Friday, August 11, 2017

The Most Important Book?

I have been thinking a lot, over the last few weeks, about the 1731 fire that struck the Ashburnham House in Westminster, including the library where the Cotton and Royal collections of manuscripts were housed. Famously, of course, this fire damaged the Beowulf manuscript, but it also more or less completely destroyed other treasures that we might now wish to have been preserved. Such are the dangers of this world, I suppose.

The Beowulf manuscript, as Kevin Kiernan writes, "was presumably saved for us by being thrown from the window" (Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, 2nd ed., p. 68; my subsequent reference to Kiernan will be from this same book and edition). The Beowulf manuscript was felt to have no greater importance than any other book on those shelves, and it was less important than many of them. The librarians of the time would surely have seen it as less important than the manuscript of Asser's Vita Alfredi [The Life of King Alfred], a book which was thoroughly destroyed in the fire. 

There was, however, one book that the librarians of that day felt did deserve a special effort to save: the book we now call the Codex Alexandrinus (London, British Library Royal 1. D. v-viii). This book, a Greek manuscript probably dating from the early fifth century, remains a key early example of a nearly complete Greek Bible.

At the time of the fire, however, it was likely that David Casley, who made the special effort to save this book (Kiernan 68), saw it not only as the most important book under his care, but as the single most important physical book in the world.

Perhaps it says everything about me as a book collector, but I have, I can admit, sometimes entertained the question of what book I would save from my own library, should a fire somehow break out in my home. It would have to be a book I value for its uniqueness, I think, and thus probably a manuscript, rather than a printed book. 
Perhaps I would save this fine, large leaf.

But here, I am afraid, I stumble: I have a small collection of manuscripts and fragments, and some of them are beautiful, and unique, and I cherish them. But I don't know that I own anything that is truly important in the world. Or, rather, all of my fragments have an importance--but it is so small in the world at large, so featherweight, that I find it impossible to judge which is the one I ought to save. Probably, I'd just resort to throwing whatever I could from the window. 

But I have begun to wonder, too, about the other question Casley's choice of books raises for me: is there, today, a single book that people might find to be the single most important physical book in the world? If the Codex Alexandrinus is no longer seen as the single most important Bible manuscript, would we still believe or claim that a Bible manuscript is the most important book in the world? We might--but I think there are many who might qualify it by saying it is the most important book for Christians. 

If I accept such a qualification, I am not at all sure I could point to any single book or manuscript of such significant, worldwide importance. Perhaps, after all, they are all important, and their importance is just difficult to weigh.


  1. An interesting article. Fires can destroy some of our history.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

  2. ear Tom,

    Thanks for yet another intriguing and thoughtful post from your excellent blog, which is always such an enjoyable read. For me, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the rescue attempts at Ashburnham House was that greater efforts were not made to save the 1215 engrossment of Magna Carta which is now Cotton Ch. xiii. 31A. This was the only engrossment of Magna Carta with King John’s seal still attached and in 1731 was the only copy of Magna Carta that could be confidently linked to its grant in 1215. It is surprising to me, given the fundamental importance of Magna Carta to the English constitution, that more of an effort was not made to preserve this document (a point also made by Matthew Maty and Henry Rimius when the manuscripts were transferred to the British Museum in 1757). An inspeximus of this document was prepared after the fire, which is now Cotton Ch. xiii. 31B, and an engraving produced the following year, which suggest that there was more concern about preserving the information in this copy of Magna Carta than with the condition of the manuscript itself (a surprisingly modern outlook). A similar approach is evident in the worries about Domesday Book which was stored in the Chapter House at Westminster, another firetrap - instead of moving Domesday from the Chapter House to safer storage, it was decided to produce a very accurate edition, in case the original was destroyed.

    The Codex Alexandrinus, which had been presented by the Patriarch of Constantinople to King James I and VI in 1627 as part of a rapprochement between the Orthodox and Anglican churches, was regarded at the time of the Ashburnham House fire as the oldest surviving manuscript of the Bible. The story of its rescue has been told by Simon Keynes in his 1996 article in the British Library Journal on the reconstruction of Otho A. I. The nominal Keeper of the Royal and Cotton libraries at the time of the fire was Richard Bentley, the son of the renowned classical scholar and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, Dr Richard Bentley the elder. David Casley was the younger Bentley’s Deputy. Bentley the elder and his wife were visiting London and had been staying with their son at Ashburnham House. In Simon’s words:

    A 'goode fire' had been made for Dr Bentley's comfort, 'in a Stove chimney under the Library'; and, although one should hesitate before pointing the finger at a Master of Trinity, Bentley himself is said to have been unsure 'whether he did not leave the Blower on the Stove when he went to Bed’. Whatever the case, it seems that a wooden jamb in the chimney ignited, transmitting the fire to the library on the floor above. The great scholar was woken from his slumbers 'by his Ladys Coughing', and 'perceiv'd a Smell of wood smoke’.
    Apparently ignoring his wife, Dr Bentley rushed to the library and grabbed the Codex Alexandrinus. Dr Richard Freind, the Headmaster of Westminster School, described in a letter to Charlotte, Lady Sundon, seeing Dr Bentley emerge from the burning house in his nightgown and a ‘flowing wig’ clutching the Codex Alexandrinus in his arms. The letter is reported in John Nichols’s Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century but despite an assiduous search Simon was unable to trace the original. Dr Bentley stayed with Freind for three days after the fire and presumably entertained the headmaster with tales of his heroic deeds in the fire. Doubts have been expressed about whether Bentley really rescued the precious biblical manuscript, since the official report into the fire thanks Casley for his role in saving the volume.
    (More to follow)

  3. Little thought would have been given to saving the manuscript containing Beowulf, since Beowulf was not mentioned in any of the existing catalogues in 1731 and the poem was not identified until 1786 when Thorkelin came across it. Between 1772 and 1776, as Jim Hall has noted, Cotton MS Vitellius A. XV was used by a number of eminent antiquaries including Daines Barrington, John Topham and Thomas Astle, and it seems unlikely that they would not have noticed the appearance of such a lengthy Old English text in the manuscript, even in the very parlous and crumbling condition it was in at that time.

