The Love of Books

The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury





-- THOMAS A KEMPIS: Doctrinale Juvenum 



The Author of the Book. 

Richard de Bury (1281-1345), so called from being born near Bury St.  Edmunds, was the son of Sir Richard Aungerville. He studied at Oxford; and was subsequently chosen to be tutor to Prince Edward of Windsor, afterwards Edward III.  His loyalty to the cause of Queen Isabella and the Prince involved him in danger.  On the accession of his pupil he was made successively Cofferer, Treasurer of the Wardrobe, Archdeacon of Northampton, Prebendary of Lincoln, Sarum, and Lichfield, Keeper of the Privy Purse, Ambassador on two occasions to Pope John XXII, who appointed him a chaplain of the papal chapel, Dean of Wells, and ultimately, at the end of the year 1333, Bishop of Durham; the King and Queen, the King of Scots, and all the magnates north of the Trent, together with a multitude of nobles and many others, were present at his enthronization.  It is noteworthy that during his stay at Avignon, probably in 1330, he made the acquaintance of Petrarch, who has left us a brief account of their intercourse.  In 1332 Richard visited Cambridge, as one of the King’s commissioners, to inquire into the state of the King’s Scholars there, and perhaps then became a member of the Gild of St. Mary—one of the two gilds which founded Corpus Christi College.

In 1334 he became High Chancellor of England, and Treasurer in 1336, resigning the former office in 1335, so that he might help the King in dealing with affairs abroad and in Scotland, and took a most distinguished part in diplomatic negotiations between England and France.  In 1339 he was again in his bishopric.  Thereafter his name occurs often among those appointed to treat of peace with Philip of France, and with Bruce of Scotland.  It appears that he was not in Parliament in 1344.  Wasted by long sickness—longa infirmitate decoctus—on the 14th of April, 1345, Richard de Bury died at Auckland, and was buried in Durham Cathedral.

Dominus Ricardus de Bury migravit ad Dominum.

The Bishop as Booklover. 

According to the concluding note, the Philobiblon was completed on the bishop’s fifty-eighth birthday, the 24th of January, 1345, so that even though weakened by illness, Richard must have been actively engaged in his literary efforts to the very end of his generous and noble life.  His enthusiastic devoted biographer Chambre gives a vivid account of the bishop’s bookloving propensities, supplementary to what can be gathered from the Philobiblon itself.  Iste summe delectabatur in multitudine librorum; he had more books, as was commonly reported, than all the other English bishops put together.  He had a separate library in each of his residences, and wherever he was residing, so many books lay about his bed-chamber, that it was hardly possible to stand or move without treading upon them.  All the time he could spare from business was devoted either to religious offices or to his books.  Every day while at table he would have a book read to him, unless some special guest were present, and afterwards would engage in discussion on the subject of the reading.  The haughty Anthony Bec delighted in the appendages of royalty—to be addressed by nobles kneeling, and to be waited on in his presence-chamber and at his table by Knights bare-headed and standing; but De Bury loved to surround himself with learned scholars.  Among these were such men as Thomas Bradwardine, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the De Causa Dei; Richard Fitzralph, afterwards Archbishop of Armagh, and famous for his hostility to the mendicant orders; Walter Burley, who dedicated to him a translation of the Politics of Aristotle made at his suggestion; John Mauduit, the astronomer; Robert Holkot, author of many books; Richard de Kilvington; Richard Benworth, afterwards Bishop of London; and Walter Seagrave, who became Dean of Chichester.”


The Bishop’s Books. 

In the Philobiblon, Richard de Bury frankly and clearly describes his means and method of collecting books.  Anyhow his object was clearly not selfish.  The treatise contains his rules for the library of the new College at Oxford—Durham College (where Trinity College now stands)--which he practically founded, though his successor, Bishop Hatfield, carried the scheme into effect.  It is traditionally reported that Richard’s books were sent, in his lifetime or after his death, to the house of the Durham Benedictines at Oxford, and there remained until the dissolution of the College by Henry VIII., when they were dispersed, some going into Duke Humphrey’s (the University) library, others to Balliol College, and the remainder passing into the hands of Dr.  George Owen, who purchased the site of the dissolved College.[3]

[3] Mr. J. W. Clark puts the matter as follows:--“Durham College, maintained by the Benedictines of Durham, was supplied with books from the mother-house, lists of which have been preserved; and subsequently a library was built there to contain the collection bequeathed in 1345 by Richard de Bury” (The Care of Books, p.  142).  Mr. Thomas points out that De Bury’s executors sold at least some portion of his books; and, moreover, his biographer says nothing of a library at Oxford. Possibly the scheme was never carried out.  In the British Museum (Roy. 13 D. iv. 3) is a large folio MS. of the works of John of Salisbury, which was one of the books bought back from the Bishop’s executors.

