Our Debt to Monkish Men

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]






Where one has the time and the money to devote to the collection of missals and illuminated books, the avocation must be a very delightful one. I never look upon a missal or upon a bit of antique illumination that I do not invest that object with a certain poetic romance, and I picture to myself long lines of monkish men bending over their tasks, and applying themselves with pious enthusiasm thereto. We should not flatter ourselves that the enjoyment of the delights of bibliomania was reserved to one time and generation; a greater than any of us lived many centuries ago, and went his bibliomaniacal way, gathering together treasures from every quarter, and diffusing every where a veneration and love for books.

Richard de Bury was the king, if not the father, of bibliomaniacs; his immortal work reveals to us that long before the invention of printing men were tormented and enraptured by those very same desires, envies, jealousies, greeds, enthusiasms, and passions which possess and control bibliomaniacs at the present time. That vanity was sometimes the controlling passion with the early collectors is evidenced in a passage in Barclay's satire, "The Ship of Fools"; there are the stanzas which apply so neatly to certain people I know that sometimes I actually suspect that Barclay's prophetic eye must have had these nineteenth-century charlatans in view.

  But yet I have them in great reverence
  And honor, saving them from filth and ordure
  By often brushing and much diligence.
  Full goodly bound in pleasant coverture
  Of damask, satin, or else of velvet pure,
  I keep them sure, fearing lest they should be lost,
  For in them is the cunning wherein I me boast.
  But if it fortune that any learned man
  Within my house fall to disputation,
  I draw the curtains to show my books them,
  That they of my cunning should make probation;
  I love not to fall into altercation,
  And while they come, my books I turn and wind,
  For all is in them, and nothing in my mind.

Richard de Bury had exceptional opportunities for gratifying his bibliomaniac passions. He was chancellor and treasurer of Edward III, and his official position gained him access to public and private libraries and to the society of literary men. Moreover, when it became known that he was fond of such things, people from every quarter sent him and brought him old books; it may be that they hoped in this wise to court his official favor, or perhaps they were prompted by the less selfish motive of gladdening the bibliomaniac soul.

"The flying fame of our love," says de Bury, "had already spread in all directions, and it was reported not only that we had a longing desire for books, and especially for old ones, but that any one could more easily obtain our favors by quartos than by money. Wherefore, when supported by the bounty of the aforesaid prince of worthy memory, we were enabled to oppose or advance, to appoint or to discharge; crazy quartos and tottering folios, precious however in our sight as in our affections, flowed in most rapidly from the great and the small, instead of new year's gifts and remunerations, and instead of presents and jewels. Then the cabinets of the most noble monasteries were opened, cases were unlocked, caskets were unclasped, and sleeping volumes which had slumbered for long ages in their sepulchres were roused up, and those that lay hid in dark places were overwhelmed with the rays of a new light. Among these, as time served, we sat down more voluptuously than the delicate physician could do amidst his stores of aromatics, and where we found an object of love we found also an assuagement."

"If," says de Bury, "we would have amassed cups of gold and silver, excellent horses, or no mean sums of money, we could in those days have laid up abundance of wealth for ourselves. But we regarded books, not pounds; and valued codices more than florins, and preferred paltry pamphlets to pampered palfreys. On tedious embassies and in perilous times, we carried about with us that fondness for books which many waters could not extinguish."

And what books they were in those old days! What tall folios! What stout quartos! How magnificent were the bindings, wrought often in silver devices, sometimes in gold, and not infrequently in silver and gold, with splendid jewels and precious stones to add their value to that of the precious volume which they adorned. The works of Justin, Seneca, Martial, Terence, and Claudian were highly popular with the bibliophiles of early times; and the writings of Ovid, Tully, Horace, Cato, Aristotle, Sallust, Hippocrates, Macrobius, Augustine, Bede, Gregory, Origen, etc. But for the veneration and love for books which the monks of the mediaeval ages had, what would have been preserved to us of the classics of the Greeks and the Romans?

The same auspicious fate that prompted those bibliomaniacal monks to hide away manuscript treasures in the cellars of their monasteries, inspired Poggio Bracciolini several centuries later to hunt out and invade those sacred hiding-places, and these quests were rewarded with finds whose value cannot be overestimated. All that we have of the histories of Livy come to us through Poggio's industry as a manuscript-hunter; this same worthy found and brought away from different monasteries a perfect copy of Quintilian, a Cicero's oration for Caecina, a complete Tertullian, a Petronius Arbiter, and fifteen or twenty other classics almost as valuable as those I have named. From German monasteries, Poggio's friend, Nicolas of Treves, brought away twelve comedies of Plautus and a fragment of Aulus Gellius.

