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The Love of Books

Detail of a painting by Cima da Conegliano (1460–1518)

Detail of a painting by Cima da Conegliano (1460–1518)

If you are a bibliophile, the words of Richard de Bury will be a delight to you. Richard was the Bishop of Durham in the 14th century, and also served as the tutor to the future King Edward III. He was also a collector of books and hoped to create a library at Oxford. In 1344, just a year before his death, he wrote Philobiblon (which in Greek means “The Love of Books”). Divided into twenty chapters, Richard wrote about how he collected books, how they should be taken care of, and the many joys he found in them.

Here are some of our favourite excerpts from Philobiblon:

Chapter 1: That the Treasure of Wisdom is Chiefly Contained in Books

In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.

Finally we must consider what pleasantness of teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully!

Chapter 3: What we are to Think of the Price in the Buying of Books

No dearness of price ought to hinder a man from the buying of books, if he has the money that is demanded for them, unless it be to withstand the malice of the seller or to await a more favourable opportunity of buying. For if it is wisdom only that makes the price of books, which is an infinite treasure to mankind, and if the value of books is unspeakable, as the premises show, how shall the bargain be shown to be dear where an infinite good is being bought?

Chapter 7: The Complaint of Books against Wars

Almighty Author and Lover of peace, scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all plagues injurious to books. For wars being without the control of reason make a wild assault on everything they come across, and, lacking the check of reason they push on without discretion or distinction to destroy the vessels of reason.

Chapter 8: Of the Numerous Opportunities we have had of Collecting a Store of Books

Indeed, if we had loved gold and silver goblets, high-bred horses, or no small sums of money, we might in those days have furnished forth a rich treasury. But in truth we wanted manuscripts not moneyscripts; we loved codices more than florins, and preferred slender pamphlets to pampered palfreys.

Fox reading in a Book of Hours by the Master of Catherine of Cleves

Fox reading in a Book of Hours by the Master of Catherine of Cleves

Besides all the opportunities mentioned above, we secured the acquaintance of stationers and booksellers, not only within our own country, but of those spread over the realms of France, Germany, and Italy, money flying forth in abundance to anticipate their demands; nor were they hindered by any distance or by the fury of the seas, or by the lack of means for their expenses, from sending or bringing to us the books that we required. For they well knew that their expectations of our bounty would not be defrauded, but that ample repayment with usury was to be found with us.

Chapter 12: Why we have Caused Books of Grammar to be so Diligently Prepared

While we were constantly delighting ourselves with the reading of books, which it was our custom to read or have read to us everyday, we noticed plainly how much the defective knowledge even of a single word hinders the understanding, as the meaning of no sentence can be apprehended, if any part of it be not understood. Wherefore we ordered the meanings of foreign words to be noted with particular care, and studied the orthography, prosody, etymology, and syntax in ancient grammarians with unrelaxing carefulness, and took pains to elucidate terms that had grown too obscure by age with suitable explanations, in order to make a smooth path for our students.

This is the whole reason why we took care to replace the antiquated volumes of the grammarians by improved codices, that we might make royal roads, by which our scholars in time to come might attain without stumbling to any science.

medieval mag 36Chapter 15: Of the Advantages of the Love of Books

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of the abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands ; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the whole progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

By the aid of books we remember things that are past, and even prophesy as to the future; and things present, which shift and flow, we perpetuate by committing them to writing.

Chapter 17: Of Showing Due Propriety in the Custody of Books

Whenever defects are noticed in books, they should be promptly repaired, since nothing spreads more quickly than a tear and a rent which is neglected at the time will have to be repaired afterwards with usury.

These excerpts are from The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, edited and translated by Ernest Chester Thomas in 1888. You can read this book online via Archive.org

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