1902 Encyclopedia > Libraries > Libraries - Mediaeval Period

(Part 2)


During the first few centuries after the fall of the Western empire, literary activity at Constantinople had fallen to its lowest ebb. In the West, amidst the general neglect of learning and literature, the collecting of books, though not wholly forgotten, was cared for by few. Sidonius Apollinaris tells us of the libraries of several private collectors in Gaul. Publius Consentius possessed a library at his villa near Narbonne which was due to the labor of three generations. The most notable of these appears to have been the prefect Tonantius Ferreolus, who had formed in his villa of Prusiana, near Nimes, a collection which his friend playfully compares to that of Alexandria. The Goths, who had been introduced to the Scriptures in their own language by Ulfilas in the 4th century, began to pay some attention to Latin literature. Cassiodorus, the favorite minister of Theodoric, was a collector as well as an author, and on giving up the cares of government retired to a monastery which he founde din Calabria, where he employed his monks in the transcription of books.

Henceforward the charge of books as well as of education fell more and more exclusively into the hands of the church. While the old schools of the rhetoricians died out new monasteries arose everywhere. Knowledge was no longer pursued for its own sake, but became subsidiary to religious and tehological teaching. The proscription of the old classical literature, which is symbolized in the fable of the destruction of the Palatine library by Gregory the Great, was only too effectual. The Gregorian tradition of opposition to pagan learning long continued to dominate the literary pursuits of the monastic orders and the labors of the scriptorium.

During the 6th and 7th centuries the learning which had been driven from the Continent took refuge in the British islands, where it was removed from the political disturbances of the mainland. In the Irish monasteries during this period there appear to have been many books, and the Venerable Bede was superior to any scholar of his age. Theodore of Tarsus brought a considerable number of books to Canterbury from Rome in the 7th century, including several Greek authors. The library of York, which was founded by Archbishop Egbert, was almost more famous than that of Canterbury. The verses are well known in which Alcuin describes the extensive library under his charge, and the long list of authors whom the enumerates is superior to that of any other library possessed by either England or France in the 12th century, when it was unhappily burnt. The inroads of the Northmen in the 9th and 10th centuries had been fatal to the monastic libraries on both sides of the channel. It was from York that Alcuin came to Charlemagne to superintend the school attached to his palace; and it was doubtless inspired by Alcuin that Charles issued the memorable document which enjoined that in the bishoprics and monasteries within his realm care should be taken that there shall be not only a regular manner of life, but also the study of letters. When Alcuin finally retired from the court to the abbacy of Tours, there to carry out his own theory of monastic discipline and instruction, he wrote to Charles for leave to send to York for copies of the books of which they had so much need at Tours. While Alcuin thus increased the library at tours, Charlemagne enlarged that at Fulda, which had been founded in 774, and which allthorugh the Middle Ages stood in great respect. Lupus servantus, a pupil of Hrabanus Maurus at Fulda, and afterwards abbot of Ferreires, was a devoted student of the classics and a great collector of books. His correspondence illustrates the difficulties which then attended the study of literature through the paucity and dearness of books, the declining care for learning, and the increasing troubles of the time. Nor were private collections of books altogether wanting during the period in which Charlemagne and his successors labored to restore the lost traditions of liberal education and literature. Pepin le Bref indeed met with scanty response to the request for books which he addressed to the pontiff Paul I. Charlemagne, however, collected a considerable number of choice books for his private use in two places. Although these collections were dispersed at his death, his son Louis formed a library which continued to exist under Charles the Bald. About the same time Everard, count of Friuli, formed a considerable collection which he bequeathed to a monastery. But the greatest private collector of the Middle Ages was doubtless Gerbert, Pope Sylvester II., who showed the utmost zeal and spent large sums in collecting books, not only in Rome and Italy, but from Germany, Belgium, and even from Spain.

The hopes of a revival of secular literature fell with the decline of the schools established by Charles and his successors. The knowledge of letters remained the prerogative of the church, and for the next four or five centuries the collecting and multiplication of books were almost entirely confined to the monasteries. Several of the greater orders made these an express duty; this was especially the case with the Benedictines. It was the first care of St Benedict, we are told, that in each newly founded monstaery there should be a library, "et velut curia quaedam illustrium auctorum." Monte Cassino became the starting point of a long line of institutions which were destined to be the centers of religion and of literature. It must indeed be remembered that literature in the sense of St Benedict meant Biblical and theological works, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and the lives and writings of the fathers. Of the reformed Benedictine orders the Carthusians and the Cistercians were those most devoted to literary pursuits. The abbeys of Fleury, of Melk, and of St Gall were remarkable for the splendor of their libraries. In a later age the labors of the congregation of St Maur form one of the most striking chapters in the history of learning. The Augustinians and the Dominicans rank next to the Benedictines in their care for literature. The libraries of St Genevieve and St Victor, belonging to the former, were amongst the largest of the monastic collections. Although their poverty might seem to put them at a disadvanate as collectors, the mendicant orders cultivated literature with much assiduity, and were closely connected with the intellectual movement to which the universities owed their rise. In England Richard of Bury praises them for their extraordinary diligence in collecting books. Sir Richard Whittington built a large library for the Grey friars in London. And they possessed considerable libraries at Oxford.

