In the turbulent times of early modern Europe, hundreds of thousands of Medieval manuscripts were taken from church libraries and scattered throughout the world. Even private collections weren't safe; tastes were changing, and old parchment, however beautifully illuminated, was seen by most as just another source of scrap leather. For a time, it appears the race was on to destroy as many manuscripts as ridiculously as possible, with only a few people attempting to stem the tide. Here are some of the worst instances:
When a rich landowner in Gloucestershire died in 1868, he left behind a wide collection of manuscripts, including the remnants of a 13th century library. Sadly, his friends couldn't understand the substance of the strange texts and decided the safest method to avoid potential embarrassment was to burn them all. During this impromptu bonfire, a cobbler took some of the vellum manuscripts for cutting into shoe patterns; he'd already gone to work on them by the time local Reverend David Royce stepped in. The library ultimately received “fragments of a 13th century manuscript of one of St. Augustine's treatises, cut and marked for the measure of some rustic foot.”
The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes features another well-known tale of manuscripts in the wrong place at the wrong time, in this case “within reach of the parsimonious Betsy the baker of pies.” John Warburton, a 17th century antiquarian, had collected a long list of unique, unprinted dramas from Shakespeare's time, including some works by the great bard himself, when he left his cook in charge of them. Betsy misunderstood that she was supposed to preserve the texts and soon found a more practical use for them; in Warburton's own words: “after I had been many years collecting these manuscript plays … they was unluckely burnd or put under Pye bottoms.”
John Aubrey, another early antiquarian, recounts how in 1633 one of his teachers “had severall manuscripts of the Abbey … and when He brewed a barrell of Speciall Ale, his use was to stop the bung-hole with a Sheet of Manuscript; he sayd nothing did it so well.” Aubrey goes on to describe how people used them to cover school children’s notebooks, wrapped presents in them and even “scoured their gunnes with them.” From an early age, he was horrified by the loss of these works and lamented that: “In my grand Father's dayes, the Manuscripts flew about like Butter-flies.”
But it wasn't just carelessness that destroyed texts in the 1600s. Medieval manuscripts were viewed by progressive religious groups as a dangerous link to the past, even 150 years after the introduction of widespread printing. Whole libraries of ancient texts were set alight in religious fervour during the English Civil War. In fact, one of the oldest bibles came within inches of being burnt by Puritan soldiers, who thought, ironically, that the Greek squiggles must be heretical writings.
Parchment not being the most fire-proof of substances, accidental fires accounted for a great deal of destruction too. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's library, which gave us, among other things, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, burnt down in 1731, a hundred years after the death of its founder. It took with it a quarter of its manuscripts, including many which hadn't been recorded or copied in any form. Beowulf itself was badly smoke-damaged. A librarian ran into the flames, rescued the priceless Codex Alexandrinus and lived to tell the tale.
Recently, Dr. Henrike Lähnemann also showed that 15th century nuns filled some of their time converting old manuscripts into dresses. Strangely, the nuns themselves weren't allowed to wear fine clothing; instead, they would dress up their convent’s statues like shop mannequins.
In some ways, the widespread purging of manuscripts was inevitable. By the 1600s, Europeans had begun to believe in history as an act of progression and hadn't yet come to treasure objects from the past as valuable in and of themselves. As such, fragments of writing from the middle ages became pointless ephemera, more useful for cleaning a cannon than quiet contemplation.
In one typical story, a group of English monks took their library with them when they were forced from their home at Monk Bretton Priory during the 16th century. They lived together in a small house until each of them succumbed to the ravages of time, and the manuscripts were taken by various traders to unknown fates. We can be thankful that some documents actually survived thanks to these bizarre acts. Numerous examples are still being found within early printed books, where they lie cocooned inside the padding of the spines.
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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