The Love of Books (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Since its appearance in the middle of the fourteenth century, The Love of Books: The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury has been a beloved guide to a life with books. Written by a bishop and royal counselor who amassed a vast personal library, the book is at once an ode to the joys of book collecting and a solemn benediction on the spiritual value of learning. Books have undergone remarkable changes since the illuminated manuscripts Richard de Bury collected and read with loving care, but the medieval bishop?s ...
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The Love of Books (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Since its appearance in the middle of the fourteenth century, The Love of Books: The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury has been a beloved guide to a life with books. Written by a bishop and royal counselor who amassed a vast personal library, the book is at once an ode to the joys of book collecting and a solemn benediction on the spiritual value of learning. Books have undergone remarkable changes since the illuminated manuscripts Richard de Bury collected and read with loving care, but the medieval bishop’s passion and commitment to the world of letters remains a model for bibliophiles to this day.

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Meet the Author

Richard de Bury was born in 1287. He took his name from his birthplace of Bury St. Edmunds, the seat of a famous abbey containing one of the greatest libraries of the High Middle Ages. He completed his education at Oxford. Although his mature years were spent in administrative and courtly duties, his writing makes clear his wish to be thought of as a scholar, and there is evidence that he took a kind of sabbatical from official life to return to his studies.

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Introduction

Since its appearance in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Philobiblon (Love of Books) has been a beloved guide to a life with books. Written by Richard de Bury, a bishop and royal counselor who amassed a vast personal library, the book is at once an ode to the joys of book collecting and a solemn benediction on the spiritual value of learning. Although learning flourished both in England and on the Continent, Bury wrote this book to forestall the disappearance of books and to encourage a renewed commitment to scholarship. Books have undergone remarkable changes since the illuminated manuscripts Richard de Bury collected and read with loving care, but the medieval bishop's passion and commitment to the world of letters remains a model for bibliophiles to this day.

Bury lived in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a time

of turmoil and transformation in medieval Europe. Prompted by strife in Rome and with the promise of the protection of French monarchs, the court of the pope moved to the southern French town of Avignon in 1309. The kings of England meanwhile were determined to regain the continental of their French ancestors. Edward III, whom Bury served as tutor, counselor, and ambassador, considered himself the legitimate heir to the French throne after the death of Charles IV in 1328. In pursuit of his ambitions, he kindled a series of adventures and sieges in France that later would be called the Hundred Years' War.

Social life, too, saw its share of turmoil; commerce grew and the trades gained economic influence, attracting people to towns and cities, which began to contest the political power of the landed nobility. And yetdespite many wars and social conflicts, it was also an age of learning, encompassing the lifetimes of Dante, Petrarch, and François Villon with the artistic and intellectual explosion of the Renaissance just over the horizon. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, universities at Paris and Bologna and in England at Oxford and Cambridge challenged the primacy of the Church over the life of the mind. Intellectual life increasingly focused upon the power of rational thought and debate to settle questions. Such debates were conducted according to the rules of rhetoric, or the art of oratory and argument. Although in modern times the word "rhetoric" has become a term for the false and propagandistic, in the Middle Ages its meaning was different, and decidedly positive. Since ancient times, rhetoricians had defined specific techniques for praise and condemnation, apology and condemnation, persuasion and agreement, and their elaborations on the art of communication were the basis of learning and literature for medieval Europeans. The Philobiblon exemplifies this efflorescence of medieval rhetoric in its systematic examination of the life of books and learning from every possible angle.

Richard de Bury was born in 1287. He took his name from his birthplace of Bury St. Edmunds, the seat of a famous abbey containing one of the greatest libraries of the High Middle Ages. After the death of his father, Richard d'Aungerville, Bury was educated by his uncle John in the nearby town of Willoughby, afterwards going to Oxford to complete his education. He resided at Oxford in the time of the theologian John Duns Scotus and philosopher William of Ockham, whose work emphasized the importance of reason in mankind's comprehension of both the world and of God. At the same time in Oxford, the study of languages underwent a rebirth, with support given for students not only of Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. The cultural climate at Oxford may have favored literature as well, for in the Philobiblon Bury recommends the study of secular classics in addition to the Bible and the works of the Church fathers. With its heady mix of faith in natural reason, fascination with language, and attention to literary style, Oxford seems to have exerted considerable influence on the young Richard de Bury. Although his mature years were spent in administrative and courtly duties, his writing makes clear his wish to be thought of as a scholar, and there is evidence that he took a kind of sabbatical from official life to return to his studies. There is also indication that he had a lasting fondness for the university town: in Philobiblon, Bury wrote of his hope—which would go unrealized—to found a library and perhaps even a college at Oxford.

