bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.



The Art of Book-Burning

Posted in Art, Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 19 April, 2009

I have been fascinated for some years now with the burning of books. I can pinpoint the moment when my interest was kindled: I was wandering the galleries of Louvre and stopped before a large, not highly accomplished, canvas. It was Eustace Le Sueur’s Paul Preaching at Ephesus, painted in 1649 (a couple of months after, on the other side of the Channel, a king had lost his head); it formerly hung in Notre Dame. Paul stands at the centre of the picture with, in front of him, the locals rushing to tear up their books and throw them onto a small but lively fire at bottom-centre of the image. I was standing, in this temple to high culture, before a celebration of biblioclasm.

Eustace Le Sueur, Paul at Ephesus

Eustace Le Sueur, The Preaching of St Paul at Ephesus (Louvre, Paris)

The episode from Acts has proven a fairly rich vein for similar images. The National Gallery in London has what appears to be a preliminary version of Le Sueur’s painting. Several decades before Le Sueur, the Italianate Dutch artist, Maerten de Vos, painted the same scene (now hanging in the excellent Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels). A couple centuries later, Gustave Doré, most famous for his illustrations of Dante, included a similar depiction in the scenes he selected from the Bible. In all of these, there is the anachronism that bound codices, not papyri rolls, are what are being thrown onto the fire. And all naturally follow The Book in seeing the burning of books as a virtuous act.

What brought this information flooding back into my mind the other day was  an article in The Times that my fiancée, knowing my curious interest, brought to my attention. The article is about the Nazi destruction of books in May 1933, the precursor to Kristallnacht five years later, and (according to the article) a staging post on the road to the Holocaust. The inspiration for the article is a book dedicated to the incident which was published last year (though The Times describes it as new). It is by a German journalist, Volker Weidermann, and called Das Buch der verbranntem Bücher. I would not want to judge the book by this article; perhaps that can be done another day. Instead, what I wish to highlight is the mismatch between the article and the headline the sub-editor gave it.

The article itself expresses the accustomed shock at the destruction of Jewish and other ‘degenerate’ books, and I took part in that shock as a reader. I instinctively recoiled at the mention of universities actively condoning the book-burnings by attending the occasions. But, then again, such connivance was hardly a twentieth-century invention: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was honoured by being burnt in the quadrangle of the Bodleian here in Oxford in 1683, thirty-two years after its publication. Our shock at biblioclasm is  our culturally-conditioned reaction  but it can hold us back from asking historical questions of the phenomenon. It may also give book-burning a power that, most often, the act itself does not have.

What struck me most in The Times’ article was the description of Weidermann’s own buying up of the books proscribed by the Nazis and his discovery that one bibliophile in Munich had ‘spent all his life and money collecting 15,000 first editions of the banned books’. That is a huge number of texts that were banned — and that survived the act of destruction. It would be interesting to know if any work had been completely extinguished in those fires: the likelihood is low. If the Nazis, with their religion of the automated, their science of inhuman organisation, believed that their bonfires could actually end the life of books, they under-estimated the ability of technology to subvert their plans. This is the point captured in the title of the article: ‘The Vanity of the bonfires’.

It is a bitter irony, of course, that it proved easier to destroy a people and whole communities than it did texts. The Nazis were not the first to prove this point — there was a history at least five hundred years old before them. It is not fashionable now to talk of a ‘print revolution’ but that transformation of information technology from individual manuscript to replicated print did change the dynamic between text and book-burner. Even in a manuscript culture, a text could survive the burning of both book and author. But, in print culture, the ability to ensure complete destruction became increasingly difficult. To my mind, the anachronism in the paintings of Le Sueur and de Vos, depicting bound books in front of Saint Paul, speaks to this: it takes the volumes of their own generations and transposes them to a golden era when their destruction could actually have been achieved. And it is surely not accidental that interest in this biblical scene arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as confessional strife lit bonfires across Christendom.

My point is this: the age when book-burning could succeed in destroying knowledge is an Arcadian past. The bonfires may be an act of hate, a symbol of destruction — but, most often, they demonstrate the impotence of the powerful in the face of pen. If book-burnings do have an ability to crush learning, it may not be because of the act itself, but because our reaction is to be shocked and cowed. The despairing on-lookers add fuel to the fire.