Monday, November 5, 2012

Bishop & Bibliophile

The desirable treasure of wisdom and science, which all men desire by an instinct of nature, infinitely surpasses all the riches of the world; in respect of which precious stones are worthless; in comparison with which silver is as clay and pure gold is as a little sand; at whose splendour the sun and moon are dark to look upon; compared with whose marvellous sweetness honey and manna are bitter to the taste. ... Where dost thou chiefly lie hidden, O most elect treasure! and where shall thirsting souls discover thee? ... Certes, thou hast placed thy tabernacle in books, where the Most High, the Light of lights, the Book of Life, has established thee.
So begins Chapter I of the Philobiblon (Greek for "The Love of Books") of  Richard de Bury (1287-1345). As a young man he studied at Oxford and became a Benedictine. His learning and piety made him a suitable tutor for Prince Edward, son of Edward II and Isabella of France, who after the stormy events of 1327 would become King Edward III. Royal patronage worked well for de Bury: he became Bishop of Durham in 1333, High Chancellor in 1334, and Treasurer of England in 1336. He went on diplomatic missions for the Crown, even in his later years.

Along the way, however, he never gave up the love of learning that first sent him to Oxford and later made him a tutor to royalty. He had libraries in each residence, filled with contemporary authors but mostly classical works. "He kept copyists, scribes, binders, correctors, and illuminators, and he was particularly careful to restore defaced or battered texts." [source]

That love of learning, found in books, needed to be spread far and wide. His purpose for writing the Philobiblon was three-fold:
  • To instill in clergy the love of learning, and of book as the source of learning
  • To explain his own love of books that drove him to spend so much time collecting and preserving them
  • To lay out the policies for management of a library he wanted to establish at Durham College, Oxford
His goal in founding Durham College was to create a place where Benedictines from Durham Abbey could better themselves through education. To that end, he bequeathed his books to the library at Durham College. Sadly, Durham College was dissolved, like many other religious institutions, by Henry VIII. Its memory remains as the Durham Quadrangle on the grounds of Trinity College. Tradition says that the library was broken up, some books going to Balliol, some to the part of the Bodleian called Duke Humphrey's Library, and some to the Welsh antiquarian George Owen (1552-1613).

Despite his connections with royalty, which many men would use as a path to a comfortable life, Richard de Bury's passion for the purchase and preservation of books would outweigh his means. When he died, on 14 April 1345, he was very much in debt. The Philobiblon did not see the light as a printed book until 1473 in Cologne, but numerous editions in various languages appeared over the next centuries, including an English edition in Albany, New York in 1861. It is available at the Gutenberg Project, and may be read (in English) here.

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