The Most Learned Man in Europe

Tom Shippey

  • The Anglo-Saxon Library by Michael Lapidge
    Oxford, 407 pp, £65.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 19 926722 7

The Anglo-Saxons had no libraries in the sense that we understand the word: rooms, or better still buildings, dedicated to the storage of books. St Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a Latin riddle with the title arca libraria, but what that means is, clearly, ‘book-box’. Very few Anglo-Saxons had access to enough books to warrant even a bookshelf. As Michael Lapidge tells us, they kept their ‘libraries’ in boxes, and when an Anglo-Saxon scholar ‘wished to consult a book, he got down on his hands and knees and rummaged round in the chest until he came upon the book he required’. Neither the boxes nor their contents have survived, destroyed by the traditional enemies of learning: time, fire, Vikings, but perhaps more than anything reformers and reforming librarians. Lapidge’s book might have been subtitled, ‘An Enquiry into Works Available to Anglo-Saxon Authors Writing in Latin, Excluding Those Purely Liturgical’. Since most of those texts have vanished, Lapidge’s book is for the most part detective work, a kind of forensic exercise in what he calls ‘palaeobibliothecography’. Its learning is immense, its results – well, not for the general reader.

Lapidge begins with what is probably the most famous, and certainly the most grandiose medieval library in modern memory: the entirely fictional one of the monastery of San Michele in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Since the layout of the library is so important to the plot of the novel, it has been possible for fans to count the number of rooms, calculate the number of shelves, and estimate the number of volumes the library contained – it comes to about 87,000. That number would be dwarfed even by a modest modern university library, but was there ever a real medieval, or classical, library which was anything like San Michele? The most likely contender is the great library at Alexandria, the Museion or ‘temple of the Muses’ established by Ptolemy I Soter around 300 BC, and expanded by his son. This had a director, a catalogue and a very large budget, together with the beginnings of a compulsory copyright act: any ship docking in Alexandria had its books impounded for copying. Almost fifteen hundred years later a Byzantine scholar noted that the library had 490,000 papyrus rolls, though Aulus Gellius says 700,000. This makes San Michele look small, but as Lapidge notes, a wound scroll did not hold as much as a codex, or book: he thinks 80,000 volumes is about right, and certainly the premodern record. It has been thought that the Museion was just a series of shelves running the length of a covered walk, but Lapidge feels sure that the kind of scholarly collation of Homer which was carried out there must have required studies, or carrels, or at any rate desks and chairs.

Not only has the library not survived, no one knows what happened to it. All we can say for sure is that it was destroyed sometime in antiquity, but no one was interested enough to record the fact. We know a little more about Roman libraries. In 238 AD the poet Serenus Sammonicus bequeathed to the Emperor Gordian a library of 62,000 rolls. A century and a quarter earlier the Emperor Trajan built the Bibliotheca Ulpia as part of his monumental forum, and it has been reconstructed in modern times. Its two rooms, one for Greek and one for Latin, faced each other across Trajan’s Column; each room had 36 floor-to-ceiling armaria or bookshelves, and if every one was filled the library might have had some twenty thousand rolls, equivalent to about five thousand volumes. It is said that there were 28 public libraries in imperial Rome, as well as many private ones, but none to compare with Trajan’s. That such libraries existed is an important factor in the survival of Latin literature: from where else would the monks of northern monasteries – often rapacious book-collectors, like American millionaires of the 19th century – have bought their manuscripts?

After the imperial era came the Christian one, and so far as books were concerned it was one of marked decline. We tend to think of libraries and librarians as conduits, but they have also acted as filters, and not only in ancient times: many a modern librarian is dedicated to the destruction of paper, to ‘digitisation’, and the clearing-out of stuff which is obviously out-of-date or unnecessary, as most of classical literature was to reforming Christian abbots. In the sixth century Cassiodorus established a substantial private library called the Vivarium (after the fishponds on his estate), but found room for only a single bookshelf of Greek texts. There were some literary works, but most of the library consisted of grammar and patristics: perhaps seven manuscripts survive of what must have been several thousand, and they comprise the earliest substantial connection between the ancient world of books and the medieval or the modern one. There are a number of others. The monastery of Bobbio (founded 613 AD) had a good collection of late classical manuscripts, perhaps taken from a public library in some Italian town. The Bobbio librarians, though, were notorious for ‘palimpsesting’, washing down ancient manuscripts to use the expensive vellum for some more immediate purpose: they destroyed more than they saved.

