity of childhood to imbecility without the intermission of lucidity that usually occurs between those two states. He was, in his nephew’s long minority, England’s Protector – not its Regent, and that was an issue of some contention. Moreover, from 1435, following the death of his last surviving elder brother, John, duke of Bedford, Humfrey was heir apparent to the throne.
The heir apparent who, as you also well know, ended his life on 23rd February 1447 at St Saviour’s Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, arrested on an accusation of treason against his own nephew. The manner of his death was cause for him to be awarded posthumously the sobriquet of ‘Good’. Those contemporaries who may have been in a position to know did not suggest any foul play was involved in the duke’s death but the circumstances allowed those of a more suspicious bent to smell the scent of conspiracy and murder. In the sixteenth century, the most frequent explanation was that he had been smothered ‘between two featherbeds’, though others said he had been strangled – that is the version that appears in Shakespeare – while some suggested that the murder had been hidden by effecting it with, in John Foxe’s words, ‘a whole spit [being] privily forced into his body’. In the immediate wake of his demise, his downfall was taken by those discontented with the regime as a symbol of the end of good statesmanship. There is something fitting that two of the battles of what we know of as the Wars of the Roses should have been fought close by the chantry chapel erected for him in the Abbey of St Albans.
Yet, later political historians have not been so quick to find goodness in the Duke. Rather, the general opinion is that – saving his nephew – Humfrey was the runt of the Lancastrian pack: he lacked the political shrewdness of his father, Bolingbroke, the charisma of his eldest sibling, Henry V, or even the downright competence of his closest brother in age, John, duke of Bedford. Humfrey was, these historians say, hot-headed, cack-handed and tight-fisted – but, they go on, at least he liked books.
About the books, of course, you, the volunteer guides of the Bodleian, know so much. You know that he amassed a large collection, some presented to him by their authors, some sent to him from the Continent (from France and from Italy), some given to him (more or less willingly), and many bought by him. What is all the more striking is that, in his own lifetime, he gave away something in the region of three hundred of them in a series of donations to the University of Oxford, between the late 1430s and 1444. The University believed it was the rightful inheritor of the rest of his collection but Oxford was to be thwarted in that aspiration. On his death, the crown claimed that the Duke had died intestate – a claim strongly challenged by the University but to no avail. The result was that Humfrey’s possessions passed into the hands of the crown, and his books were dispersed, with some (but by no means all of them) suffering a sorry fate of ending up in Cambridge, at King’s College, Henry VI’s new foundation, the sister of the chantry school he founded at Eton. The Reformation saw significant deprivations to that college, so much so that only one of Humfrey’s manuscripts now resides there and only another one is known (now in the British Library). That said, the manuscripts he gave to the University of Oxford did not fare much better.
Humfrey’s books had originally been stored in the Old Library, the first-floor space in the semi-detached university accommodation adjoining the Church of St Mary the Virgin. As you know, the University authorities decided to revise the plans they had already made for the Divinity School, so that that building could house on its first floor a new library room, suitable for the donations of the Duke and of others. It opened in 1488 but its heyday was brief: by the very middle of the sixteenth century, it was closed and its books dispersed. How that came to happen is something to which I want to return at the end of this talk.
The result of the two dispersals of Humfrey’s library – that immediately following his death and the other in the sixteenth century – leaves us, presently, with just under 50 manuscripts (the exact number depends on how you count them) from a collection which probably comprised, at a necessarily rough estimate, between 500 and 600 manuscripts: an overall survival rate of under 10%. This masks some variation for, in fact, the books given to the University of Oxford have suffered worse than those he did not donate. Of the 274 listed in the University Register, only 14 are presently identifiable: a survival rate of 5%. Of those, just three are in the Bodleian, with another two of Humfrey’s books, not originally given to Oxford, now resident here; in the Oxford colleges, we can now count seven manuscripts, of which probably four come from those donated to the University.
How do we identify a manuscript as once having belonged to the Duke? As I have just mentioned, the relevant Register of the University of Oxford includes inventories of three of the gifts that Humfrey made and, on occasion, a manuscript can be matched with the information that provides. More often, though, the evidence for his ownership comes from the Duke’s own hand, for Humfrey was one of those blessed collectors who cannot resist writing in their books. In many of his volumes, Humfrey adds a formula announcing his ownership either at the front or at the final colophon – sometimes both and a few times in more places. In its usual form it reads: ‘Cest livre est A moy homfrey duc de gloucestre’. On occasion, he is even more helpful, giving his not just his name but details of how he came by a book – whether he was given it and, if so, he sometimes mentions when, or whether he bought it from, for example, an acquaintance’s executors. More rarely, but also significantly, he adds a motto to mark his ownership. I want to concentrate for a moment on one of those. At the very top of a copy of a medical treatise which opens with an illumination of his coat-of-arms, he adds ‘Loyale et belle A gloucestre’ – ‘loyal and beautiful to Gloucester’, in the feminine. The gender of those adjectives has made some wonder whether, in fact, this was a gift to Humfrey from his wife but I see no reason to make that assumption. The motto is definitely written in Humfrey’s script and there are other signs of his interest in this manuscript: he notes a section on cures for baldness (a passage which, I have to admit, also interests me). The use by a husband of a motto relevant to a wife is not unknown in other manuscripts of the fifteenth century – there is a well-known example in the collection of Humfrey’s brother, John, duke of Bedford. Are we then to take this as a mark of uxoriousness, a symbol of his love for his wife? That wife was the ill-fated Eleanor Cobham, who would end her life in prison – a little like her husband, though her confinement lasted decades not days and was as a result of her attempts, in 1441, to use sorcery to predict when Humfrey would be king. Eleanor was a distant relative of the Cobham, bishop of Worcester, who founded the University’s second library (on Bodley’s counting); it was surely not, however, for that family association Humfrey came to marry her. Indeed, that he married her at all was, to some people’s eyes a scandal, and this brings me to what you have been waiting for: Good Duke Humfrey as bounder and cad.
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?
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.