    One question that you do not mention in your blog is whether everyone who helped rescue manuscripts from the fire was honest. A fragment from Otho B. X, presumably picked up as a keepsake outside Ashburnham House after the fire, was given to Thomas Hearne by Browne Willis on 15 November 1731 and is now Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson Q.e.20. In April 1766, some fragments of letters burnt in the fire were presented to the British Museum by Charles Grey. They had been given to Grey by Sir Roger Newdigate whose brother, then at Westminster School, had picked them up after the fire. It seems that others made off with more substantial loot from the disaster. In the Daily Journal of 10 November 1731, the following advertisement appeared:

    Whereas there is Reason to believe, that several books, and Parts of Books, were carried off during the late Accident at Ashburnham House; This is to desire all Persons that are possessed of any, to restore them, at the New Dormitory, Westminster; where they will be receiv'd with Thanks.

    One wonders whether any Cottonian fragments, taken away in the chaos of the fire, still lurk unidentified in libraries elsewhere. Maybe one day as lost Cotton manuscript will surface at Chancery Hill Books!

  4. The disaster at Ashburnham House was commemorated in an awful poem by Thomas Fitzgerald, the Usher at Westminster School, which I fear I cannot resist sharing with you:

    For future Fame when anxious we prepare,
    How false our Views, how fruitless is our Care!
    In vain Ambition hopes, or Virtue claims;
    'Tis Fate, imperious Fate controuls our Aims.
    See what a glorious Trophy Cotton rears!
    The learned Spoils of twice a thousand Years;
    From Goths and Vandals 'scap'd, and what we feel
    Than these more dreadful, from Reforming Zeal;
    From ev'ry Foe the Muses us'd to fear,
    Sacred and safe preserv'd—to perish Here!
    So Philadelphus through the World explor'd,
    And Learning's copious Works insatiate stor'd;
    Nor deem'd, such precious Treasures to obtain,
    The Wealth of mighty Kingdoms giv'n in vain.
    All the past Annals of revolving Time,
    The Acts of ev'ry Age and ev'ry Clime,
    The rich Productions of each studious Mind,
    The various Skill and Science of Mankind,
    Collected stand, the World's stupendous Boast!
    And all in one, one fatal Blaze, are lost.
    Old Laws, old Usage, old Events to tell,
    Where shall we seek our faithful Oracle?
    Whence shall we now adjust each learn'd Debate?
    Clear the dark Fact, and fix the doubtful Date?
    Call forth Historic Truth in all her Charms?
    And snatch fair Virtue from Oblivion's Arms?
    Here all was open to the curious View,
    Nor Delphian Phœbus ever spoke so true;
    Such rich Remains, such Works of ancient Days,
    Such Monuments of our Forefathers Praise,
    Once These poor Walls, This ruin'd Dome could show,
    Such Fame—which now the World must never know.
    Whate'er the Fury of the Flames has spar'd,
    With zealous Care, with awful Rev'rence guard.
    Let Heav'n no more, what late its Wrath has show'd,
    Resent such Gifts unworthily bestow'd.
    Beyond what Av'rice seeks, or Wealth supplies,
    Each Code, each Volume, ev'ry Fragment prize:
    As Rome her Relicks sav'd from Times of old,
    With Gems profusely decks, and shrines in Gold;
    Tho' none like These, with all her Pomp and Cost,
    Or Rome , or all her Vatican can boast.
    For see what valu'd Records still appear:
    The Whole how valu'd when they All were here!
    O'twas too much, when all entire were told,
    Too rich a Treasure for one Land to hold!
    Yet These let future Times with Joy receive,
    The noblest Legacy that ours can leave.
    So when the angry Sibyl saw expire
    Six of her sacred Volumes in the Fire,
    For the three last, repenting from his Soul,
    The King paid down the Purchase of the Whole:
    And these, inspir'd from her Prophetic Rage,
    Inform'd their Counsels down through ev'ry Age,
    To ev'ry public Enterprize gave Law,
    And taught old Rome to keep the World in Awe.

  5. Dear Andrew--You have outdone me: you've written more about the fire and its aftermath--and with more learning and detail--than I even attempted. I will confess to having been prompted in my thinking about the Beowulf manuscript, and my recognition--which somehow I'd never put into words in my own mind before--that, in the 17th and most of the 18th centuries, Beowulf was not only not the most important Old English poem, it wasn't even the most important poem in its own book. I haven't tried the experiment, but I've also been fascinated by the question of how far a scholar of the 18th century could get through Wanley's extracts of Beowulf by consulting only Somner's dictionary and Hickes's Grammar.

    We have things to learn, yet, about how our values for things change across time.

    And Fitzgerald's poem is a gem of its kind. And one could do worse than to adopt "Each Code, each Volume, every Fragment prize" as a motto.

  6. Your blog is very useful for me,Thanks for your sharing.