Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Library Crawl

Tenth-century glossed psalter in the British Library

In ten days’ time we leave for a long-scheduled European trip full of both promise and challenge.  The challenge part has to do with the infirmities of the aging, which have inexplicably become more noticeable of late.  The promise lies in the purpose of the trip and its various attractive destinations.  It will begin with a secular pilgrimage, of which I am to be the Harry Bailey, to several of the great centers of learning in southern England.  Many American educational and other cultural institutions are now active in promoting tours and cruises intended to combine learning and pleasure, and we have been involved with several in the past.  This one, called “Great Libraries and Literature,” will take us to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Canterbury, among other places.  Having spent untold pleasant hours in many of the world’s great libraries, and having followed the profession of a teacher of literature, I probably have the superficial qualifications for my assignment.

But they are, truly, superficial.  Only as I have been forced to think about the matter in something like a comprehensive way, have I realized just how superficial.  I wish we knew more about the great Library of Alexandria.  We know basically two things: it contained a very large number of scrolls, and the scrolls were burnt to ashes in a disaster that occurred around the beginning of the common era.  It was a museum—i.e., an institution dedicated to the Muses, and therefore something at least vaguely similar to a modern research library.  The Christian world would have to wait a long time to see its like.

Half a century ago a distinguished British historian, J. H. Plumb, published under the title The Death of the Past a series of essays outlining an argument concerning the origins of the archive.  Somehow I was quite surprised to discover that the conservation of documents was so clearly motivated by, well, conservatism.  Plumb points out the interesting fact that nearly all of the world’s earliest surviving written documents—to the extent that a clay tablet or an inscribed marble qualifies as a “document”—are legal or legislative attestations of ownership, hierarchy, dynasty, and dominion.  The field beyond the rock pool belonged to my grandfather.  Then it belonged to my father.  Now it belongs to me.  It was the material utility of this kind of conservative imperative that gives birth to the archive.  Plumb further argues that until fairly recently few historians had serious ambitions of “objectivity”.  History often had an agenda similar to that of other earlier writings.

            Religious conservatism has a somewhat complicated relationship to political conservatism, but the two have in history been closely, sometimes inextricably, related.  We may start with the Bible.  The English word derives from a Greek plural meaning simply books, and the plural form has its importance.  The Bible is a comprehensive collection of biblical books, which is to say that it is itself a kind of library in itself.  Post-Protestant Americans, when and if they think of the Bible, are likely to envisage a large, heavy book, probably bound in black leather.  But such mini-libraries rarely existed before the age of printing.  It is possible that none of the Fathers of the Church—including Jerome, who translated the whole of the Bible into Latin—ever saw one.  In early Christianity, as in antecedent Judaism—the biblical unit was the individual book or the partial selection of them.

            The word manufactured obviously once meant “made by hand”.  Manufactured goods tend to have an economic value related to three things: the cost of the raw materials of which they are made, the amount and skill of the handiwork required to make them, and the social utility or prestige assigned to the finished good.  Though the materials used in the manufacture of early European books varied, the best were made of prepared animal hides, a relatively expensive commodity.  The labor needed to create a manuscript (literally a “written by hand”) was intensive and, in a largely illiterate world, so highly skilled as to carry with it a whiff of the esoteric.  Finally the social value assigned to the Bible on account of its absolute sacral claims was very high, and encouraged the utmost scrupulosity not merely in the creation of books but also in their preservation.

            One single book of the Bible was a huge factor in the growth of libraries.  I refer to the Psalter—the collection of a hundred and fifty Hebrew hymns attributed mainly to King David.  This book was at the practical center of Christian monastic life.  In the Benedictine centuries (beginning in the sixth century) thousands of monks in every nook and cranny of Europe were required to “perform” the Psalter communally and in its entirety during the course of each week.  Nothing so stimulates the creation of a new book as the example or provocation of an old one.  The “monastic library”—from which our modern warehouses of erudition derive in a fairly straight line—began with the Psalter.  The first examples of recorded vernacular text in almost every language of Europe are to be found in early psalm-books.  The monoglot children brought into the monasteries as oblates and novices needed interlinear vernacular glosses to grasp the meaning of the psalms’ hard Latin words.

            As we set out on our library crawl, we may perhaps wonder whether Karl Marx, sitting day in, day out, at his hard seat in the British Museum gathering the materials for works that would inspire a radical, cataclysmic, and continuing assault on the intellectual and social remnants of Old Europe, might ever have given a thought to those young Godrics, Bodos, and Jãos, pondering to understand the meaning—either in lexical or in moral terms--of  divitias in Psalm 36 [37]:16,  “Better is the little which the righteous has than the great wealth of the wicked.”