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Famous Libraries

( Originally Published 1893 )



OF the libraries of ancient times very little is certainly known. Statements like that of Strabo, that Aristotle was the first collector of a library, add nothing to our knowledge, until we know more of the exact sense in which the words are used, and of the extent of what is here called a ' library ' ; while the library of clay tablets found at Nineveh, perhaps dating from the seventh century B.C., out of which some 20,000 are now in the British Museum, hardly conies under a description of manuscripts. The one great bibliothecarial fact of antiquity is the Library of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy Soter (about B.C. 300), and the earliest recorded librarian of it was Zenodotus of Ephesus (about B.C. 280). The lowest computation of its size is 100,000 rolls. But of the three or four separate libraries at Alexandria under the Ptolemys, we cannot tell which were burnt in the time of Julius Caesar and which survived till their destruction in or before the fourth century of the Christian era. One thing is certain, that if the Caliph Omar in A.D. 638 burnt any books in Alexandria (with the well-known decision that if the books in it were unorthodox they were pernicious, and if orthodox, they must be superfluous), he did not burn the ancient and famous library, for that had perished long before his time. In Italy, we read of extensive private libraries of Varro, Atticus, and others ; but the only one about which we are on sure ground is the private library found in the eighteenth century at Herculaneum, after being overwhelmed by the Vesuvian eruption of A.D. 79, of which at least 350 rolls have been recovered by excavation, and are, for the most part, preserved at Naples (see p. 109). The earliest public library in Rome is stated to have been built by Caius Asinius Pollio on the Aventine, and the next is the Octavian Library founded by the Emperor Augustus, B.C. 33.

As literature was never a prominent feature in early monastic life, except in Ireland, so the library of a religious house was, till medieval times, a subordinate part of the buildings. As has been already mentioned, it is in the great houses of the Benedictine Order that we find the largest libraries, such as in England at Bury St. Edmund's, Glastonbury, Peterborough, Reading, St. Alban's, and, above all, that of Christ Church in Canterbury, perhaps the earliest library formed in England. Among the other English monasteries of the libraries of which we still possess catalogues or other details, are St. Peter's at York, described in the eighth century by Alcuin, St. Cuthbert's at Durham, and St. Augustine's at Canterbury. At the dissolution of the monasteries many libraries were dispersed, and the basis of the great modem libraries is the volumes thus scattered over England.

In early (classical) times papyrus rolls were kept in horizontal pigeon-holes or in a pipe-like cylindrical box (capsa). Volumes in book form lay flat in the cupboard (armarium), and this custom lasted into mediæval times (see Plate IV). But in general, from Charles the Great's time onwards, the volumes were disposed much as now, that is to say, upright, and in large cases affixed to a wall, often with doors. The larger volumes at least were in many cases chained, so that they could only be used within about six feet of their proper place ; and since the chain was always riveted on the fore-edge of one of the sides of a book, the back of the volume had to be thrust first into the shelf, leaving the front edge of the leaves exposed to view. Many old volumes bear a mark in ink on this front edge ; and when this is the case we may be sure that it was once chained in a library ; and usually a little further investigation will disclose the mark of a rivet on one of the sides. There are still some old libraries in which all or some of the MSS. are chained, as at Hereford Cathedral, Wimborne Minster, and Merton College, Oxford. Regulations were carefully made to pre-vent the mixture of different kinds of books, and their overcrowding or inconvenient position ; while an organized system of lending was in vogue, by which at least once a year, and less formally at shorter intervals, the monks could change or renew the volumes already on loan. Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham in the fourteenth century, when framing rules for the library of a hall at Oxford to which he intended to leave his manuscripts, insisted that only ` duplicates ' should be lent to students outside the hall, and then only after a ` caution ' or pledge had been deposited which exceeded the volume in value, and after a memorandum had been made of the circumstances. But to students of the hall his books were to be lent freely, on condition that they were exhibited yearly to the custodians of his library.

