One of the products of the Republic of Letters during the Humanist Renaissance was the beginning or the foundation of the modern European library. Naturally they didn’t invent libraries; the concept of the library goes back quite a long way into antiquity. To a great extent, libraries are a natural consequence of the invention of writing. When you have writing, then you have written documents. If you preserve those written documents then at some point you have a collection of written documents and when that collection becomes big enough, then you start to think about storage, sorting, classification, listing, cataloguing and you have created an archive or a library. I’m not going try and sort out the difference between an archive and a library and will from now on only use the term library, meaning a collection of books, without answering the question, what constitutes a book?
The oldest know libraries are the collections of clay tablets found in the temples of Sumer, some of which date back to the middle of the third millennium BCE. There were probably parallel developments in ancient Egypt but as papyrus doesn’t survive as well as clay tablets there is less surviving evidence for early Egyptian libraries. There is evidence of a library in the Sumerian city of Nippur around two thousand BCE and a library with a classification system in the Assyrian city of Nineveh around seven hundred BCE. The Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh contained more than thirty thousand clay tablets containing literary, religious, administrative, and scientific works. Other ancient cultures such as China and India also developed early libraries.
The most well-known ancient library is the legendary Library of Alexandria, which is clouded in layers of myth. The library was part of the of the Mouseion, a large research institute, which was probably conceived by Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367–282 BCE) but first realised by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BCE). Contrary to popular myth it was neither destroyed by Christian zealots nor by Muslim ones but suffered a steady decline over a number of centuries. For the full story read Tim O’Neill’s excellent blog post on the subject, which also deals with a number of the other myths. As Tim points out, Alexandria was by no means the only large library during this period, its biggest rival being the Library of Pergamum founded around the third century BCE. The Persian Empire is known to have had large libraries as did the Roman Empire.
With the gradual decline of the Western Roman Empire, libraries disappeared out of Europe but continued to thrive in the Eastern Empire, the future Byzantium. The Islamic Empire became the major inheritor of the early written records of ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Rome creating in turn their own libraries throughout their territories. These libraries became to source of the twelfth century translation movement, also known as the scientific renaissance, when those books first began to re-enter medieval Europe.
During the Early Middle Ages, the only libraries still in existence in what had been the Western Roman Empire were those that existed in the Christian monasteries. Here we must once again dispose of two connected myths. The first more general one is the widespread myth that Christians deliberately destroyed pagan literature i.e., the texts of the Greeks and Romans. In fact, as Tim O’Neill points out in another excellent blog post, we have Christians to thank for those texts that did survive the general collapse of an urban civilisation. The second, closely related myth, spread by the “the Church is and always was anti-science brigade”, is that the Church deliberately abandoned Greek science because it was ant-Christian. Once again as Stephen McCluskey has documented in his excellent, Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, (CUP; 1998) it was the monasteries that keep the flame of the mathematical science burning during this period even if only on a low flame.
The manuscript collections of the medieval libraries were very small in comparison to the great Greek libraries such as Alexandria and Pergamum or the many public libraries of Rome, numbering in the best cases in the hundreds but often only in the tens. However, the guardians of these precious written documents did everything in their power to keep the books safe and in good condition and also endeavouring to acquire new manuscripts by copying those from other monastery libraries, often undertaking very arduous journeys to do so.
Things began to improve in the twelfth century with the scientific renaissance and the translation movement, which coincided with the founding of the European universities. The number of works available in manuscript increased substantially but they still had to be copied time and again to gradually spread throughout Europe. Like the monasteries the universities also began to collect books and to establish libraries but if we look at the figures for Cambridge University founded in 1209. The university library has its roots in the beginning of the fifteenth century, there would have been earlier individual college libraries earlier. The earliest surviving catalogue from c. 1424 list 122 volumes in the library. By 1473 a second catalogue lists 330 volumes. It is first in the sixteenth century that things really take off and the library begins to grow substantially. The equally famous Oxford University Bodleian Library was first founded in 1600 by the humanist scholar Thomas Bodley in 1600, replacing the earlier university library from 1444, which had been stripped and dissipated during the Reformation.
We have of course now reached the Humanist Renaissance and it is here that the roots of the modern library were laid. The Humanist Renaissance was all about written texts. The humanists read texts, analysed the content of texts, annotated texts, translated texts, and applied philological analysis to texts to correct and/or eliminate errors introduced into texts by repeated copying and translations. The text was everything for the humanists, so they began to accumulate collections of manuscripts. Both humanist scholars and the various potentates, who sponsored the humanist movement began to create libraries, as new spaces of learning.
The Malatestiana Library was founded by Malatesta Novello of Cesena (1418–1485) in 1454.
The foundations of the Laurentian Library in Florence were laid by Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), as one of a sequence of libraries that he funded.
Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455) brought the papal Greek and Latin collections together in separate libraries in Rome and they were then housed by Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484), who appointed the humanist Bartolomeo Platina (1421–1481) librarian of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana.
