F. Somner (Frederick Somner) Merryweather.

Bibliomania in the middle ages online

. (page 12 of 22)
Online LibraryF. Somner (Frederick Somner) MerryweatherBibliomania in the middle ages → online text (page 12 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


inspired with a holy ambition, he determined to attempt the conversion of
the German people, who, although somewhat acquainted with the gospel
truths, had nevertheless deviated materially from the true faith, and
returned again to their idolatry and paganism. Heedless of the danger of
the expedition, but looking forward only to the consummation of his fond
design, he started on his missionary enterprise, accompanied by one or
two of his monkish brethren.

He arrived at Friesland in the year 716, and proceeded onwards to
Utrecht; but disappointments and failures awaited him. The revolt of the
Frieslanders and the persecution then raging there against the
Christians, dissipated his hopes of usefulness; and with a heavy heart,
no doubt, Boniface retraced his steps, and re-embarked for his English
home. Yet hope had not deserted him - his philanthropic resolutions were
only delayed for a time; for no sooner had the dark clouds of persecution
passed away than his adventurous spirit burst forth afresh, and shone
with additional lustre and higher aspirations. After an interval of two
years we find him again starting on another Christian mission. On
reaching France he proceeded immediately to Rome, and procured admission
to the Pope, who, ever anxious for the promulgation of the faith and for
the spiritual dominion of the Roman church, highly approved of the
designs of Boniface, and gave him letters authorizing his mission among
the Thuringians; invested with these powers and with the pontifical
blessing, he took his departure from the holy city, well stored with the
necessary ornaments and utensils for the performance of the
ecclesiastical rites, besides a number of books to instruct the heathens
and to solace his mind amidst the cares and anxieties of his travels.
After some few years the fruits of his labor became manifest, and in 723
he had baptized vast multitudes in the true faith. His success was
perhaps unparalleled in the early annals of the church, and remind us of
the more recent wonders wrought by the Jesuit missionaries in India.[259]
Elated with these happy results, far greater than even his sanguine mind
had anticipated, he sent a messenger to the Pope to acquaint his holiness
of these vast acquisitions to his flock, and soon after he went himself
to Rome to receive the congratulations and thanks of the Pontiff; he was
then made bishop, and entrusted with the ecclesiastical direction of the
new church. After his return, he spent many years in making fresh
converts and maintaining the discipline of the faithful. But all these
labors and these anxieties were terminated by a cruel and unnatural
death; on one of his expeditions he was attacked by a body of pagans, who
slew him and nearly the whole of his companions, but it is not here that
a Christian must look for his reward - he must rest his hopes on the
benevolence and mercy of his God in a distant and far better world. He
who would wish to trace more fully these events, and so catch a glimpse
of the various incidents which touch upon the current of his life, must
not keep the monk constantly before his mind, he must sometimes forget
him in that capacity and regard him as a _student_, and that too in the
highest acceptation of the term. His youthful studies, which I have said
before were pursued with unconquerable energy, embraced grammar, poetry,
rhetoric, history, and the exposition of the Holy Scriptures; the Bible,
indeed, he read unceasingly, and drew from it much of the vital truth
with which it is inspired; but he perhaps too much tainted it with
traditional interpretation and patristical logic. A student's life is
always interesting; like a rippling stream, its unobtrusive gentle course
is ever pleasing to watch, and the book-worms seems to find in it the
counterpart of his own existence. Who can read the life and letters of
the eloquent Cicero, or the benevolent Pliny, without the deepest
interest; or mark their anxious solicitude after books, without sincere
delight. Those elegant epistles reflect the image of their private
studies, and so to behold Boniface in a student's garb, to behold his
love of books and passion for learning, we must alike have recourse to
his letters.

The epistolary correspondence of the middle ages is a mirror of those
times, far more faithful as regards their social condition than the old
chronicles and histories designed for posterity; written in the
reciprocity of friendly civilities, they contain the outpourings of the
heart, and enable us to peep into the secret thoughts and motives of the
writer; "for out of the fulness of the hearth the mouth speaketh."
Turning over the letters of Boniface, we cannot but be forcibly struck
with his great knowledge of Scripture; his mind seems to have been quite
a concordance in itself, and we meet with epistles almost solely framed
of quotations from the sacred books, in substantiation of some principle,
or as grounds for some argument advanced. These are pleasurable
instances, and convey a gentle hint that the greater plenitude of the
Bible has not, in all cases, emulated us to study it with equal energy;
there are few who would now surpass the Saxon bishop in biblical reading.