Dear as their pagan books were to the monkish collectors, it was upon their Bibles, their psalters, and their other religious books that these mediaeval bibliomaniacs expended their choicest art and their most loving care. St. Cuthbert's "Gospels," preserved in the British Museum, was written by Egfrith, a monk, circa 720; Aethelwald bound the book in gold and precious stones, and Bilfrid, a hermit, illuminated it by prefixing to each gospel a beautiful painting representing one of the Evangelists, and a tessellated cross, executed in a most elaborate manner. Bilfrid also illuminated the large capital letters at the beginning of the gospels. This precious volume was still further enriched by Aldred of Durham, who interlined it with a Saxon Gloss, or version of the Latin text of St. Jerome.

"Of the exact pecuniary value of books during the middle ages," says Merryweather, "we have no means of judging. The few instances that have accidentally been recorded are totally inadequate to enable us to form an opinion. The extravagant estimate given by some as to the value of books in those days is merely conjectural, as it necessarily must be when we remember that the price was guided by the accuracy of the transcription, the splendor of the binding (which was often gorgeous to excess), and by the beauty and richness of the illuminations. Many of the manuscripts of the middle ages are magnificent in the extreme; sometimes inscribed in liquid gold on parchment of the richest purple, and adorned with illuminations of exquisite workmanship."

With such a veneration and love for books obtaining in the cloister and at the fireside, what pathos is revealed to us in the supplication which invited God's blessing upon the beloved tomes: "O Lord, send the virtue of thy Holy Spirit upon these our books; that cleansing them from all earthly things, by thy holy blessing, they may mercifully enlighten our hearts and give us true understanding; and grant that by thy teachings they may brightly preserve and make full an abundance of good works according to thy will."

And what inspiration and cheer does every book-lover find in the letter which that grand old bibliomaniac, Alcuin, addressed to Charlemagne: "I, your Flaccus, according to your admonitions and good will, administer to some in the house of St. Martin the sweets of the Holy Scriptures; others I inebriate with the study of ancient wisdom; and others I fill with the fruits of grammatical lore. Many I seek to instruct in the order of the stars which illuminate the glorious vault of heaven, so that they may be made ornaments to the holy church of God and the court of your imperial majesty; that the goodness of God and your kindness may not be altogether unproductive of good. But in doing this I discover the want of much, especially those exquisite books of scholastic learning which I possessed in my own country, through the industry of my good and most devout master, Egbert. I therefore entreat your Excellence to permit me to send into Britain some of our youths to procure those books which we so much desire, and thus transplant into France the flowers of Britain, that they may fructify and perfume, not only the garden at York, but also the Paradise of Tours, and that we may say in the words of the song: 'Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his pleasant fruit;' and to the young: 'Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved;' or exhort in the words of the prophet Isaiah: 'Every one that thirsteth to come to the waters, and ye that have no money, come ye, buy and eat: yea, come buy wine and milk, without money and without price.'"

I was meaning to have somewhat to say about Alcuin, and had intended to pay my respects to Canute, Alfred, the Abbot of St. Albans, the Archbishop of Salzburg, the Prior of Dover, and other mediaeval worthies, when Judge Methuen came in and interrupted the thread of my meditation. The Judge brings me some verses done recently by a poet-friend of his, and he asks me to give them a place in these memoirs as illustrating the vanity of human confidence.

  One day I got a missive
  Writ in a dainty hand,
  Which made my manly bosom
  With vanity expand.
  'T was from a "young admirer"
  Who asked me would I mind
  Sending her "favorite poem"
  "In autograph, and signed."
  She craved the boon so sweetly
  That I had been a churl
  Had I repulsed the homage
  Of this gentle, timid girl;
  With bright illuminations
  I decked the manuscript,
  And in my choicest paints and inks
  My brush and pen I dipt.
  Indeed it had been tedious
  But that a flattered smile
  Played on my rugged features
  And eased my toil the while.
  I was assured my poem
  Would fill her with delight---
  I fancied she was pretty---
  I knew that she was bright!
  And for a spell thereafter
  That unknown damsel's face
  With its worshipful expression
  Pursued me every place;
  Meseemed to hear her whisper:
  "O, thank you, gifted sir,
  For the overwhelming honor
  You so graciously confer!"
  But a catalogue from Benjamin's
  Disproves what things meseemed---
  Dispels with savage certainty
  The flattering dreams I dreamed;
  For that poor "favorite poem,"
  Done and signed in autograph,
  Is listed in "Cheap Items"
  At a dollar-and-a-half.



Disclosure: We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own. We do have advertisements with links to other sites on our pages, and may receive compensation when you click on one of those links and/or purchase something from one of those sites.


Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved