Philobiblon

The Love of Books:
The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury

Translated into English by E. C. Thomas

“Take thou a book into thine hands as Simon the Just took the Child Jesus into his arms to carry Him and kiss Him. And when thou hast finished reading, close the book and give thanks for every word out of the mouth of God; because in the Lord’s field thou hast found a hidden treasure.”

— Thomas a Kempis: Doctrinale Juvenum

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This web edition published byeBooks@Adelaide.

Who?

Richard de Bury (1281–1345), so called from being born near Bury St. Edmunds, was the son of Sir Richard Aungerville. He studied at Oxford; and was subsequently chosen to be tutor to Prince Edward of Windsor, afterwards Edward III. His loyalty to the cause of Queen Isabella and the Prince involved him in danger. On the accession of his pupil he was made successively Cofferer, Treasurer of the Wardrobe, Archdeacon of Northampton, Prebendary of Lincoln, Sarum, and Lichfield, Keeper of the Privy Purse, Ambassador on two occasions to Pope John XXII, who appointed him a chaplain of the papal chapel, Dean of Wells, and ultimately, at the end of the year 1333, Bishop of Durham; the King and Queen, the King of Scots, and all the magnates north of the Trent, together with a multitude of nobles and many others, were present at his enthronization. It is noteworthy that during his stay at Avignon, probably in 1330, he made the acquaintance of Petrarch, who has left us a brief account of their intercourse. In 1332 Richard visited Cambridge, as one of the King’s commissioners, to inquire into the state of the King’s Scholars there, and perhaps then became a member of the Gild of St. Mary — one of the two gilds which founded Corpus Christi College.

In 1334 he became High Chancellor of England, and Treasurer in 1336, resigning the former office in 1335, so that he might help the King in dealing with affairs abroad and in Scotland, and took a most distinguished part in diplomatic negociations between England and France. In 1339 he was again in his bishopric. Thereafter his name occurs often among those appointed to treat of peace with Philip of France, and with Bruce of Scotland. It appears that he was not in Parliament in 1344. Wasted by long sickness — longa infirmitate decoctus — on the 14th of April, 1345, Richard de Bury died at Auckland, and was buried in Durham Cathedral.

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Chapter XV

Of the Advantages of the Love of Books

It transcends the power of human intellect, however deeply it may have drunk of the Pegasean fount, to develop fully the title of the present chapter. Though one should speak with the tongue of men and angels, though he should become a Mercury or Tully, though he should grow sweet with the milky eloquence of Livy, yet he will plead the stammering of Moses, or with Jeremiah will confess that he is but a boy and cannot speak, or will imitate Echo rebounding from the mountains. For we know that the love of books is the same thing as the love of wisdom, as was proved in the second chapter. Now this love is called by the Greek word philosophy, the whole virtue of which no created intelligence can comprehend; for she is believed to be the mother of all good things: Wisdom vii. She as a heavenly dew extinguishes the heats of fleshly vices, the intense activity of the mental forces relaxing the vigour of the animal forces, and slothfulness being wholly put to flight, which being gone all the bows of Cupid are unstrung.

Hence Plato says in the Phaedo: The philosopher is manifest in this, that he dissevers the soul from communion with the body. Love, says Jerome, the knowledge of the scriptures, and thou wilt not love the vices of the flesh. The godlike Xenocrates showed this by the firmness of his reason, who was declared by the famous hetaera Phryne to be a statue and not a man, when all her blandishments could not shake his resolve, as Valerius Maximus relates at length. Our own Origen showed this also, who chose rather to be unsexed by the mutilation of himself, than to be made effeminate by the omnipotence of woman — though it was a hasty remedy, repugnant alike to nature and to virtue, whose place it is not to make men insensible to passion, but to slay with the dagger of reason the passions that spring from instinct.

Again, all who are smitten with the love of books think cheaply of the world and wealth; as Jerome says to Vigilantius: The same man cannot love both gold and books….

  • Some things are downright peculiar, aren’t they? Can’t say I really noticed “intense activity of the mental forces relaxing the vigour of the animal forces” on too many occasions. But those last two lines encapsulate my life ever since I was first given pocket money…

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