Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries – Pt2 – From unfortunate Roman libraries to the Kept in the Dark Ages

This week we have the second instalment in our brief not to mention shallow, three-part history of libraries as a precursor to future posts about the many appearances of libraries and librarians in popular culture. I have also added a few new quotations to the Dukedom enough page just in case anyone is interested.

From unfortunate Roman libraries to the Kept in the Dark Ages

You will recall that last time we looked at the very early days of libraries when we had to find a way of storing documents even if those documents were only receipts for the sale of basic goods like food, drink and slaves. We got as far as the Great Library of Alexandria and noted how careless the Romans were with natural forces such as fire and this week we will move on rapidly to the Middle Ages and see how the Romans still hadn’t learned their lesson.

Libraries in the ancient world were created as much to glorify rulers as to provide raw material for scholars and researchers and in any case Mills and Boon was still in its infancy. So if the Ptolemys had their Great Library of Alexandria then the Greeks clearly had to have one so they created the Library at Pergamum. The Romans had to get in on the act too and created the Libraries of the Forum and Ancient Rome also saw the start of wealthy or powerful individuals building their own private libraries to show how clever they were or more likely how well off they were to be able to afford their own libraries. Their importance can be measured by the fact that when the Romans had taken over most of the ancient world Mark Anthony gave his wife Cleopatra 100,000 or perhaps 200,000 volumes, depending whether you believe OK magazine or Hello!, from the Library of Pergamum as a wedding present. Sadly the relationship was clearly doomed from the outset as she had rather set her sights on something a bit more substantial, a treasure chest of priceless jewels perhaps, a quinquereme or two or maybe even Rome itself.

A Roman Library - for younger readers computers came later - after desks were invented

A Roman Library. For younger readers,  computers came later – after desks were invented

Evidence of a significant library has been retrieved from the ruins of a villa in the Roman city of Herculaneum where Julius Caesar’s father-in-law had found a perfect spot for his new villa known, since its discovery, as The Villa of the Papyri. Described, no doubt, by the local estate agent as “occupying a shady spot halfway up a local mountain and benefitting from stunning uninterrupted views” it was an ideal location for his extensive library of papyrus scrolls as well as for his family. The Library, it is claimed, contained many works of philosophy and specifically several on the thoughts of Epicurus and his followers who argued that there is no God, that the universe is an accident and that the purpose of life is to enjoy ourselves. So users of the library will probably still have been partying when the library and everything else for miles around was unexpectedly and devastatingly covered by 30 metres of volcanic ash on account of it being AD 79 and because the wonderful hillside location for the Library has half way up Mount Vesuvius. Still as the Epicureans would say “you’ve got to laugh” and I expect God had a little chuckle too.

Thankfully many of the remains have been preserved and the text slowly being recovered by an international team which is a lot better than the fate of other ancient libraries when foreigners got involved. Take the Fourth Crusade for example. Like all the others before it the Crusade was heading for Jerusalem, now in Muslim hands, but the European Crusaders like thousands of back packers ever since got on the wrong boat by mistake as you do when you’re are in a strange country for the first time and don’t speak the language. They ended up in Constantinople in 1204 at the Imperial Library of Constantinople, the last of the great libraries of the ancient world which was actually Christian but as it was an ever so slightly different version of Christianity from that recognised by the marauding Crusaders they decided to destroy it anyway just in case. After all there’s no point in travelling this far and not having a bit of a rumble is there?

Most of these ancient libraries have of course long since disappeared without trace for reasons hinted at in the name ancient but remarkably the remains of some have survived and at least one is featured in excursions for package tour holidaymakers along with paragliding, white water rafting and getting rat-arsed. If you are really keen when you are next on a holiday in Turkey you can actually see one of the great libraries of the ancient world or at least you can see what is left of The Library of Celsus in Ephesus. The Library claimed to be one of the most beautiful structures in Ephesus and was completed in 135 AD as a monumental tomb for Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus and his grave lies beneath the ground floor. Apparently it was great honour to be buried within a library which demonstrated your wealth and status which is a measure how libraries have fallen in the status stakes. Nowadays you are more likely to hear comments about not being found dead in a library and I am not sure I have heard of anyone wanting their ashes scattered over the floor of the local branch library, as they do on football pitches, and I am quite sure that library staff would be able to quote several unhelpful sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act if anyone ever did.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus – A package tour favourite – years of government cuts have clearly  taken their toll