Most students have felt, at some period or other, a thirst after
knowledge without the means of assuaging it - have felt a craving after
books when their pecuniary circumstances would not admit of their
acquisition, such will sympathize with Boniface, the student in the wilds
of Germany, who, far from monastic libraries, sorely laments in some of
his letters this great deprivation, and entreats his friends, sometimes
in most piteous terms, to send him books. In writing to Daniel, Bishop of
Winchester, he asks for copies, and begs him to send the book of the six
prophets, clearly and distinctly transcribed, and in large letters
because his sight he says was growing weak; and because the book of the
prophets was much wanted in Germany, and could not be obtained except
written so obscurely, and the letters so confusedly joined together, as
to be scarcely readable _ac connexas litteras discere non possum_.[260]
To "Majestro Lul" he writes for the productions of bishop Aldhelm, and
other works of prose, poetry, and rhyme, to console him in his
peregrinations _ad consolationem peregrinationis meæ_.[261] With Abbess
Eadburge he frequently corresponded, and received from her many choice
and valuable volumes, transcribed by her nuns and sometimes by her own
hands; at one period he writes in glowing terms and with a grateful pen
for the books thus sent him, and at another time he sends for a copy of
the Gospels. "Execute," says he, "a glittering lamp for our hands, and so
illuminate the hearts of the Gentiles to a study of the Gospels and to
the glory of Christ; and intercede, I pray thee, with your pious prayers
for these pagans who are committed by the apostles to our care, that by
the mercy of the Saviour of the world they may be delivered from their
idolatrous practices, and united to the congregation of mother church, to
the honor of the Catholic faith, and to the praise and glory of His name,
who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the
truth."[262]

All this no doubt the good abbess faithfully fulfilled; and stimulated by
his friendship and these encouraging epistles, she set all the pens in
her monastery industriously to work, and so gratified the Saxon
missionary with those book treasures, which his soul so ardently loved;
certain it is, that we frequently find him thanking her for books, and
with famishing eagerness craving for more; one of his letters,[263] full
of gratitude, he accompanies with a present of a silver graphium, or
writing instrument, and soon after we find him thus addressing her:

"To the most beloved sister, Abbess Eadburge, and all now joined
to her house and under her spiritual care. Boniface, the meanest
servant of God, wisheth eternal health in Christ."

"My dearest sister, may your assistance be abundantly rewarded hereafter
in the mansions of the angels and saints above, for the kind presents of
books which you have transmitted to me. Germany rejoices in their
spiritual light and consolation, because they have spread lustre into,
the dark hearts of the German people; for except we have a lamp to guide
our feet, we may, in the words of the Lord, fall into the snares of
death. Moreover, through thy gifts I earnestly hope to be more diligent,
so that my country may be honored, my sins forgiven, and myself protected
from the perils of the sea and the violence of the tempest; and that He
who dwells on high may lightly regard my transgression, and give
utterance to the words of my mouth, that the Gospel may have free course,
and be glorified among men to the honor of Christ."[264]