Just the same, some public and private libraries in Italy seem to have survived the turmoil of imperial breakdown, Gothic invasion and Byzantine reconquest, at least long enough to last until rich and eager Anglo-Saxon aristocrats like Benedict Biscop came to Rome, hunting for materials to build up their own collections back home in Whitby or Ripon or Jarrow. Nothing is known about books taken to England by the first wave of missionaries under St Augustine, sent out by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 590s, but the second or follow-up mission did take books with them. There is a small surviving corpus of manuscripts in the script associated with Gregory’s monastery of St Andrew, and several of these were in England in Anglo-Saxon times; they may be volumes imported by the second missionary wave. Later on, Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury from 668 AD, and his colleague Hadrian, a refugee from the Arab invasions of North Africa, brought books with them possibly from the Lateran Palace library or Theodore’s monastery of St Anastasius, or in Hadrian’s case maybe from the library of Eugippius of Naples at the castrum lucullanum: one of Theodore’s books perhaps survives in the Bodleian. But with the Christianisation of England the collectors got going: Benedict Biscop went to Rome six times and bought an innumerabilis copia of books, Bede says admiringly. Hundreds if not thousands of books came back across the Channel, of which (says David Dumville) maybe eleven can be identified. One of the books imported was an enormous Old Latin Bible from Cassiodorus’s Vivarium. It has not survived, but served as a format-model for the great Codex Amiatinus written at the twin foundations of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in the early eighth century. It is inspirational to note the speed, ambition and confidence with which an illiterate society took up a foreign belief, language and technology, and made themselves masters of all three within two long lifetimes, so that the Venerable Bede ended his life in 735 AD, in his far north-eastern monastery of St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth, the most learned man in Europe.

On the other hand, it is distressing to note how little survives of all these collections, and it’s not because the material was inherently fragile – old-fashioned ink on vellum has a far longer life span than many modern media will have. Lapidge’s rehearsal of the English libraries known to have been most prominent makes sad reading. Canterbury had perhaps as many as a hundred books: they have ‘vanished completely’. The largest library in Anglo-Saxon England, at Jarrow, has disappeared ‘more or less completely’, in that there may be two manuscripts left (by the poet Paulinus of Nola), together with a fragment of Gregory now at Yale, mere ‘pathetic remnants’. The very small library at Nursling in Hampshire did a good deal better – half a dozen manuscripts survive – but that was because it was the alma mater of St Boniface (his English name was Wynfrith), apostle of Germany: the monastery at Nursling was destroyed by the Vikings but his German disciples kept his books. The cathedral school at York produced Alcuin, advisor to Charlemagne and reformer of the text of the Bible, but his fame did not protect its library: a few identifications are conjectured, like the copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History now in St Petersburg, but the rest have gone. Lapidge considers a few more known cases, all in the North, but it is always the same story: ‘Not a single manuscript’ from Hexham; ‘No book from Ripon’, where Eddius Stephanus wrote the Life of St Wilfrid; nothing from Lindisfarne except – a big exception, but liturgical and so excluded from consideration here – the Lindisfarne Gospels; ‘No surviving manuscript’ from Whitby, where an anonymous monk wrote the first life of Gregory the Great; nothing from Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire.

Was all this the fault of the Vikings, as King Alfred seems to say in his preface to ‘Pastoral Care’? He recalls seeing ‘how the churches throughout England, before everything was ransacked and burned, stood filled with treasures and books’. Alfred adds, however, that even then the books were no use, because the clergy were too idle and ignorant to read them; and though this argument is the basis for his astonishingly ambitious (and compulsory) educational programme, and though all that is written about him makes him out to be a serious bibliophile himself, he seems genuinely to have known very little about learning of any kind. The Greeks and Romans translated the Law out of Hebrew, he says, ‘and also all other books’. The number of books ‘most needful for all men to know’, the Bible apart, is six: two by Gregory, one each from Bede, Orosius, Boethius and Augustine (of Hippo), to which might be added the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself and the Old English Martyrology, a very small haul compared with the perhaps 250 titles of works used by Bede two centuries earlier. Matters were to improve in the hundred years after Alfred, from which most of our surviving English manuscripts come, with scores – almost all, of course, in Latin – from the great cathedrals of Durham, Exeter, Worcester, Salisbury, Winchester and Canterbury. But the survival ratio from monastic establishments remains low. The Benedictine houses of Ramsey or Peterborough could once support major scholars, but we know little or nothing about their holdings, dispersed by Protestant reformers and without jealous bishops and cathedral clergy to protect them. Can such vanished libraries be reconstructed, as Eco’s fictional Adso tries to do after the disastrous fire at San Michele? This is the task Lapidge has set himself.