Unfortunately, the “special catalogue” of his books prepared by Richard has not come down to us; but “from his own book and from the books cited in the works of his friends and housemates, who may reasonably be supposed to have drawn largely from the bishop’s collection, it would be possible to restore a hypothetical but not improbable Bibliotheca Ricardi de Bury.  The difficulty would be with that contemporary literature, which they would think below the dignity of quotation, but which we know the Bishop collected.”


Early Editions of the Philobiblon. 

The book was first printed at Cologne in 1473, at Spires in 1483, and at Paris in 1500.  The first English edition appeared in 1598-9, edited by Thomas James, Bodley’s first librarian.  Other editions appeared in Germany in 1610, 1614, 1674 and 1703; at Paris in 1856; at Albany in 1861.  The texts were, with the exception of those issued in 1483 and 1599, based on the 1473 edition; though the French edition and translation of 1856, prepared by M. Cocheris, claimed to be a critical version, it left the text untouched, and merely gave the various readings of the three Paris manuscripts at the foot of the pages; these readings are moreover badly chosen, and the faults of the version are further to be referred to the use of the ill- printed 1703 edition as copy.

In 1832 there appeared an anonymous English translation, now known to have been by J. B. Inglis; it followed the edition of 1473, with all its errors and inaccuracies.

Mr. E. C. Thomas’ Text.—The first true text of the Philobiblon, the result of a careful examination of twenty-eight MSS., and of the various printed editions, appeared in the year 1888:

“The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham, Treasurer and Chancellor of Edward III, edited and translated by Ernest C.  Thomas, Barrister- at-law, late Scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, and Librarian of the Oxford Union.  London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.”

For fifteen years the enthusiastic editor—an ideal Bibliophile—had toiled at his labor of love, and his work was on all sides received with the recognition due to his monumental achievement.  To the great loss of English learning, he did not long survive the conclusion of his labors.  The very limited edition of the work was soon exhausted, and it is by the most generous permission of his father, Mr. John Thomas, of Lower Broughton, Manchester, that the translation—the only trustworthy rendering of Richard de Bury’s precious treatise—is now, for the first time, made accessible to the larger book-loving public, and fittingly inaugurates the present series of English classics.  The general Editor desires to express his best thanks to Mr.  John Thomas, as also to Messrs. Kegan Paul, for their kindness in allowing him to avail himself of the materials included in the 1888 edition of the work.  He has attempted, in the brief Preface and Notes, to condense Mr. Thomas’ labors in such a way as would have been acceptable to the lamented scholar, and though he has made bold to explain some few textual difficulties, and to add some few references, he would fain hope that these additions have been made with modest caution—with the reverence due to the unstinted toil of a Bibliophile after Richard de Bury’s own pattern.  Yet once again Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon, edited and translated into English by E. C. Thomas, is presented to new generations of book-lovers:--      “LIBRORUM DILECTORIBUS.”




I    That the treasure of wisdom is chiefly contained in books   

II   The degree of affection that is properly due to books    

III  What we are to think of the price in the buying of books 

IV   The complaint of books against the clergy already promoted  

V    The complaint of books against the possessioners    

VI   The complaint of books against the mendicants     

VII  The complaint of books against wars  

VIII Of the numerous opportunities we have had of collecting a store of books  

IX   How, although we preferred the works of the ancients, we have not condemned the studies of the moderns 

X    Of the gradual perfecting of books 

 XI   Why we have preferred books of liberal learning to books of law 

XII  Why we have caused books of grammar to be so diligently prepared  

XIII Why we have not wholly neglected the fables of the poets 

XIV  Who ought to be special lovers of books 

XV   Of the advantages of the love of books  

XVI  That it is meritorious to write new books and to renew the old 

XVII Of showing due propriety in the custody of books  

XVIII Showeth that we have collected so great a store of books for the common benefit of scholars and not only for our own pleasure

XIX  Of the manner of lending all our books to students

XX   An exhortation to scholars to requite us by pious prayers








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