Library of Celsus, Ephesus – A package tour favourite – years of government cuts have clearly
taken their toll

I have never been to Turkey so I have no idea how popular the Library of Celsus is on the menu of potential excursions on a typical package tour but I can guess. “We’re going on an excursion to the Library of Celsus today kids want to come?” “How big’s this Library?” “Well not very big there’s only one wall of it left but…”. “How many books has it got?” Well not many ‘cos they were all destroyed centuries ago.” “No thanks then. I’ll think I’ll just stay by the pool and stab my head with a fork”.

After Rome and Greece there is then a bit of a gap in our knowledge about libraries during what are known for fairly obvious reasons as the Dark Ages at least in the West. This period was dominated in Europe by the successive waves of Barbarians and other invaders who had little time for reading what with all that raping, pillaging and dancing on the oars of their long boats (or perhaps that was someone else) and anyway even when they did have time they couldn’t read anyway. As they didn’t read they were deeply suspicious of all those scrolls, and so they destroyed them and the buildings that housed them just to be on the safe side. Libraries in the rest of the world free from any invasions and spared all those rampaging tourists continued to develop, China was busily doing clever things like inventing paper and library catalogues whilst Islamic libraries were busy inventing the concept of the lending library and some of the earliest classification schemes, but no one knew about them because the Barbarians had destroyed all the travel guides and maps. Unfortunately not long afterwards the great libraries of Islam met a similar fate to those in the West. Despite being spared by the inability of European crusaders to read a map properly they were none the less largely destroyed by the Mongols coming from the opposite direction whilst the Muslims were busy laughing at all the stupid crusaders.

It was the depredations of these invaders that lead scholars to realise that libraries needed strong and secure buildings in which to house their precious learning and the books in which it was recorded and so grew up the great monastic libraries. Medieval monasteries were often as difficult to assail as castles but just in case anyone got in with hostile intent the books were usually chained to the desks anyway.

Medieval libraries had a lot of material to look after but, as cheap paperbacks were as far off as Mills and Boon of course, the only way to produce more than one copy of a book either for another monastery or as a gift to a wealthy patron was to painstakingly copy it by hand. But wealthy patrons being what they were of course only wanted the fully illuminated manuscript with lavish illustrations richly embellished in deep colours and gold foil. Inevitable it took years of dedicated and skilled labour to produce a copy which meant that if you were on the waiting list you had to resign yourself to waiting nearly as long as it takes for a modern plumber to come and look at your leaky boiler before you had any chance of getting your hands on the latest illuminated bible.
Nowadays if you went about copying another publication page for page the publishers would pretty quickly invite you to meet them and their lawyers at a suitable venue to discuss copyright infringement. In medieval Europe on the other hand your chances of topping the bestsellers by Christmas were severely handicapped if the only copy of your commentary on Thomas Aquinas was currently in some mountain top monastery in a remote Umbrian village or kept off shore in a monastery you could only reach when the tide was out and then only every other Wednesday so authors were happy to encourage copying and indeed the Church positively encouraged it.

There does seem to be some evidence that monasteries whilst they were going about the process of creating new books to replace those lost to the Barbarians also decided that they would do a little stock editing as well. In order to avoid going to all that trouble of trying to explain to ignorant peasants about all those pre-existing pagan ideas about god and religion that conflicted with the Christian Church’s latest thinking, or giving wealthy benefactors any ideas for other good causes to support apart from their lavish lifestyles monks carefully destroyed, hid or otherwise spirited away any books that did not support their view of what people ought to be allowed to read. So material about any other religions, tracts casting doubt on any aspect of current Church teaching and definitely any books by Richard Dawkins disappeared to be replaced by a nice simply easy to understand and completely Christian narrative about the world in which everyone should believe. In fact there are many who think that what we have called for centuries the Dark Ages were succeeded by the Kept in the Dark Ages.

So we’ve reached the late medieval period and next time we will complete our very brief history of libraries bringing it up to the creation of the modern public library system that we know and love and which still survives in some wealthy regions. Along the way we will see how actual books came about, why women were more keen than publicans to encourage the working men’s libraries and how an ungrateful electorate rewarded the Liberal Party for creating that world’s first free public library system.

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