There are three classes of evidence: inventories, manuscripts and citations. Of the inventories, 13 survive, none of them containing more than 65 entries. This is far fewer than comparable Continental entries – Bobbio, for instance, had 666 books listed in Alfred’s time – which is why most places needed only book-boxes. Nevertheless, and in spite of all the material difficulties, quite a lot of classical learning was preserved in Anglo-Saxon England, almost certainly because it had become part of the standard curriculum. The Anglo-Saxons were big on grammarians – naturally enough, since they all had to learn an alien language from scratch – but there are also early English copies of Virgil, Horace, Persius, Juvenal, Statius and later poets, and of Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Vegetius, Macrobius, Boethius and other prose writers. No trace, however, of Caesar, Livy, Suetonius, Tacitus and other later classroom standards, still less lascivious lyricists and romancers like Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Lucan. Even of the approved classical authors, nothing seems to have been sent overseas with the Anglo-Saxon missions to the scriptoria founded in Germany at Fulda, Mainz, Wurzburg and elsewhere, as part of the Anglo-Saxon attempt to convert their often still obdurately pagan relatives in Frisia and Saxony: ‘not a single manuscript’ of such a kind survives, ‘not a single fragment’. What went across were working libraries, mainly patristic texts concerned with the proper interpretation of the Bible. But things didn’t stay like that. The Benedictine monastery of Fulda, in what is now Hesse, in Germany, was founded by St Boniface in 744, and eventually became known as a prime source for classical texts including the Argonautica, the Bellum Troianum, Tacitus’s Annales and his indispensable ‘On Britain and Germany’, along with many others. But where did the Fulda monks get the books from? Not from their English mother-houses. Perhaps the private libraries of some late Roman aristocrats were still extant in Rome and in Ravenna, and abbots like Hrabanus Maurus quietly bought them up, pursuing a more eclectic policy than Benedict Biscop; in which case later generations owe them a considerable debt.

Citations are taken as evidence of possession in that if someone quotes a text, he presumably had it – though not necessarily, because of the widespread use of excerpta and florilegia. This is the area to which scholars are presently paying most attention. There are two major ongoing projects: the ‘Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture’ in America and the ‘Fontes Anglo-Saxonici’ in Britain. Lapidge is gently evasive about both these expensive and laborious exercises, remarking that SASLC is still, after fifteen years, on the letter ‘A’, while ‘Fontes’ has concentrated on ‘sourcing’ Old English homilies, which one could be forgiven for regarding – Lapidge does not say this – as mostly second-rate with regard to theology and scholarship (though always interesting linguistically). Falling back on his own resources, he does come up with some strange recognitions. Aldhelm of Malmesbury quotes two lines of a poem by Lucan on Orpheus which has otherwise not survived, and which must have been vanishingly rare. The fact that the unknown author of the Liber monstrorum knew it too indicates strongly that this work, with its well-known corroboration of Beowulf, also came from Malmesbury. Aldhelm also ‘had access to other classical texts which have not otherwise survived’. But did he have the books themselves, or just quotations in some epitome? A Winchester poet uses a phrase from the early epic poem on Rome by Quintus Ennius, the Annales, almost all of which has been lost, but as Lapidge says, ‘One would be staggered to think that there was a copy … at Winchester in the late tenth century.’ The line was quoted by a grammarian, and schoolroom uses like this account for some, at least, of the apparent learning of Anglo-Saxons, some of whom were quite ready to show it off.

So did ‘the Anglo-Saxon library’, in the end, amount to much? It generated a number of impressive scholars, Bede pre-eminent among them, who often had to work under seriously adverse conditions. It powered the eighth-century missions to Northern Europe, the Netherlands and Germany, the effects of which are incalculable. It had very little to do with ‘polite literature’, remaining severely practical and educational, concerned with the needs of the Church. On the other hand it had some very strange, indeed unique spin-offs. Lapidge has nothing to say about it here, but the habit and the tools of literacy did facilitate the creation and/or preservation of what we know of Anglo-Saxon poetry; and though we know regrettably little about it, it still amounts to the largest corpus of post-classical and pre-medieval vernacular poetry in existence anywhere in Europe – far larger than anything recorded from France, Germany, Spain, or even Italy. There is in the US at present an ethnically aggressive sub-genre of books on the theme of how the Irish saved civilisation, or the Scots invented the modern world, or the Greeks stole all their wisdom from Africa etc. Lapidge’s book is light-years removed from these in learning, in intention, and indeed in ethnic feeling – Lapidge is a Canadian of, one would imagine, French extraction – but his work, designed as it is for future scholars, does permit a certain dour recognition of the immense and productive labours of the Anglo-Saxon monks, reading and writing no doubt with chilblains, in poor light, with the constant interruptions of the Benedictine day.