It would be impossible to attempt here an account of all the libraries established by the monastic orders. We must be content to enumerate a few of the most eminent.

In Italy Monte Cassino is a striking example of the dangers and vicissitudes to which monastic collections were exposed. Ruined by the Lombards in the 6th century, the monastery was rebuilt and a library established to fall a prey to Saracens and to fire in the 9th. The collection then reformed survived many other chances and changes, and still exists. It affords a conspicuous example of monastic industry in the transcription not only of theological but also of classical works. The library of Bobbio was famous for its palimpsests. The collection, of which a catalogue of the 10th century is given by Muratori, was finally transferred to the Ambrosian library at Milan. Of the library of Pomposia, near Ravenna, Montfaucon has printed a catalogue dating from the 11th century.

Of the monastic libraries of France the principal were those of Fleury, of Cluny, of St Riquier, and of Corbie. At Fleury, Abbot Macharius in 1146 imposed a contribution for library purposes upon the officers of the community and its dependencies, an example which was followed elsewhere. After many vicissitudes, its MSS., numbering 238, were deposited in 1793 in the town library of Orleans. The library of St Riquier in the time of Louis the Pious contained 256 MSS., with over 500 works. Of the collection at Corbie in Picardy we have also catalogues dating from the 12th and from the 17th centuries. Corbie was famous for the industry of its transcribers, and appears to have stood in active literary intercourse with other monasteries. In 1638, 400 of its choicest manuscripts were removed to St Germain-des-Pres. The remainder were removed after 1794, partly to the national library at Paris, partly to the town library of Amiens.

The chief monastic libraries of Germany were at Fulda, Corveyt, Reichenau, and Sponheim. The library at Fulda owed much to Charlemagne and to its abbot Hrabanus Maurus. Under Abbot Sturmius four hundred monks were hired as copyist. In 1561 the collection numbered 774 volumes. The library of Corvey on the Weser, after being despoiled of some of its treasures in the Reformation age, was presented to the univesityu of Marburg in 1811. It then contained 109 volumes, with 400 or 500 titles. The library of Reichenau, of which several catalogues are extant, fell a prey to fire and neglect, and its ruin was consummated by the Thirty Year’s War. The library of Sponheim owes its great renown to John Tritheim, who was abbot at the close of the 15th century. He found it reduced to 10 volumes, and left it with upwards of 2000 at his retirement. The library at St Gall, formed as early as 816 by Gozbert, its second abbot, still exists.

In England the principal collections were those of Canterbury, York, Wearmouth, Whitby, Glastonbury, Croyland, Peterborough, and Durham. Of the library of the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury, originally founded by Augustine and Theodore, and restored by Lanfranc and Anselm, a catalogue has been preserved dating from the 13th or 14th century, and containing 698 volumes, with about 3000 works. Bennet Biscop, the first abbot of Wearmouth, made five journeys to Rome, and on each occasion returned with a store of books for the library. It was destroyed by the Danes about 867. of the library at Whitby there is a catalogue dating from the 12th century. The catalogue of Glastonbury has also been printed. When the library of Croyland perished by fire in 1091 it contained about 700 volumes. The library at Peterborough was also rich; from a catalogue of about the end of the 14th century it has 344 volumes, with nearly 1700 titles. The catalogues of the library at the monastery of Durhma have been printed by the Surtees Society, and form an interesting series.

These catalogues with many others afford abundant evidence of the limited character of the monkish collections, whether we look at the number of their volumes or at the nature of their contents. We must remember that the beliefs and discipline imposed upon the monk hardly allowed of his caring for literature for its own sake; we must also remember that the transcription of manuscripts so industriously pursued in the monasteries was a mechanical employment. The scriptoria were manufactories of books and not centers of learning. Indeed the very pains bestowed upon carefulness and neatness of transcription, and especially upon the illustrating and ornamenting of the more beautiful manuscripts, were little calculated to divert the attention of the monks from the vehicle to the thought which it expressed. The pride taken by so many communities in the richness and splendor of their libraries was often doubtless the pride of the collector and not of the scholar. That in spite of the labors of so many transcribers the costliness and scarcity of books remained so great may have been partly, but cannot have been wholly, due to the scarcity of writing materials. It may be suspected that indolence and carelessness were the rule in most monasteries, and that but few of the monks keenly realized the whole force of the sentiment expressed by one of their number in the 12th century- "Claustrum sine armario quasicastrum sine armamentario." Nevertheless it must be admitted that to the labors of the monkish transcribers we are indebted for the preservation of Latin literature.

