One of the World's Leading Sources of Information On Books, Literature, and a Wide Range of Subjects



 Early Book-Hunting

(Note: This is taken from W. Roberts' The Book-Hunter in London.)

Roman books and writing materials 

Those who have studied the earlier phases of English history will readily understand that the terms book-hunting in England and book-hunting in London are by no means synonymous. The passion for books had manifested itself in various and remote parts of this country long before London had developed into a place of importance; when, indeed, it was battling from without and within with conflicts which seemed to predict complete annihilation. But the growth of London is essentially typical of the growth of the nation, and of the formation of the national character. When it was laying the foundation of its future greatness London had no thought of intellectual pursuits, even if Londoners themselves had any conception of an intellectual life. For any trace of such unthought-of, and perhaps, indeed, unheard-of, articles as books, we must go to localities far remote from London—to spots where, happily, the strife and din of savage warfare scarcely made themselves heard. The monasteries were the sole repositories of literature; to the monk alone had the written book any kind of intelligence, any species of pleasure. To him it was as essential as the implements of destruction to the warrior, or the plough to the husbandman. The one had no sympathy, no connection, with the other, only in so far that the events which transpired in the battlefield had to be recorded in the scriptorium. Although London was a place of importance at a very early stage of the Roman occupation, it was not in any sense an intellectual centre for centuries after that period.

Indeed, it might be laid down as a general principle that the farther the seeker went from London the more likelihood there was of meeting with books. To Northumbria, from the end of the sixth to the end of the seventh century, we shall have to look for the record of book-buying, for during that period books were imported in very considerable quantities; abbeys arose all along the coast, and scholars proportionately increased. In a letter to Charlemagne, Alcuin speaks of certain 'exquisite books' which he studied under Egbert at York. At Wearmouth, Benedict Biscop (629-690) was amassing books with all the fury of half a dozen ordinary bibliomaniacs. He collected everything, and spared no cost. At York, Egbert had a fine library in the minster. St. Boniface, the Saxon missionary, was a zealous collector. There were also collections—and consequently collectors—of books at places less remote from London—such as Canterbury, Salisbury, Glastonbury, and even St. Albans; but of London itself there is no mention.

Scarcely any such thing as book-hunting or book-selling could possibly have existed in London before the accession of Alfred, who, among the several ways in which he encouraged literature, is said to have given an estate to the author of a book on cosmography. Doubtless, it was after the rebuilding of the city by Alfred that, in the famous letter to Wulfseg, Bishop of London, he takes a retrospective view of the times in which they lived, as affording 'churches and monasteries filled with libraries of excellent books in several languages.' Bede describes London, even at the beginning of the eighth century, as a great market which traders frequented by land and sea; and from a passage in Gale we learn that books were brought into England for sale as early as 705. With the reconstruction of London, the wise government, and the enthusiastic love for letters which animated the great Saxon King, the commerce of the capital not only increased with great rapidity, but the commerce in books between England and other countries, particularly from such bibliopolic centres as Paris and Rome, began to assume very considerable proportions. If, as is undoubtedly the case, books were continually being imported, it follows that they found purchasers. By the beginning of the eleventh century there were many private and semi-private collections of books in or near London. The English book-collectors of the seventh century include Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, Benedict, Abbot of Wearmouth, and Bede; those of the eighth century, Ina, King of the West Saxons, and Alcuin, Abbot of Tours; whilst the tenth century included, in addition to Alfred, Scotus Erigena, Athelstan, and St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.

But it cannot be said, with due regard to truth, that London was in any sense a seat of learning, or a popular resort for learned men, until well on into the thirteenth century. Doubtless many consignments of books passed through the city on the way to their respective destinations.

Edward I. may be regarded as the first English monarch who took any interest in collecting books; most of his, however, were service books. They are mentioned in the Wardrobe Accounts (1299-1300) of this King, and are only eleven in number. These he may have purchased in 1273 in France, through which he passed on his way home from Palestine. But it is much more probable that he had no thought of books when hurrying home to claim the crown of his father. Contemporary with Edward was another book-collector of a very different type, an abbot of Peterborough, Richard of London, who had a 'private library' of ten books, including the 'Consolation of Philosophy,' which he may have formed in London. But quite the most interesting book-collector (so far as we are concerned just now) of this period is Richard de Gravesend, Bishop of London. A minute catalogue of this collection is among the treasures of St. Paul's Cathedral, and has been privately printed. In this case, the price of each book is affixed to its entry; the total number of volumes is one hundred, their aggregate value being £116 14s. 6d., representing, according to Milman's estimate, £1,760 of our present money. Twenty-one Bibles and parts of Bibles were valued at £19 5s. Twenty-two volumes in this collection deal with canon and civil law, four with ecclesiastical history, and about an equal number with what may be designated science and arts, the rest being of a theological character. The entries run thus:

'Tractatus fr'is Dertti'i de proprietatibus rerum.
Libellus instructionum.
Liber Avicennæ.
Liber naturalis.'