Let us take an example of the arrangement of a monastic library of no special distinction in A.D. 1400,- - that at Titchfield Abbey,— describing it in the words of the register of the monastery itself, only translating the Latin into English. ` The arrangement of the library of the monastery of Tychefeld is this :—There are in the library of Tychefeld four cases (columnae) in which to place books, of which two, the first and second, are on the eastern wall ; on the southern wall is the third, and on the northern wall the fourth. And each of them has eight shelves (gradus), marked with a letter and number affixed on the front of each shelf, that is to say, on the lower board of each of the aforesaid shelves ; certain letters, however, are excepted, namely A, H, K, L, M, O, P, Q, which have no numbers affixed, because all the volumes to which one of those letters belongs are contained in the shelf to which that letter is assigned.' Also all and singular the volumes of the said library are fully marked on the first leaf or outside on the table 2 or on both, with certain numbered letters. And in order that what is in the library may be more quickly found, the marking of the shelves of the said library, the inscriptions in the books, and the references in the register, in all points agree with each other. Anno Domini MCCCC.'

The order in which the books of the monastery of Tychefeld lie in the library of the said monastery.' [1st Case, 1st shelf (A), Theology, 4 Bibles ; 2nd-6th shelves (B), 18 Bibles with commentary ; 7th-8th shelves (B), 7 comm. on Psalms. 2nd Case, 1st shelf (C), 7 comm. on Bible ; 2nd (C), 3 comm. on Bible and Isidorus ; 3rd (C), 6 theological volumes ; 4th 5th (D), 6 vols. of Gregory ; 6th (D), 2 theological vols. ; 7th-8th (D), 4 Augustines. 3rd Case, 1st-2nd shelves (E), 11 Lives of Saints and Sermons ; 3rd-4th (F), 11 vols. of Canon Law ; 5th-7th (G), 21 vols. of comm. on Canon Law ; 8th (H), 7 vols. of Civil Law. 4th Case, 1st shelf (K), 29 vols. of Medicine ; 2nd-3rd (L-M), Arts, 8 and 16 vols. of Grammar ; 4th-5th (N), 20 miscellaneous vols. ; 6th (0), 8 and 5 vols. of Logic and Philosophy ; 7th (P), 13 vols. of English Law ; 8th (Q), i8 French volumes. After these followed 102 liturgical volumes.]

Titchfield Abbey was a Proemonstratensian house, founded in the thirteenth century, and never specially rich or prominent ; yet we find it with a good library of sixty-eight books in theology, thirty-nine in Canon and Civil Law, twenty-nine in Medicine, thirty-seven in Arts, and in all three hundred and twenty-six volumes, many containing several treatises, so that the total number of works was considerably over a thousand.

We will now consider a few of the famous libraries existing in Great Britain and Ireland which contain a large body of MSS., describing their gradual building up, whether by donations or purchase of manuscripts. Mr. Elton has already described (in his volume on Book-Collectors in this series) some of the chief private libraries of manuscripts ; the present chapter will deal rather with the ultimate resting-places of those private collections, in cases where they have fortunately escaped dispersal by sale or through neglect.

Among English-speaking peoples the library of the British Museum stands without a rival, whether we regard the size or the importance of its printed and manuscript treasures. It is the National Library, the central collection of the literature of the British Empire, while it claims also to have the largest collection of the printed literature of every foreign country which exists outside that country. In the extent of its printed books it perhaps exceeds the National Library at Paris, and in the value of its MSS. ranks with the latter library and with the Vatican. It is the foremost library in the world.

