2 August 2016

The Enemies of Books

Edmond Werdet, Histoire du livre en France (Paris: E. Dentu, 1851), translated and quoted by William Blades in The Enemies of Books (London: Trübner & Co., 1880), pp. 43-44:
The Poet Boccacio, when travelling in Apulia, was anxious to visit the celebrated Convent of Mount Cassin, especially to see its library of which he had heard much. He accosted, with great courtesy, one of the Monks whose countenance attracted him, and begged him to have the kindness to show him the library.

'See for yourself,' said the Monk, brusquely, pointing at the same time to an old stone staircase, broken with age. Boccace hastily mounted in great joy at the prospect of a grand bibliographical treat. Soon he reached the room which was without key or even door as a protection to its treasures. What was his astonishment to see that the grass growing in the window sills actually darkened the room, and that all the books and seats were an inch thick in dust. In utter astonishment he lifted one book after another. All were manuscripts of extreme antiquity, but all were dreadfully dilapidated. Many had lost whole sections which had been violently extracted, and in many all the blank margins of the vellum had been cut away. In fact, the mutilation was thorough.

Grieved at seeing the work and the wisdom of so many illustrious men fallen into the hands of custodians so unworthy, Boccace descended with tears in his eyes. In the cloisters he met another Monk, and enquired of him how the MSS. had become so mutilated. 'Oh!' he replied, 'we are obliged, you know, to earn a few sous for our needs, so we cut away the blank margins of the Manuscripts for writing upon, and make of them small books of devotion which we sell to women and children.'