The two last-named are respectively the highest and lowest priced items in the list—for books of a single volume only—the 'Liber Avicennæ' being valued at the very high figure of £5, and the 'Liber Naturalis' at 3s. A Bible in thirteen volumes is valued at £10; and a 'little Bible' at £1. The total value of the property of this Bishop was scheduled at about £3,000.

In spite of civil strife and foreign complications, the taste for literature made great strides during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with the very natural consequence of an increased demand for, and supply of, books. And the curious thing is that book-collecting was gradually passing away from the monks, and becoming exceedingly popular with the laity. 'Flocks and fleeces, crops and herds, gardens and orchards, the wine of the winecup, are the only books and studies of the monks.' The Franciscans, who (like the Dominicans) came to England in 1224, were expressly forbidden 'the possession of books or the necessary materials for study.' When Roger Bacon joined this order, he was deprived of his books. St. Francis himself, it seems, was once 'tempted to possess books'—by honest means, let us hope, although the point is not quite clear—and he almost yielded to the temptation, but finally decided that it would be sinful. The plague of books seems to have troubled this poor saint's soul, for he hoped that the day would come when men would throw their books out of the window as rubbish.

In proof of the theory that laymen at a very early period became book-collectors, the most interesting example which we can quote is that of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who died in 1315, and who bequeathed his library to Bordesley Abbey, Worcestershire, where it had already been deposited during his lifetime. Beginning with this preamble, 'A tus iceux qe ceste lettre verront ou orrount. Guy de Beauchamp, Comte de Warr. Saluz en Deu. Nous avoir bayle e en lagarde le Abbé e le covent de Bordesleye, lesse a demorer a touz jours les Romaunces de souz nomes; ces est assaveyr,' the bequest recites, with great minuteness, a remarkably interesting list of books. This list ('escrites ou Bordesleye le premer jour de may, le an du regñ le Roy Edwd trentime quart') is in the Lambeth Library, but it is reprinted by Todd in his 'Illustrations of Gower and Chaucer,' pp. 161, 162. This list is of more than ordinary interest, chiefly because the collection formed by a layman gives us a very good insight into the class of books which the early nobility of England read, or, at all events, collected. Religious books, of course, formed the background of the library, but there were many romances, such, for instance, as those of King Arthur, of 'Josep alb Arimathie e deu Seint Grael,' of 'Troies,' etc. There was also a book 'De Phisik et de Surgie.'

This collection contained between forty and fifty volumes, in which was included pretty nearly the entire range of human knowledge as it then extended. It is well to remember in connection with this bequest that, at the same time, or, more correctly, in 1300, the academical library of Oxford consisted of a few tracts kept in chests under St. Mary's Church.

With the greatest book-collector of this period, Richard de Bury (1287-1345), the author of the 'Philobiblon,' unfortunately, we have little to do, as his book expeditions appear to have been confined almost entirely to foreign countries. He collected books from every source open to him, and wrote of his passion with a warmth of eloquence of which even Cicero might have been proud. His most important book transaction, which comes within the purview of the present volume, relates to the gift by an Abbot of St. Albans of four volumes to De Bury, then Clerk of the Privy Seal, viz., Terence, Virgil, Quintilian, and Hieronymus against Rufinus. In addition to these, the Abbot sold him thirty-two other books for fifty pounds of silver. When De Bury became Bishop this 'gift' troubled his conscience, and he restored several of the books which had come into his possession in a perfectly honest and legitimate manner, whilst others were secured from the Bishop's executors. One of the volumes acquired in the latter manner is now in the British Museum. It is a large folio MS. on the works of John of Salisbury, and bears upon it a note to the effect that it was written by Simon (Abbot of St. Albans, 1167-1183), and another to the following effect: 'Hunc librum venditum Domino Ricardo de Biry Episcopo Dunelmensi emit Michael Abbas Sancti Albani ab executoribus predicti episcopi anno Domini millesimo ccco xlvto circa purificationem Beate Virginis.'

The catalogue of the library of the Benedictine monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury, in the Cottonian Collection, British Museum, and printed for the first time at length in Edward's 'Memoirs of Libraries' (i. 122-235), is a remarkable list of the most extensive collection of books at that time in this country. It was formed at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century. This library was well furnished with works in science and history, and particularly so with the classics—Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Plato, Suetonius, Seneca, Terence, and Virgil. The extreme probability is that London was the highway through which the greater part of this and other early libraries passed. If, early in the fifteenth century, the book-hunter in London possessed few opportunities of purchasing books, he would have found several very good libraries which were open to his inspection. There was, for example, a very considerable collection in the Franciscan monastery, which once stood on the site now occupied by Christ's Hospital, Newgate Street. The first stone of this monastery was laid in October, 1421, amid much pomp, by the then Lord Mayor, Sir Richard Whittington, who gave £400 in books. It was covered in before the winter of 1422, and completed in three years, and furnished with books. From Stow's 'Survey' we learn that one hundred marks were expended on the transcription of the works of Nicholas de Lira, to be chained in the library, and of which cost John Frensile remitted 20s. One of the chained books, 'The Lectures of Hostiensis,' cost five marks. From another source we learn that a Carmelite friar named John Wallden bequeathed to this library as many MSS. as were worth 2,000 pieces of gold.

