Miskatonic University Press

Review of The History of the Library in Western Civilization: From Cassiodorus to Furnival: Classical and Christian Letters, Schools and Libraries in the Monasteries and Universities, Western Book Centres

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(I had a book review published in the fall 2011 issue of Papers of the Bibliographc Society of Canada (vol. 49, no. 2) (table of contents). Here is my original text, which was slightly edited.)

Konstantinos Sp. Staikos, The History of the Library in Western Civilization: From Cassiodorus to Furnival: Classical and Christian Letters, Schools and Libraries in the Monasteries and Universities, Western Book Centres. Trans. Timothy Cullen and Doolie Sloman. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; Houten, NL: HES & De Graaf, 2010. 500 pp.; US $75.00 ISBN 9781584561811

This is the fourth volume in a series of six. The first three were reviewed in these pages and comments there apply equally well here, and will also, I expect, to the fifth, due in 2012, subtitled "The Renaissance: From Petrarch to Michelangelo." (The sixth will be a bibliography and index.) Volume one, "From Minos to Cleopatra," was reviewed by Merrill Distad in the Papers/Cahiers 44 [Spring 2006]: 134-136; volume two, "From Cicero to Hadrian," by Tana J. Allen in 45 [Fall 2007]: 215-217; and volume three, "From Constantine the Great to Cardinal Bessarion," by Peter F. McNally in 46 [Spring 2008]: 116-119.

The word for this book is "lavish." It is "a lavish production with excellent images and easy-on-the-eyes typeface" (Allen) and "lavishly illustrated" (McNally) with over 170 "black-and-white and colour illustrations contained in a lavishly produced format" (Distad).

The first chapter begins with Rome and Italy after Constantine had moved the capital and in a few pages gives an overview of the rest of the book: the growth of Christian writing and scholarship, scriptoria, the crucial role of monks and monasteries, the Carolingian Renaissance, and the rise of universities. The preservation of classical literature through medieval times is where libraries, such as they were, played a key role, and four important Christian scholars involved in this were Boethius, Cassiodorus, Isadore of Seville, and the Venerable Bede. Tertullian (b. 150) begins a discussion of early Christian writers in Latin.

Chapter 2 covers monastic libraries and changes in book production and distribution. St. Jerome's work process illustrates the practices of the times: he dictated to a notarius and the text was given to a trained and educated scribe who would make an examplar that would be used by copyists in a scriptorium as the basis for more copies. St. Augustine's personal library is examined (one of many such in the book), and there is discussion of the Bible—so important that the scribe's work of copying was an apostolic task—and of manuscripts that survived the start of the Early Middle Ages. The chapter ends with the Vivarium, a monastery founded in 538 by Cassiodorus, who "foresaw that with the collapse of political institutions monasteries would play an important part in preserving the Graeco-Roman tradition."

Chapter 3, "Roman and Early Medieval Britain," oddly covers nothing about Roman Britain. Monasteries in Britain and Ireland were important in keeping classical knowledge alive, and libraries there became the best in Europe. Some of the best evidence comes through Bede at Jarrow where "there was no comparable collection in continental or insular Europe."

Chapter 4 is about the Carolingian Renaissance. Englishman Alcuin, who met Charlemagne on a trip to Italy and later joined his court in Aachen, revived the teaching of the seven liberal arts and played a crucial role in saving manuscripts and building libraries. Charlemagne himself built a large library of his own. The chapter also looks at the major monastic libraries of the period, such as St. Martin's and Corbie Abbey in France and St. Gallen in Switzerland.

As universities began to appear from the twelfth century, and education moved out of the control of monasteries and eventually away from the Church, so too did books and libraries. An early textbook system arose: peciae were chapters of books used as the basis of study; they were written by teachers, then copied, sold, rented, and passed on from student to student. The library of the Sorbonne is discussed in some detail: in 1272 it received a donation of 300 books that doubled its size. In 1286 the books were split into those that circulated and those that were chained. By the mid-1300s the library had 1,720 books, over 300 of them chained: it was the largest university library extant.

Chapter 7 closes the middle ages by looking at a number of individual libraries, beginning with Richard de Bury, an English bishop and diplomat whose Philobiblion is "an essay recording the paths and methods he pursued for the composition of his library ... nothing was to stand in the way of his enriching his library, not even the financial factor." The libraries of Charles V of France, Simon de Plumetot, and Hereford Cathedral are discussed in detail, as are the papal libraries in Avignon and Rome. (The chapter ends with an unrelated but charming and curious section that stands outside the rest of the book, a paean to “the book guardian” and “the lord of the library” from classical times to the Renaissance that will warm the heart of any librarian.)

The final chapter is about architecture, and Staikos, an architect, clearly enjoys it. It is well illustrated with drawings of cupboards and bookcases, plans, diagrams and photographs.

How well does the book cover its subject? McNally's evaluation holds: "To the question—for whom will this book be of value?—there is no easy answer. Scholars will appreciate the large amounts of literary evidence from many languages. Unease will, however, be felt at the loose interpretive structure. General readers will be fascinated by the wealth of illustrations but overwhelmed by the detail and lack of a compelling narrative.... [T]he overall constructions lacks a firm design.... Serious library historians will wrestle with the remaining chapters, alternately thankful for and frustrated by the lush and unruly detail."

There are a number of typographical errors (e.g. "expanses pf water" on p. 109, "objects of virtu" on p. 144), but worse are sentences that border on the incomprehensible, such as one beginning "While remembering and to remind of persons who undertook and performed the duties of library superintendents at this point" (p. 363). In chapter eight, footnote 49 reads, "Regarding the abbey of Cluny, see pp. 000-000." In the index, readers will be confused that Richard de Bury and Richard de Furnival are under R, not D, or B and F, but Peter Abelard is listed as "Abelard Peter."

As Distad said, "Staikos's earlier book, The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance (3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600), appeared in 2000 in a larger but equally sumptuous volume.... A comparison of the two elicits a feeling of déjà vu that extends beyond the format to nearly all of the illustrations, as well as large chunks of text, which, though, slightly rearranged and with minimal rephrasing, are virtually the same in both works." The curious reader is advised to start with it and Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature by L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson (3rd ed., 2001).

William Denton (York University, Toronto)