Its foundation was comparatively late, but almost at once brought together four private collections of great extent, in 1753-7. First is the Old Royal Library of the Kings of England, which had grown to importance more by small and gradual accretions than by deliberate purchase on a large scale. Even Queen Elizabeth added little to it ; and not till, under James I., the Earl of Arundel's MSS. were added to it, can it be said to have received at any one time an important enlargement. Under White-lock's care it survived the Civil War ; but when Dr. Richard Bentley became keeper in 1694, it was still lodged in a mean room in St. James's Palace. Even when transferred to the British Museum in 1757, the MSS. only numbered 1800, but comprised such volumes as the Alexandrine Codex of the New Testament, and many royal possessions of special interest and value. The second collection was the celebrated Cottonian Library, the result of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's energy. After his death in 1631, his son and grandson, Sir Thomas and Sir John Cotton, augmented it, and in A.D. 1700 it was vested by the latter for public purposes in the hands of trustees. On Saturday, October 23, 1731, when the library was at Ashburnham House in Westminster, a terrible fire broke out, and damaged most seriously over a hundred of the 958 MSS. of the collection, and less seriously injured a hundred more. Since then everything possible has been done to restore the shrivelled and blackened leaves. The fourteen original cases at Ashburnham House were surmounted by busts of the twelve Cæsars, with Cleopatra and Faustina, and the shelf-marks still bear their name—the type of reference being MS. Cotton Caligula D. vi., or the like. Chartularies of English abbeys, English historical deeds, and a long series of English State papers are among the chief features of the library. Third in rank, but by far the most numerous, is the Harleian Collection, comprising nearly 8000 volumes, besides more than 14,000 charters and rolls. It was the result of the efforts of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (d. 1724), and Edward, his son, to amass volumes illustrating English history ; but theology, classics and general literature are almost equally well represented. Parliament purchased it for £10,000, and in 1753 it was transferred to the Museum. Smaller in size, but more really the nucleus of the Museum, are the library and museum of Sir Hans Sloane. The MSS. number 4100, and are chiefly scientific, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ; but the curiosities are the foundation of the Natural History Department, and the provident mind of Sir Hans Sloane had already sketched out a scheme by which his collections, valued by himself at £80,000, should be preserved for public use and entrusted to a body of trustees. After his death in 1752, the Act was passed (26 Geo. H. cap. 22, 1753) which established the British Museum, by purchasing Montagu House in Bloomsbury, Sir Hans Sloane's collections (for £20,000), and the Harleian Library, and for providing that the Cottonian Library should be transferred to the same place. The Old Royal Library was joined to these in 1757.

No large collection of MSS. was added to these four corner-stones of the National Library until 1807, when the Lansdowne collection (of State papers and other material for English history) was purchased, soon followed in 1813 by the legal MSS. of Francis Hargrave, and in 1818 by the classical and other MSS. of Dr. Charles Burney. The library collected by George III., which narrowly escaped a transfer to Russia, but ultimately became the property of the Museum in 1829, contained 440 manuscripts, chiefly bearing on the relations of England to France, and on the art of war.

With the purchase in 1831, from the Royal Society, of the MSS. of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (which had been received by the Society in 1667, and were quite miscellaneous in character), and the bequest of the Hardwicke Papers in 922 volumes (1835), the second group of accessions was complete. Soon after this, immense progress was made in the printed department under Sir Antonio Panizzi, and the whole Museum became still more worthy of the nation. The Syriac collections, brought from the Nitrian desert in 1841-49, were the foundation of the Oriental MSS. In 1883 a precious collection of about 1000 Stowe MSS., forming part of the Ashburnham Library, was acquired ; and in it not only many volumes of English topography, genealogy, and political correspondence, but also Anglo-Saxon charters of great interest. Among the later accessions are the very choice bequests from Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1898) and Mr. A. H. Huth (1911).