This was followed by the establishment of many private libraries both in Rome and in other Italian cities. As with other aspects of the Humanist Renaissance this movement spread outside of Italy to other European Countries. For example, the Bibliotheca Palatina was founded by Elector Ludwig III (1378–1436) in Heidelberg in the 1430s.
These new humanist libraries were not just book depositories but as stated above new spaces for learning. The groups of humanist scholars would meet regularly in the new libraries to discuss, debate or dispute over new texts, new translations, or new philological corrections to old, corrupted manuscripts.
The (re)invention of movable type printing in about 1450 meant that libraries began to collect printed books as well as manuscripts. The first printer publishers in Italy concentrated on publishing the newly translated texts of the humanists even creating a new type face, Antiqua, which imitated the handwriting that had been developed and propagated by the first generations of humanist scholars.
The spread of libraries during the Renaissance is a vast subject, too much to deal with in a blog post, but one can get a perspective on this development by looking at a sketch of the career of Johannes Müller (1436–1476) aka Regiomontanus or as he was known during his live time, Johannes de Monte Regio.
Regiomontanus is, today, best known as the most significant European mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer of the fifteenth century, so it comes as something of a surprise to discover that he spent a substantial part of his life working as a librarian for various humanist book collectors.
Regiomontanus graduated MA at the University of Vienna on his twenty-first birthday in 1457. He had actually completed the degree requirements much earlier, but university regulations required MA graduates to be at least twenty-one years old. He then joined his teacher Georg von Peuerbach as a teacher at the university, lecturing on optics amongst other things. Both Regiomontanus and Peuerbach were convinced humanists. In 1460 Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472) came to Vienna.
He was a Greek Orthodox monk, who had converted to Catholicism, been elevated to Cardinal and was in Vienna as papal legate to negotiate with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III on behalf of Pope Pius II. Pius II, civil Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405–1464), was a humanist scholar well acquainted with Frederick and Vienna from his own time as a papal legate. Bessarion, a Neo-Platonist, was a very active humanist, setting up and sponsoring humanist circles wherever his travels took him. In Vienna he sought out Peuerbach to persuade him to undertake a new Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis from the original Greek. Peuerbach couldn’t read Greek but he, and after his death Regiomontanus, produced their Epitome of the Almagest, the story of which I have told elsewhere. Bessarion asked Peuerbach to return to Italy with him. Peuerbach agreed on the condition that Regiomontanus could also accompany them. Peuerbach died in 1461, so only Regiomontanus accompanied Bessarion back to Italy and it is here that his career as librarian began.
Bessarion was an avid book collector and Regiomontanus’ job in his personal entourage was to seek out and make copies of new manuscripts for Bessarion’s collection. A task that he fulfilled with esprit. Bessarion had in the meantime also taught him Greek. In 1468, Bessarion presented his personal library to the Senate of Venice in 1468 and the 482 Greek manuscripts and 264 Latin manuscripts today still form the core of the St. Mark’s Biblioteca Marciana.
Regiomontanus left Bessarion’s entourage around 1465 and reappears in 1467 at the court of János Vitéz Archbishop of Esztergom (German, Gran) in Hungary.
Vitéz, an old friend of Peuerbach, was a humanist scholar and an avid book collector. Although Regiomontanus served as court astrologer, his Tabulae Directionum, one of the most important Renaissance astrological texts was produced at Vitéz’s request, his main function at Vitéz’s court was as court librarian. From Esztergom he moved to the court of the Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who had been educated by Vitéz.
Like his teacher, Corvinus was a humanist scholar and a major book collector. Once more, Regiomontanus served as a court librarian. The Bibliotheca Corviniana had become one of the largest libraries in Europe, second only to the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, when Corvinus died. Unfortunately, following his death, his library was dissipated.
Long before Corvinus’ death, Regiomontanus had left Hungary for Nürnberg, with Corvinus’ blessing and a royal pension, to set up a programme to reform astronomy in order to improve astrological divination. During his travels, Regiomontanus had not only made copies of manuscripts for his patrons, but also for himself, so he arrived in Nürnberg with a large collection of manuscript in 1471. His aim was to set up a printing house and publish philologically corrected editions of a long list of Greek and Latin mathematical, astronomical, and astrological texts, which he advertised in a publisher’s list that he printed and published. Unfortunately, he died in 1476 having only published nine texts including his publishers list and to the shame of the city council of Nürnberg, his large manuscript collection was not housed in a library but dissipated.
To close a last example of a lost and dissipated Renaissance library. The English mathematicus John Dee (1527–1609) hoped to establish a national library, but he failed to get the sponsorship he wished for.
Instead, he collected books and manuscripts in his own house in Mortlake, acquiring the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe. In the humanist tradition, this became a research centre, with other scholars coming to Mortlake to consult the books and to discuss their research with Dee and other visitors. However, when Dee left England for the continent, in the 1580s with Edward Kelly, to try and find sponsors for his occult activities, his house was broken into, and his library pillaged and sold off.
Despite the loss of some of the largest Renaissance book collections and libraries, the period saw the establishment of the library both public and private, as a centre for collecting books and a space for learning from them.