Writing to Egbert, Archbishop of York, of whose bibliomaniacal character
and fine library we have yet to speak, Boniface thanks that illustrious
collector for the choice volumes he had kindly sent him, and further
entreats Egbert to procure for him transcripts of the smaller works
_opusculi_ and other tracts of Bede, "who, I hear," he writes, "has, by
the divine grace of the Holy Spirit, been permitted to spread such
lustre over your country."[265] These, that kind and benevolent prelate
sent to him with other books, and received a letter full of gratitude in
return, but with all the boldness of a hungry student still asking for
more! especially for Bede's Commentary on the Parables of Solomon.[266]
He sents to Archbishop Nothelm for a copy of the Questions of St.
Augustine to Pope Gregory, with the answers of the pope, which he says he
could not obtain from Rome; and in writing to Cuthbert, also Archbishop
of Canterbury, imploring the aid of his earnest prayers, he does not
forget to ask for books, but hopes that he may be speedily comforted with
the works of Bede, of whose writings he was especially fond, and was
constantly sending to his friends for transcripts of them. In a letter to
Huetberth he writes for the "most sagacious dissertations of the monk
Bede,"[267] and to the Abbot Dudde he sends a begging message for the
Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Romans and to the
Corinthians[268] by the same. In a letter to Lulla, Bishop of Coena, he
deplores the want of books on the phenomena and works of nature, which,
he says, were _omnio incognitum_ there, and asks for a book on
Cosmography;[269] and on another occasion Lulla supplied Boniface with
many portions of the Holy Scriptures, and Commentaries upon them.[270]
Many more of his epistles might be quoted to illustrate the Saxon
missionary as an "_amator librorum_," and to display his profound
erudition. In one of his letters we find him referring to nearly all the
celebrated authors of the church, and so aptly, that we conclude he must
have had their works on his desk, and was deeply read in patristical
theology. Boniface has been fiercely denounced for his strong Roman
principles, and for his firm adherence to the interests of the pope.[271]
Of his theological errors, or his faults as a church disciplinarian, I
have nothing here to do, but leave that delicate question to the
ecclesiastical historian, having vindicated his character from the charge
of ignorance, and displayed some pleasing traits which he evinced as a
student and book-collector. It only remains to be mentioned, that many of
the membranous treasures, which Boniface had so eagerly searched for and
collected from all parts, were nearly lost forever. The pagans, who
murdered Boniface and his fellow-monks, on entering their tents,
discovered little to gratify their avarice, save a few relics and a
number of books, which, with a barbarism corresponding with their
ignorance, they threw into the river as useless; but fortunately, some of
the monks, who had escaped from their hands, observing the transaction,
recovered them and carried them away in safety with the remains of the
martyred missionary, who was afterwards canonized Saint Boniface.

The must remarkable book collector contemporary with Boniface, was Egbert
of York, between whom, as we have seen, a bookish correspondence was
maintained. This illustrious prelate was brother to King Egbert, of
Northumbria, and received his education under Bishop Eata, at Hexham,
about the year 686. He afterwards went on a visit to the Apostolic See,
and on his return was made Archbishop of York.[272] He probably collected
at Rome many of the fine volumes which comprised his library, and which
was so celebrated in those old Saxon days; and which will be ever
renowned in the annals of ancient bibliomania. The immortal Alcuin sang
the praises of this library in a tedious lay; and what glorious tomes of
antiquity he there enumerates! But stay, my pen should tarry whilst I
introduce that worthy bibliomaniac to my reader, and relate some
necessary anecdotes and facts connected with his early life and times.

Alcuin was born in England, and probably in the immediate vicinity of
York; he was descended from affluent and noble parents; but history is
especially barren on this subject, and we have no information to instruct
us respecting the antiquity of his Saxon ancestry. But if obscurity hangs
around his birth, so soon as he steps into the paths of learning and
ranks with the students of his day, we are no longer in doubt or
perplexity; but are able from that period to his death to trace the
occurrences of his life with all the ease that a searcher of monkish
history can expect. He had the good fortune to receive his education from
Egbert, and under his care he soon became initiated into the mysteries of
grammar, rhetoric, and jurisprudence; which were relieved by the more
fascinating study of poetry, physics, and astronomy.[273] So much was he
esteemed by his master the archbishop, that he entrusted him with a
mission to Rome, to receive from the hands of the Pope his pall; on his
return he called at Parma, where he had an interview with Charles the
Great; who was so captivated with his eloquence and erudition that he
eagerly entreated him to remain, and to aid in diffusing throughout his
kingdom the spirit of that knowledge which he had so successfully
acquired in the Saxon monasteries. But Alcuin was equally anxious for the
advancement of literature in his own country; and being then on a mission
connected with his church, he could do no more than hold out a promise of
consulting his superiors, to whose decisions he considered himself bound
to submit.

