Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 24. Richard of Bury

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford

§ 24. Richard of Bury

Richard of Bury was the son of Sir Richard Aungerville. Born within sight of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, he is sometimes said to have subsequently entered the Benedictine convent at Durham. In the meantime, he had certainly distinguished himself in philosophy and theology at Oxford. From his academic studies he was called to be the tutor to prince Edward, the future king Edward III. The literary interests with which he inspired the prince may well have led to Edward’s patronage of Chaucer and of Froissart. In 1330 and 1333, he was sent as envoy to the pope at Avignon; and it was in recognition of these diplomatic services that he was made dean of Wells, and bishop of Durham.

He lives in literature as the author of the Philobiblon, which was completed on his 58th birthday, 24 January, 1345; and, in the same year, on 14 April, at his manor of Auckland, Dominus Ricardus de Bury migravit ad Dominum. In seven of the thirty-five manuscripts of the Philobiblon it is ascribed to Robert Holkot, the Dominican (d. 1349). But the evidence is inconclusive and the style of Holkot’s Moralitates is different from that of the Philobiblon. Holkot, who was one of the bishop’s chaplains, may well have acted as his amanuensis during the last year of his life, and have thus been wrongly credited with having “composed” or “compiled” the work. The distinctly autobiographical character of the volume is in favour of its having been written by Richard of Bury himself.

The author of the Philobiblon is more of a bibliophile than a scholar. He has only the slightest knowledge of Greek; but he is fully conscious of the debt of the language of Rome to that of Greece, and he longs to remedy the prevailing ignorance by supplying students with grammars of Greek as well as Hebrew. His library is not limited to works on theology; he places liberal studies above the study of law, and sanctions the reading of the poets. His love of letters breathes in every page of his works. He prefers manuscripts to money, and even “slender pamphlets to pampered palfreys.” He confesses with a charming candour: “We are reported to burn with such a desire for books, and especially old ones, that it was more easy for any man to gain our favour by means of books than by means of money”; but “justice,” he hastens to assure us, “suffered no detriment.” In inditing this passage, he doubtless remembered that an abbot of St. Albans once ingratiated himself with the future bishop of Durham by presenting him with four volumes from the abbey library, besides selling him thirty volumes from the same collection, including a large folio MS. of the works of John of Salisbury, which is now in the British Museum.

In the old monastic libraries, Richard of Bury, like Boccaccio at Monte Cassino, not unfrequently lighted on manuscripts lying in a wretched state of neglect, murium foetibus cooperti et vermium morsibus terebrati. But in those of the new mendicant orders he often “found heaped up, amid the utmost poverty, the utmost riches of wisdom.” He looks back with regret on the ages when the monks used to copy manuscripts “between the hours of prayer.” He also presents us with a vivid picture of his own eagerness in collecting books with the aid of the stationarii and librarii of France, Germany and Italy. For some of his purchases he sends to Rome, while he dwells with rapture on his visits to Paris, “the paradise of the world,” “where the days seemed ever few for the greatness of our love. There are the delightful libraries, more aromatic than stores of spicery; there, the verdant pleasure-gardens of all varieties of volumes.” He adds that, in his own manors, he always employed a large number of copyists, as well as binders and illuminators; and he pays an eloquent tribute to his beloved books:

  • Truth, that triumphs over all things, seems to endure more usefully, and to fructify with greater profit in books. The meaning of the voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is only a hidden wisdom, a buried treasure; but truth that shines forth from books is eager to manifest itself to all our senses. It commends itself to the sight, when it is read; to the hearing when it is heard; and even to the touch, when it suffers itself to be transcribed, bound, corrected, and preserved.… What pleasantness of teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret. How safely and how frankly do we disclose to books our human poverty of mind. They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule.… If you approach them, they are not asleep; if you inquire of them, they do not withdraw themselves; they never chide, when you make mistakes; they never laugh, if you are ignorant.
  • Towards the close, he confides to us the fact that he had “long cherished the fixed resolve of founding in perpetual charity a hall in the revered university of Oxford, the chief nursing-mother of all liberal arts, and of endowing it with the necessary revenues for the maintenance of a number of scholars, and, moreover, to furnish the hall with the treasures of our books.” He gives rules for the management of the library, rules founded in part on those adopted in Paris for the library of the Sorbonne. He contemplated the permanent endowment of the Benedictine house of Durham College in the university of Oxford, and bequeathed to that college the precious volumes he had collected at Bishop Auckland. The ancient monastic house was dissolved, and Trinity College rose on its ruins; but the library built to contain the bishop’s books still remains, though the books are lost, and even the catalogue has vanished. His tomb in Durham cathedral, marked by “a faire marble stone, whereon his owne ymage was most curiously and artificially ingraven in brass” has been, unfortunately, destroyed; but he lives in literature as the author of the Philobiblon, his sole surviving memorial. One, who was inspired with the same love of books, has justly said of the author–“His fame will never die.”

    Like the early humanists of Italy, he was one of the new literary fraternity of Europe—men who foresaw the possibilities of learning, and were eager to encourage it. On the first of his missions to the pope at Avignon he had met Petrarch, who describes him as vir ardentis ingenii, nec litterarum inscius; he adds that he had absolutely failed to interest the Englishman in determining the site of the ancient Thule. But they were kindred spirits at heart. For, in the same vein as Richard of Bury, Petrarch tells his brother, that he “cannot be sated with books”; that, in comparison with books, even gold and silver, gems and purple, marble halls and richly caparisoned steeds, only afford a superficial delight; and, finally, he urges that brother to find trusty men to search for manuscripts in Italy, even as he himself had sent like messages to his friends in Spain and France and England.

    In the course of this brief survey, we have noticed, during the early part of the twelfth century, the revival of intellectual interests in the age of Abelard, which resulted in the birth of the university of Paris. We have watched the first faint traces of the spirit of humanism in the days when John of Salisbury was studying Latin literature in the classic calm of Chartres. Two centuries later, Richard of Bury marks for England the time of transition between the scholastic era and the revival of learning. The Oxford of his day was still the “beautiful city, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age.” “Then flash’d a yellow gleam across the world.” Few, if any, in our western islands thought to themselves, “the sun is rising”; though in another land, the land of Petrarch, moonlight had already faded away—“the sun had risen.”