Although Richard de Bury's life is well documented by medieval standards, direct records are few. In addition to the Philobiblon, he compiled his Liber Epistolaris, a volume of official letters written under his name. These letters trace the duties he assumed after his ward and student ascended to the English throne as Edward III. Bury's titles reflect the intimate nature of royal government in the Middle Ages: in short order he was Cofferer, Keeper of the Wardrobe, and Keeper of the Privy Seal—these were not names assigned to footmen and servants, but appointments of the highest power, close to the king and with direct influence over government policy. Bury traveled frequently to the papal court in Avignon, and seems to have become influential there; his ties to the papacy were useful to his king, who struggled with French nobles for Church support in his claims to rule in France. In recognition of Bury's service, the king followed common royal practice in making him a bishop and naming him to an ever-richer succession of Episcopal sees, culminating in his being awarded the Bishopric of Durham, one of England's richest. A medieval bishop was in a position much like that of a secular lord; he ruled over a swath of lands owned by the Church, and was the de facto receiver of all the income of those landed generated by agriculture, rents, and taxes. Bury's intimacy with the King made him influential, and the Durham bishopric made him wealthy. The Philobiblon makes clear, he used much of his wealth and influence in buying books. However, perhaps his taste in books was too lavish. Books were expensive treasures in the Middle Ages and Bury died in debt. Unfortunately, his library seems to have been broken up and sold upon his death.

Bury was at the end of his life when he wrote the Philobiblon at the close of the Middle Ages. His book, therefore, is both a mélange of the medieval and the modern and the work of an elder author looking back. In it, Bury echoes the complaint of Petrarch and other humanists who claimed that the monasteries, which had served as safe havens for books throughout the troubled centuries since the fall of Rome, were poor custodians of books, and that the all-but-illiterate monks had allowed precious manuscripts to fall into decay, to become nests for mice and worms. On the other hand, Bury's writing evinces a masterful command of medieval prose, a style called the cursus, which was marked by formulaic, heavily rhythmical sentence endings—a style which Petrarch, through his own hunting for old manuscripts, would come to decry in favor of a more fluid style based on the writings of Cicero and other ancient Roman authors. In his zeal for collecting books, Bury was among the first; in his prose style, he was among the last.

As Bury employs the old prose style with sufficient force, he arranges the flowers of medieval rhetoric handsomely. Much of his book is structured as a kind of affidavit in the voice of books themselves, crying out against those who would enslave, destroy, or misuse them. The books lash out against the clergy; they bemoan their fate in wartime, eulogizing all the wisdom contained in books that have been destroyed in sieges and battles. Bury extols the work not only of ancient authors but of moderns as well; commends the study of poetry as well as works of wisdom; lauds liberal learning, which looks outward to nature, over books of the law, which are overly concerned with one another. He recommends the collecting and care of books to princes and prelates, judges and doctors, all those on whose wisdom the welfare of others depends. Books are friends and ambassadors, guides and pathfinders, teachers and counselors. They abolish time and distance—powers easily purchased in our own time, which were dearer by far in the late Middle Ages.

While the Philobiblon ultimately is medieval in its concerns and its means of expression, it became popular after the emergence of the printing press and the rise of modern thought. It was among the earliest secular texts to be printed after the invention of moveable type in the middle of the fifteenth century. It was printed in Cologne, Speyer, and Paris before it appeared in an English edition, evidence that the book circulated widely throughout Europe in manuscript form. As the printing press grew more ubiquitous in early modern culture, books became commodities—mass-produced, market-driven, cheap and replaceable things that could be bought and sold in the public market as well as the halls of universities and monasteries.

Compared to printed texts, the manuscript books of the Middle Ages were rare, expensive, and difficult to use. And yet books are the most numerous of artifacts that survive from the Middle Ages—a testament not only to their enduring importance, but to the durability of the medium as well. Bury wrote more than a century before Johann Gutenberg's invention of moveable type made printing possible, and the books of Bury's time differed dramatically from those to come. No matter how common the text it contained, a book in the Middle Ages was a unique work of art—its words written letter by letter by a highly trained scribe, its pages crafted from the skins of calves and decorated with precious metals and pigments imported at great expense from far-off lands. Some books were as big as dining tables, while others could fit in the palm of the hand; all were highly prized and expensive, unlike the cheap paperbacks of today. And yet they were books—instantly recognizable, instantly useable to any reader of today. It is this continuity—this intimacy across time—that Bury held to be one of the chief merits of the book, and it is what makes the Philobiblon not only relevant, but familiar to readers and book lovers today.

Matthew Battles is coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin. He is the author of Library: an Unquiet History and Widener: Biography of a Library. "

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