During the dominion of Charles, the ecclesiastical as well as the
political institutions of France, were severely agitated by heresy and
war: the two great questions of the age - the Worship of Images and the
Nature of Christ - divided and perplexed the members of a church which had
hitherto been permitted to slumber in peace and quietude. The most
prominent of the heretics was Felix, Bishop of Urgel, who maintained in
a letter to Elipand, Bishop of Toledo, that Christ was only the Son of
God by adoption. It was about the time of the convocation of the Council
of Frankfort, assembled to consider this point, that Alcuin returned to
France at the earnest solicitation of Charlemagne. When the business of
the council was terminated, and peace was somewhat restored, Alcuin began
to think of returning to his native country; but England at that time was
a land of bloodshed and tribulation, in the midst of which it would be
vain to hope for retirement or the blessings of study; after some
deliberation, therefore, Alcuin resolved to remain in France, where there
was at least a wide field for exertion and usefulness. He communicates
his intention in a letter to Offa, King of Mercia. "I was prepared," says
he, "to come to you with the presents of King Charles, and to return to
my country; but it seemed more advisable to me for the peace of my nation
to remain abroad; not knowing what I could have done among those persons
with whom no man can be secure or able to proceed in any laudable
pursuit. See every holy place laid desolate by pagans, the altars
polluted by perjury, the monasteries dishonored by adultery, the earth
itself stained with the blood of rulers and of princes."[274]

After the elapse of many years spent in the brilliant court of Charles,
during which time it surpassed in literary greatness any epoch that
preceded it, he was permitted to seek retirement within the walls of the
abbey of St. Martin's at Tours. But in escaping from the bustle and
intrigue of public life he did not allow his days to pass away in an
inglorious obscurity; but sought to complete his earthly career by
inspiring the rising generation with an honorable and christian ambition.
His cloistered solitude, far from weakening, seems to have augmented the
fertility of his genius, for it was in the quiet seclusion of this
monastery that Alcuin composed the principal portion of his works; nor
are these writings an accumulation of monastic trash, but the fruits of
many a solitary hour spent in studious meditation. His method is perhaps
fantastic and unnatural; but his style is lively, and often elegant. His
numerous quotations and references give weight and interest to his
writings, and clearly proves what a fine old library was at his command,
and how well he knew the use of it. But for the elucidation of his
character as a student, or a bibliomaniac, we naturally turn to the huge
mass of his epistles which have been preserved; and in them we find a
constant reference to books which shew his intimacy with the classics as
well as the patristical lore of the church. In biblical literature he
doubtless possessed many a choice and venerable tome; for an
indefatigable scripture reader was that great man. In a curious little
work of his called "_Interrogationes et Responsiones sui Liber
Questionorum in Genesim_," we find an illustration of his usefulness in
spreading the knowledge he had gained in this department of learning. It
was written expressly for his pupil and dearest brother (_carissime
frater_), Sigulf, as we learn from a letter which accompanies it. He
tells him that he had composed it "that he might always have near him the
means of refreshing his memory when the more ponderous volumes of the
sacred Scriptures were not at his immediate call."[275] Perhaps of all
his works this is the least deserving of our praise; the good old monk
was apt to be prolix, if not tedious, when he found the _stylus_ in his
hand and a clean skin of parchment spread invitingly before him. But as
this work was intended as a manual to be consulted at any time, he was
compelled to curb this propensity, and to reduce his explications to a
few concise sentences. Writing under this restraint, we find little
bearing the stamp of originality, not because he had nothing original to
say, but because he had not space to write it in; I think it necessary to
give this explanation, as some critics upon the learning of that remote
age select these small and ill-digested writings as fair specimens of the
literary capacity of the time, without considering why they were written
or compiled at all. But as a scribe how shall we sufficiently praise that
great man when we take into consideration the fine Bible which he
executed for Charlemagne, and which is now fortunately preserved in the
British Museum. It is a superb copy of St. Jerome's Latin version, freed
from the inaccuracies of the scribes; he commenced it about the year 778,
and did not complete it till the year 800, a circumstance which indicates
the great care he bestowed upon it. When finished he sent it to Rome by
his friend and disciple, Nathaniel, who presented it to Charlemagne on
the day of his coronation: it was preserved by that illustrious monarch
to the last day of his life. Alcuin makes frequent mention of this work
being in progress, and speaks of the labor he was bestowing upon it.[276]
We, who blame the monks for the scarcity of the Bible among them, fail to
take into consideration the immense labor attending the transcriptions of
so great a volume; plodding and patience were necessary to complete it.
The history of this biblical gem is fraught with interest, and well worth
relating. It is supposed to have been given to the monastery of Prum in
Lorraine by Lothaire, the grandson of Charlemagne, who became a monk of
that monastery. In the year 1576 this religious house was dissolved, but
the monks preserved the manuscript, and carried it into Switzerland to
the abbey of Grandis Vallis, near Basle, where it reposed till the year
1793, when, on the occupation of the episcopal territory of Basle by the
French, all the property of the abbey was confiscated and sold, and the
MS. under consideration came into the possession of M. Bennot, from whom,
in 1822, it was purchased by M. Speyr Passavant, who brought it into
general notice, and offered it for sale to the French Government at the
price of 60,000 francs; this they declined, and its proprietor struck of
nearly 20,000 francs from the amount; still the sum was deemed
exorbitant, and with all their bibliomanical enthusiasm, the conservers
of the Royal Library allowed the treasure to escape. M. Passavant
subsequently brought it to England, where it was submitted to the Duke of
Sussex, still without success. He also applied to the trustees of the
British Museum, and Sir F. Madden informs us that "much correspondence
took place; at first he asked 12,000_l._ for it; then 8,000_l._, and at
last 6,500_l._, which he declared an _immense sacrifice!!_ At length,
finding he could not part with his MS. on terms so absurd, he resolved to
sell it if possible by auction; and accordingly, on the 27th of April,
1836, the Bible was knocked down by Mr. Evans for the sum of 1,500_l._,
but for the proprietor himself, as there was not one real bidding for it.
This result having brought M. Speyr Passavant in some measure to his
senses, overtures were made to him on the part of the trustees to the
British Museum, and the manuscript finally became the property of the
nation, for the comparatively small sum of 750_l._" There can be no doubt
as to the authenticity of this precious volume, the verses of Alcuin's,
found in the manuscript, sufficiently prove it, for he alone could
write -