Anthony à Wood refers to the oft-repeated charge of the book-covetousness of the mendicant friars, which, in fact, was carried to such an extreme 'that wise men looked upon it as an injury to laymen, who therefore found a difficulty to get any books.' Of the same period, there is a very curious anecdote in Rymer's 'Fœdera' about taking off the duty upon six barrels of books sent by a Roman cardinal to the Prior of the conventual church of St. Trinity, Norwich. These barrels, which lay at the Custom-house, were imported duty free.

Neither the book-hunger of the mendicant friars, nor the difficulties which surrounded the importation of books, appears to have militated greatly against the growing passion. We have the name, and only the name, of a very famous book-hunter—John of Boston—of the first decade of the fifteenth century, whose labours, however, have been completely blotted out of existence by the dispersed monasteries. But there were many other collectors whose memories have been handed down to us in a more tangible form, even if their collections of books are almost as abstract and indefinite as that of John of Boston. During the first quarter of the fifteenth century, we have quite a considerable little group of royal book-collectors—Henry IV., Henry V., and his brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The last-named was undoubtedly the most enthusiastic bibliophile of the four, but whilst his extensive gifts of books to the University of Oxford may be said to have formed the foundation of the library there, they were in the following century destroyed by the mob. A few examples of his gifts are now preserved in the British Museum and at Oxford. His books were estimated at a very high figure, the value placed on 120 of them (out of the total of 600) being no less than £1,000. The memory of the Duke of Bedford's library is best perpetuated by the famous Bedford Missal, or Book of Hours, perhaps the most splendid example of fifteenth-century illustration. It is now in the British Museum, where it has been since 1852. The history of this missal, perhaps the most interesting in existence, is too well known to be dealt with here.

Henry V. was undoubtedly fond of books. Rymer refers to two petitions to the Council after the King's death for the return of valuable books of history, borrowed by him of the Countess of Westmoreland, and of the priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, and not returned, though one of them had been directed to be delivered to its owner by the King's last will. The elegantly illuminated copy of Lydgate's 'Hystory, Sege, and Destruccion of Troye,' 1513, in the Bodleian, is doubtless the copy which Lydgate gave to Henry V. At Cambridge there is the MS. of a French translation of Cardinal Bonaventure's 'Life of Christ,' with the note 'this wasse sumtyme Kinge Henri the fifeth his booke,' etc.

Henry VI. does not appear to have cared for books, and it is not surprising, what with wars abroad and excessive taxation, plague and famine at home, that literary tastes received a severe check. We get several glimpses of the dearth of books. In the MS. history of Eton College, in the British Museum, the Provost and Fellows of Eton and Cambridge are stated, 25 Henry VI., to have petitioned the King that he would be pleased to order one of his chaplains, Richard Chestre, 'to take to him such men as shall be seen to him expedient in order to get knowledge where such bookes [for Divine service] may be found, paying a reasonable price for the same, and that the sayd men might have the choice of such bookes, ornaments, and other necessaries as now late were perteynyng to the Duke of Gloucester, and that the king would particular[ly] cause to be employed herein John Pye—his stacioner of London.'

Book-importation by the galleys that brought the produce of the East to London and Southampton had assumed very considerable proportions during the fifteenth century; but the uncertainties which attended it were not at all favourable to its full development. Book-production was still progressing in the immediate neighbourhood of London. At St. Albans, for example, over eighty were transcribed under Whethamstede during this reign, a number which is peculiarly interesting when the degeneracy of the monasteries is remembered. Neither Edward IV. nor Richard III. seems to have availed himself of the increasing plenty of books. The library of the former was a very unimportant affair. From the Wardrobe Account of this King (1480) we get a few highly interesting facts concerning book-binding, gildings, and garnishing: 'For vj unces and iij quarters of silk to the laces and tassels for garnysshing of diverse Bookes, price the unce xiiijd.—vijs. xd. ob.; for the making of xvj laces and xvj tassels made of the said vj unces and iij of silke, price in grete ijs. viid.' These moneys were paid to Alice Claver, a 'sylk-woman.' And again 'to Piers Bauduyn, stacioner, for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke called "Titus Livius," xxs.; for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke of the Holy Trinitie, xvjs.; for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke called "Frossard," xvjs.; for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke called the Bible, xvjs.; for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke called "Le Gouvernement of Kinges and Princes," xvjs.; for bynding and dressing of the three smalle bookes of Franche, price in grete vjs. viiijd.; for the dressing of ij bookes whereof oon is called "La Forteresse de Foy" and the other called the "Book of Josephus," iijs. iiijd.; and for bynding, gilding and dressing a booke called the "Bible Historial," xxs.'

The only incident which calls for special mention in the two next short reigns is a law, 1 Richard III., 1483, by which it was enacted that if any of the printers or sellers of printed books—the 'great plenty' of which came from 'beyond the sea'—'vend them at too high and unreasonable prices,' then the Lord Chancellor, Lord Treasurer, or any of the chief justices of the one bench or the other, were to regulate the prices.








Home | Book Collecting | Folklore / Myth | Philately | Playing Cards | Literature | Contents









© D. J. McAdam.  All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced without written permission of the author.