Giving the past a shelf life

Pamela Robinson considers the post-Reformation book collectors whose choices spoke volumes

August 14, 2008

Memory as a library is a powerful metaphor used by ancient writers. St Jerome recommended cultivating one's memory, through reading and meditation, into a "library for Christ". Adopting this metaphor as her title, Jennifer Summit sets out in Memory's Library to show how 16th and early 17th-century libraries memorialise our knowledge of England's medieval past through their collections of medieval manuscripts.

But just as memory is selective, so too a process of selection dictated which manuscripts survived. If our knowledge of the Middle Ages is derived from medieval texts, it is determined by what post-Reformation collectors thought to be worth saving from the wreckage of the Dissolution. However, the libraries formed by men such as Robert Cotton and Thomas Bodley were not simply storehouses that preserved carefully chosen relics of England's past but were, in Summit's words, "volatile spaces". Their contents influenced writers whose works have helped define the function of libraries and forge our national identity. In adopting this approach to the fate and influence of medieval books in Early Modern England, Summit's aim is to bridge the gap between the new discipline of the history of libraries and that of literary criticism.

In an innovative survey, Summit reviews developments in libraries between 1431 (when Duke Humfrey, flush with money, used it to develop his collection) and 1631, the year of Cotton's death. Her main concern is not with how medieval books survived, but with how their role, or "meanings", changed over the passage of the 200 years crucial for libraries' formation.

She briefly describes the circumstances in which various book collectors operated before focusing on writers who, she argues, significantly contributed to contemporary views of the role of books in society. Her ambitious scope surveys such diverse writings as John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, Thomas More's Utopia, William Camden's Britannia, Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning and Thomas James's catalogue of the Bodleian Library.

Although the manuscript scholar will not learn much that is new about the motives that inspired the collecting of a Parker, Cotton or Bodley, Summit's use of a wide range of sources is admirable, and while one might argue with some of her contentions her insights are always interesting.

In surveying Duke Humfrey's patronage of Lydgate's Fall of Princes, the writings of More and of Edmund Spenser, she shows how knowledge of library history can be applicable to literary criticism. For instance, Archbishop Matthew Parker, master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge from 1544 to 1553, built his manuscript collection with the aim of providing evidence for the antiquity and independence of the Church in England.

Spenser, a Cambridge man, must have been aware of Parker's library and the reasons behind its formation. In The Faerie Queene, he conceived of the library of Eumnestes (memory) as a centre of Protestant nationhood, as well as a model for nationalist poetics and reading practices. Cotton "invents" the modern documentary source by choosing to collect history, chronicles and law. By his notorious (to modern scholars) habit of organising and rearranging his materials, legends of the saints came to be read as evidence for the history of the English Church and a history of belief.

Summit further argues that non-fiction prose, such as Camden's Britannia and John Weever's Ancient Funerall Monuments, is an outgrowth of Cotton's library. The correspondence between Bodley and his librarian James, and Bacon's views on libraries, reveal the intellectual dynamism of a debate about libraries' function.

Summit's wide-ranging treatment of these and other collectors, writers and readers makes Memory's Library an original work that will repay careful study, both by library historians and by literary scholars, and it should provoke thoughtful consideration of the significance and meaning of libraries today.

Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England

By Jennifer Summit

University of Chicago Press

336pp, £18.00

ISBN 9780226781716

Published 22 August 2008

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