"Is Carolus qui jam Scribe jussit eum."
. . . . . . .
"Hæc Dator Æternus cunctorum Christe bonorum,
Munera de donis accipe sancta tuis,
Quæ Pater Albinus devoto pectore supplex
Nominus ad laudem obtulit ecce tui."

Other proofs are not wanting of Alcuin's industry as a scribe, or his
enthusiasm as an _amator librorum_. Mark the rapture with which he
describes the library of York Cathedral, collected by Egbert:

"Illic invenies veterum vestigia Patrum,
Quidquid habet pro se Latio Romanus in orbe,
Græcia vel quidquid transmisit Clara Latinis.
Hebraicus vel quod populus bibet imbre superno
Africa lucifluo vel quidquid lumine sparsit.
Quod Pater Hieronymus quod sensit Hilarius, atque
Ambrosius Præsul simul Augustinus, et ipse
Sanctus Athanasius, quod Orosius, edit avitus:
Quidquid Gregorius summus docet, et Leo Papa;
Basilius quidquid, Fulgentius atque coruscant
Cassiodorus item, Chrysostomus atque Johannes:
Quidquid et Athelmus docuit, quid Beda Magister,
Quæ Victorinus scripsêre, Boetius; atque
Historici veteres, Pompeius, Plinius, ipse
Acer Aristoteles, Rhetor quoque Tullius ingens;
Quidquoque Sedulius, vel quid canit ipse Invencus,
Alcuinus, et Clemens, Prosper, Paulinus, Arator.
Quid Fortunatus, vel quid Lactantius edunt;
Quæ Maro Virgilius, Statius, Lucanus, et auctor
Artis Grammaticæ, vel quid scripsêre magistri;
Quid Probus atque Focas, Donatus, Priscian usve,
Sevius, Euticius, Pompeius, Commenianus,
Invenies alios perplures, lector, ibidem
Egregios studiis, arte et sermone magistros
Plurima qui claro scripsêre volumina sensu:
Nomina sed quorum præsenti in carmine scribi
Longius est visum, quam plectri postulet usus."[277]

Often did Alcuin think of these goodly times with a longing heart, and
wish that he could revel among them whilst in France. How deeply would he
have regretted, how many tears would he have shed over the sad
destruction of that fine library, had he have known it; but his bones had
mingled with the dust when the Danes dispersed those rare gems of ancient
lore. If the reader should doubt the ardor of Alcuin as a book-lover, let
him read the following letter, addressed to Charlemagne, which none but


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryF. Somner (Frederick Somner) MerryweatherBibliomania in the middle ages → online text (page 12 of 22)