The first conquests of the Arabians, as we have already seen, threatened hostility to literature. But, as soon as their conquests were secured, the caliphs became the patrons of learning and science. Greek manuscripts were eagerly sought for and translated into Arabic, and colleges and libraries everywhere arose. Baghdad in the East and Cordova in the West became the seats of a rich development of letters and science during the age when the civilization of Europe was most obscured. Cairo and Tripoli were also distinguished for their libraries. The royal library of the Fatimites in Africa is said to have numbered 100,000 manuscripts, while that collected by the Omayyads of Spain is reported to have contained six times as many. It is said that there were no less than seventy libraries opened in the cities of Andalusia. Whether these figures be exaggerated or not-and they are much below those given by some Arabian writers which are undoubtedly so –it is certain that the libraries of the Arabians and the Moors of Spain offer a very remarkable contrast to those of the Christian nations during the same period.

The literary and scientific activity of the Arabians appears to have been the cause of a revival of letters amongst the Greeks of the Byzantine empire in the 9th century. Under Leo the Philosopher and Constantine Porphyrogenitus and libraries of Constantinople awoke into renewed life. The compilations of such writers as Stobaeus, Photius, and Suidas, as well as the labors of innumerable critics and commentators, bear witness to the activity, if not to the lofty character of the pursuits, of the Byzantine scholars. The labors of transcription were industriously pursued in the libraries and in the monasteries of Mount Athos and the Aegean, and it was from these quarters that the restorers of learning brought into Italy so many Greek manuscripts. In this way many of the treasures of ancient literature had been already conveyed to the West before the fate which overtook the libraries of Constantinople on the fall of the city in 1453.

Meanwhile in the West, with the reviving interest in literature which already marks the 14th century, we find arising outside the monasteries a taste for collecting books. St Louis of France and his successors had formed small collections, none of which survived its possessor. It was reserved for Charles V. to form a considerable library which he intended to be permanent. In 1373 he had amassed 910 volumes, and had a catalogue of them prepared, from which we see that it included a good deal of the new literature. In our country Guy, earl of Warwick, formed a curious collection of French romances, which he bequeathed to Bordesley Abbey on his death is 1315. Richard d’Aungervyle of Bury, the author of the Philobiblon, amassed a noble collection of books, and had special opportunities of doing so as Edward III.’s chancellor and ambassador. He founded Durham College at Oxford, and equipped it with a library a hundred years before Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, made his benefaction of books to the university. The taste for secular literature, and the enthusiasm for the ancient classics, gave a fresh direction to the researches of collectors. A disposition to encourage literature began to show itself amongst the great. This was most notable amongst the Italian princes. Cosimo de’ Medici formed a library at Venice while living there in exile in 1433, and on his return to Florence laid the foundation of the great Medicean library. The honor of establishing the first modern public library in Italy had been already secured by Noccolo Niccoli, who left his library of over 800 volumes for the use of the public on his death in 1436. Frederick, duke of Urbino, collected all the writings in Greek and Latin which he could procure, and we have an interesting account of his collection written by his first librarian, Vespasiano. The ardor for classical studies led to those active researches for the Latin writers who were buried in the monastic libraries which are especially identified with the name of Poggio. For some time before the fall of that capital, the perilous state of the Eastern empire had driven many Greek scholars from Constantinople into western Europe, where they had directed the studies and formed the taste of the zealous students of the Greek language and literature. The enthusiasm of the Italians princes extended itself beyond the Alps. Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, amassed a collection of splendidly executed and magnificently bound manuscripts, which at his death are said to have reached the almost incredible number of 50,000 volumes. The library was not destined long to survive its founder. There is reason to believe that it had been very seriously despoiled even before it perished at the hands of the Turks on the fall of Buda in 1527. A few of its treasures are still preserved in some of the libraries of Europe. While these munificent patrons of learning were thus taking pains to recover and multiply the treasures of ancient literature by the patient labor of transcribers and calligraphers, an art was being elaborated which was destined to revolutionize the whole condition of literature and libraries. With the invention of printing, so happily coinciding with the revival of true learning and sound science, the modern history of libraries may be said to begin.

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