2. Bodleian Library

Next in importance among the libraries of the British Empire is the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, was a worthy of Devon, who had been actively employed by Queen Elizabeth as a diplomatist, and had returned tired of court life to the University, where long before he had been Fellow of Merton College. He found the ancient library of the University (which, after growing slowly with many vicissitudes from small beginnings, had suddenly been enriched in 1439-46 by a gift of 264 valuable MSS. from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) utterly destroyed by Edward VI.'s Commissioners, and the room built for its reception (still called ` Duke Humphrey's library') swept clear even of the readers' desks. His determination to refound the library of the University was actively carried out, and on November 8, 1602, the new institution was formally opened with about 2000 volumes, of which 299 were MSS. Two striking advantages were possessed by the Bodleian almost from the first. Sir Thomas Bodley employed his great influence at court and with friends to induce them to give help to his scheme, and accordingly we find not only donations of money and books from personal friends, but (for instance) 240 MSS. contributed by the Deans and Chapters of Exeter and Windsor. Moreover, in 1610 he arranged with the Stationers' Company that they should present his foundation with a copy of every printed book published by a member of the Company ; and from that time to this the right to every book published in the kingdom has been almost continuously enjoyed. Before the Civil War the chief accessions were the Barocci Greek MSS. from the Earl of Pembroke (1629) ; Sir Kenelm Digby's collection (1634) ; and Archbishop Laud's large and valuable library of Oriental, classical, and English volumes (1635-40), in all about 1300 MSS. in more than twenty languages. At this time Oxford was almost the only place where collectors could place their treasures in safety ; and fortunately so little did politics enter into the affairs of the library, that both Fairfax and Cromwell not only spared the building in the Civil War, but gave the MSS. still known by their names, and the former also the Dodsworth Collection. The other chief accessions of the seventeenth century were from Selden (1656) and the two Oriental scholars Pococke and Huntington, followed in 1713 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century no large donation was received, but at last in 1736 a series of large gifts began with Bishop Tanner's MSS., followed by the Clarendon State Papers in 1759, and the Carte Papers (relating to Irish and English history) ; while by Dr. Richard Rawlinson's will in 1755 upwards of 7000 MSS. came in, quite miscellaneous in subject, but including all Hearne's possessions, and teeming with the spoils of the manuscript sales of the previous half-century. No other large collection arrived until we reach the two great donations and the two great purchases of the nineteenth century—the Gough and Douce Libraries, and the Oppenheimer and Canonici Collections. The first (1809) was topographical, the next (1834) contributed nearly all the finest illuminations possessed by the Bodleian. The general collection of the Venetian Jesuit Canonici came in 1817, and the Hebrew MSS. and printed books of Oppenheimer in 1829. Several Oriental collections followed, Bruce's (Arabic and Ethiopic) in 1843, and Ouseley's (Persian) in 1844. By transference from the Ashmolean Museum, which was from the first rather a museum of natural history than a library, the Bodleian received in 186o the valuable Aslimole and Anthony Wood Collections ; the former full of heraldic lore and genealogical matter, the latter of Oxford antiquities. Sir Chandra Shum Shere presented 6330 Sanskrit MSS. in 1910, and in 1913 a large Chinese library was received from Sir E. Backhouse. Throughout its history the Bodleian has derived much more from the good will of benefactors than from any purchasing powers of its own.

3. Cambridge University Library

The University Library at Cambridge is the most ancient of all the more public collections in the kingdom. There are books there which have been continuously on the shelves since the first quarter of the fifteenth century, having been presented in 1424. A great landmark in the history of the library is an inventory of the books (all at that time manuscript) taken in 1473, which exhibits the old arrangement as in a monastic library, with its five compartments devoted to Theology, three to Canon Law, one each to Civil Law, Moral Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, and Medicine, and one shared by Logic and Grammar. In 1715, the library received a very great augmentation in the library of John Moore, Bishop of Ely, purchased and presented by King George I. In more recent times, the valuable library of Lord Acton (about 6o,000 volumes) was presented in 1903 by Lord Morley, and a large Chinese collection by Sir T. F. Wade in 1886. Its greatest treasure is the Codex Bezæ (see p. 83).

The Library of Trinity College, Dublin, had a curious origin, being a thank-offering on the part of the army which won the battle of Kinsale against Irish insurgents and their Spanish allies in 1601. But the foundation of its greatness was largely due to the fact that, after many vicissitudes both before and after its possessor's death in 1656, Archbishop Ussher's library, including nearly 700 valuable MSS., found its resting-place there. It possesses some of the grandest monuments of early Irish art, in the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and similar volumes.

The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (especially the older ones, and particularly Balliol, Merton, Christ Church, and Queen's at Oxford, and Trinity and Corpus Christi at Cambridge (the last-named possessing a splendid collection left to it by Arch-bishop Parker) contain MSS. of value, and most of the cathedrals have small collections ; while the Lambeth Library in London, the John Rylands in Manchester, and in Scotland the Advocates', would deserve special mention in a larger work than the present.

Among private libraries in the United Kingdom, one still overshadows the rest by its size, though much has now been dispersed by auction and private sale-- the Phillipps Collection at Thirlestane House, Cheltenham. It is hardly credible that the number of MSS. was about 35,000. Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middlehill, in Worcestershire, amassed this number by fairly sweeping the London market during the period from 1823 to about 1870. At first he was careful to select important volumes, but in later life he became less fastidious. The only parallel to Sir Thomas Phillipps' raids on the London market is the curious condition attached to Dr. Mason's bequest to Queen's College, Oxford, in 1841: that 30,000 should be spent on MSS. and rare printed books within ten years. The Phillipps MSS. chiefly illustrate English history ; but more than 350 are Greek, while Latin classics and the Fathers are well represented ; and there is an immense body of documents relating to France, Italy, and Spain.

