Here is the second and last part of an article about the care of books in the Middle Ages that I have recently begun writing. Part one can be found here. If you’d rather not read the first part, then you can still enjoy, I hope, the rest of this article. We are following Richard de Bury, a 14th-century bibliophile through his denunciation of those who mishandle and misuse books. What follows is from chapter 17 of his work Philobiblon, On the Love of Books.
Again, there is a class of thieves shamefully mutilating books, who cut away the margins from the sides to use as material for letters, leaving only the text, or employ the leaves from the ends, inserted for the protection of the book, for various abuses– a kind of sacrilege which should be prohibited by the threat of anathema.
E.C. Thomas’s translation which I followed up to here has ‘various uses and abuses’ but doesn’t do justice to the Latin original, which simply says ‘ad varios abusus’ (for various abuses), so there is no question of legitimate uses of such mutilating practices. I agree.With the advent of print, many manuscript leaves ended up as spine fortifiers and pastedowns for early printed books, such as this one: The British Library has a fascinating piece about manuscript fragments here. For more imaginative uses of these fragments, see Erik Kwakkel’s fantasia here.
Richard may not have been able to secure an excommunication (anathema) for book thieves, but he certainly could pronounce a curse on anyone who presumed to abstract a book from the library. Though we know book curses were quite common in this period, it is not clear how thief-repellant they were. To judge by their prevalence, I’d personally say – not much.
For example, the book curse in the image below has been ‘affixed’ to a 12th-century German Bible. It says: ‘If anyone take away this book of [the Premonstratensian abbey of] St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen. Not much has been left out.
Again, it is part of the decency of scholars that whenever they return from meals to their study, washing should invariably precede reading, and that no grease-stained finger should unfasten the clasps, or turn the leaves of a book.
Nor let a crying child admire the pictures in the capital letters, lest he soil the parchment with wet fingers; for a child instantly touches whatever he sees.
There is evidence that at York Minster c.1375–1400 boys, while learning the psalms, misused the choir Psalters and made them dirty.
Moreover, the laity, who look at a book turned upside down just as if it were open in the right way, are utterly unworthy of any communion with books. Let the clerk take care also that the smutty scullion reeking from his stewpots does not touch the lily leaves of books, all unwashed, but he who walketh without blemish shall minister to the precious volumes. And, again, the cleanliness of decent hands would be of great benefit to books as well as scholars, if it were not that the itch and pimples are characteristic of the clergy.
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.
Moses, the gentlest of men, teaches us to make bookcases most neatly, wherein they may be protected from any injury: Take, he says, this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. O fitting place and appropriate for a library, which was made of imperishable shittim-wood, and was all covered within and without with gold!
But the Saviour also has warned us by His example against all unbecoming carelessness in the handling of books, as we read in S. Luke. For when He had read the scriptural prophecy of Himself in the book that was delivered to Him, He did not give it again to the minister, until He had closed it with his own most sacred hands. By which students are most clearly taught that in the care of books the merest trifles ought not to be neglected.