May 16, 2010

Augustine's library

I spent the afternoon in the British Library looking at the most recent articles in the British Library. The British Library is one of at least three major research libraries that I know intimately around London- the University Library in Cambridge is only an hour away by train and foot from King's Cross, the Bodleian Library is not that much farther. All three contain millions of books, the world's knowledge according to the British Library's website, and in all of them industrious scholars are to be found every day bent over manuscripts and texts, trying to elucidate their meanings. So when I looked at my articles this afternoon- say for example Elliot Vernon and Phil Baker's recent piece on the Leveller's Agreement of the People (1647) it is littered with footnotes to this pamphlet, that learned article and this manuscript. That though is a world that began in the early modern period. The Bodleian was founded in the early 17th Century. Private libraries were major sources for the enlightenment in Scotland and Naples during the eighteenth centuries and the great scholars of the eighteenth century were often librarians as well as scholars. We forget how important that is.

St Augustine was a phenomenally learned man. Presumably in Hippo when writing the City of God he consulted a library, there are texts (Sallust, Varro) which he must have had by his side or at least have had notes on because he uses them so much. But we can see the influence of the lack of a library upon the City of God. Firstly there is the absense of footnotes: Augustine refers to works by Cicero, Varro etc but he does not tell you where he is citing from. Either we have lost the citations or just as likely, he did not expect someone reading his work to be able to check directly back to the original source. When I write an article- even on this blog- I include references to a few things because I expect that some people may want to check what I say, Augustine may have believed that too but may have known his readers lacked the capacity. Secondly on p 171 of my Cambridge edition in Book IV Section 22, Augustine confuses a story. He retells a story originally told in Livy, Ovid and Dionysus of Halicarnassus, but rather than producing one narrative he confuses them together and produces something that doesn't make sense. My editor suggests that this is because he was memorising the works rather than having them by his side to cite from: Augustine knew the story in the books, and wrote his memory of it down without the ability to check back to the original source.

You may say, so what. But it is not just Augustine who does this. John Morrill in a fantastic piece of detective work shows in a recent article in a Festchrift for J.C. Davis that Oliver Cromwell did the same thing. Cromwell was writing a letter whilst being out on campaign. In it he quoted from the Bible. But he didn't quote accurately, rather the quote was a jumble of quotations from different versions of the Bible- the King James, the Geneva etc. Cromwell obviously knew them all well but had misremembered which words belonged in which version. Again you see the influence of having a library, even the kind of library we all have today, upon someone in the past. Looking round my room at the moment there are four bookshelves stacked with books, Cromwell didn't even have a bible to check his quotations with whilst out on campaign. Augustine didn't have Livy, Ovid and Dionysus to cite his story from. Neither Cromwell nor Augustine were idiots nor were they men who did not value precision (Augustine in particular at times in the City of God seems like an angry schoolmaster attacking some pagan sloppy student), but both lived before the explosion in libraries and commercial books, an explosions which characterises our era and divides it from previous ones.

3 comments:

James Higham said...

Libraries are indeed important but in the light of the PC sifting of titles in the last two decades and the blocking of texts of a certain opposite ilk, the question of what is allowed in those libraries becomes all important.

Olivia said...

This really is great, and harshly wakes me up to the lack of effort I have been putting into my blog of late, which I will be upping. Are you in the business of writing formal articles on this topic? If so I would like to read them. If it doesn't breach propriety too profoundly then could you email me (ofsmith at gmail dot com) with information on how to track down your work. Thanks, Olivia

Gracchi said...

Olivia no I don't write formal articles on this- my subject is the seventeenth century on which I'm writign something now. Thanks for your comment though as its pushed me into writing further.