The number of papers, letters, and volumes of public interest and value discovered by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and described in their reports, has surprised persons who believed our public libraries to contain almost all that was of value in England ; and no mention of private libraries can omit the name of the Duke of Devon-shire (owner of the Benedictional of AEthelwold, Bishop of Winchester in 963-984, written by Abbot Godeman, and illuminated with scenes from the life of Christ and figures of saints in such profusion and artistic taste that it is probably the finest MS. existing in private hands), or the treasures brought together for sale by the late Mr. Bernard Quaritch, or the astonishing MSS. owned by Mr. Yates Thompson in London and Mr. Dyson Perrins at Malvern.

The chief foreign libraries can only be summarily enumerated. The National Library at Paris has claims to be considered the finest in the world, if we put together its regal history, its present size, and the value of its contents. It has grown since the fourteenth century out of the collections of the French kings, and owes much to the pride with which not only France, but the ambassadors of France in foreign countries, have regarded it, as well as to the distinguished librarians who have fostered it, from De Thou and Colbert to M. Léopold Delisle. Vast accessions were obtained from the French religious houses suppressed at the Revolution, although it is said that at that time some 25,000 MSS. in provincial libraries were burnt.

Next ranks the Vatican at Rome, not for size, but for the intrinsic importance of its manuscript contents. The jealous care of the Popes from Nicholas V. in the fifteenth century, and their great opportunities for acquiring theological treasures, have been the sources of its security and increase. The Ambrosian Library at Milan, the Laurentian at Florence, with that of St. Mark at Venice, complete the list of important Italian collections. In Austria the great storehouse of MSS. is the Imperial Library at Vienna ; in the German Empire, the Libraries of Berlin and Munich ; in Holland, that of the Hague ; in Belgium, the Royal Library of Brussels ; in Russia, the Imperial Library of St. Petersburg ; and in Spain, the Royal Library of Madrid and the Escurial.

Even a cursory survey of these great libraries and collections of MSS. suggests reflexions on principles of ownership. How does a library acquire absolute right over volumes which have once been in other repositories ? When a man like Libri, the great French book thief of the last century (who visited officially certain provincial libraries and stole MSS. therefrom, sometimes taking the trouble to substitute sham volumes bound like the originals), sells his books to public libraries, have they full owner-ship at once in point of law ? Sir Robert Cotton once lent a celebrated eighth century Psalter out of his library (eventually the Cottonian Collection in the British Museum), and passing from hand to hand it was given at last by a M. de Ridder in 1718 to the Utrecht Library, and is now known as the Utrecht Psalter. Is there any possibility of its restitution ? Henry Bradshaw recognized a valuable printed Sarum Breviary of 1483 in the National Library at Paris as stolen from the Cambridge University Library since 1715, and purchased in 1825 by the authorities of the Paris Library ; what rights exist to reclaim the book ?

It would appear that the right to a book rests on more than one consideration, certainly not simply on the fact of justifiable acquisition, though after a considerable time that fact begins to have weight. Clearly when a lawful authority has authorized the dispersal of a collection, full ownership can be at once acquired. But failing this, the questions naturally asked are, Did the MS. come to its owners from a pure source, that is to say, from a seller of known good character, so that there is no suspicion of his being a conscious receiver of stolen goods ? and, Does the MS. now rest in a proper and accessible repository, so that no substantial injustice is done to the republic of letters ? If these two questions are affirmatively answered, probably no court of law would compel restitution. It has, however, been decided that in the case of parish registers, no bookseller can acquire or impart any rights of ownership, and that when found they are liable to be claimed by the authorities of the place to which they belong. But even in this case the lapse of time would have weight, if it exceeded say half a century. The facilities given by the British Government for the restoration of Libri volumes to France in 1883 form an interesting chapter in the history of inter-national courtesy, but hardly touch the legal aspect of the question. The possibilities of photographic reproduction have much modified both the tension of feeling naturally caused in certain cases and the necessity of restitution.

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