What Does Early Modern Bibliography Have To Do with a Blog?

by Madeline McMahon

Conrad Gesner’s 1545 Bibliotheca universalis was a powerful tool for managing information. Like a Wikipedia dedicated solely to authors who had written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the catalogue was intended as a companion for anyone trying to wade through what Gesner referred to as the “harmful and confusing abundance of books” available. Of course, Gesner’s own enormous book contributed to this overabundance—it even required a separate book’s thematic indices, those of the unfinished Pandectae, to navigate the thousands of authors listed in it. Gesner, as Ann Blair has vividly shown, lived in a kind of information age before our own (Blair, Too Much To Know, especially 1-2, 13, 56, 162-3). Yet Gesner’s distrust of the multitude of poorly written material and subsequent impulse to manage data had a flipside. His attempt to be exhaustive reveals an equal impulse towards preservation, even at a time when there were more books than ever before.

It is this first information age’s panicked scramble to preserve that I want to explore here, since it seems more alien to our own experience of information overload. Gesner’s older contemporary and friend, the Englishman John Bale, also wrote reference books that were intended to preserve as well as digest knowledge. Bale collaborated with Gesner during his exiles under both King Henry VIII and Queen Mary. While Bale worked for the talented Basil printer Oporinus, Oporinus in turn published Bale’s magnum opus, the Scriptorum illustrium Maioris Brytannie … catalogus (1557-59), a bibliographical compendium of British writers and their works. Bale’s Catalogus was organized chronologically and geographically, with indices functioning as readers’ “search” function and additional lists— of writers who had written on the Book of Revelation (for Bale, the key text to understanding human history), writers especially useful for writing a continuous narrative history of England, and priors general of the Carmelite order (Catalogus II:59).

Given Bale’s rabid anti-Catholicism (not for nothing did a historian of the next century dub him “Bilious Bale”), this latter list may be a surprise, even though Bale had been a Carmelite monk before precipitously and wholeheartedly converting to Protestantism in 1536 (ODNB). But Bale’s research into British libraries’ medieval books began during his time as a Carmelite. His wide-ranging knowledge of the location of medieval books, apparent in his notebook in the Bodleian library, benefitted from his itinerant career cataloging Carmelite monasteries’ libraries—perhaps all the more once those monasteries were dissolved (Andrew Jotischky, The Carmelites and Antiquity, chapter 7). For despite his confessional allegiance, Bale had one reason to mourn the dissolution of the monasteries: the accompanying dispersal of monastic libraries. Bale lamented the loss of these books to Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury and Bale’s employer: since the dissolution, he had found books “in stacyoners and boke bynders store howses, some in grosers, sopesellars, taylers, and other occupyers shoppes, some in shyppes ready to be carryed over the sea into Flaunders to be solde” (in Timothy Graham and Andrew Watson, The Recovery of the Past in Elizabethan England, 17). Bale’s own efforts to recover the books under Edward had been counteracted under Mary, and Matthew Parker assumed the aged Bale’s lifework, eventually bequeathing his own and many of Bale’s medieval manuscripts as the Parker Library to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Bale’s catalogue and other writings functioned like a shopping list for Parker’s team of scholars, helping them to identify books from the masses of material they found in private collections and cathedral libraries as well as to trace missing manuscripts’ provenance.

This desire to preserve the past crossed confessional boundaries—John Dee had pushed (in vain) for a national library, not so different from Parker’s, to be created under Catholic Mary with “great and speedy diligence” (John Dee’s Library Catalogue, 194). To compile books—whether in a book or a library—demonstrated early modern scholars’ faith in Pliny’s maxim, “no book so bad,” whatever its age, aesthetics, or ideology.

Among the many things this blog is not is an early modern reference book. And yet I hope that we can curate information in such a way as to preserve voices from the past and discover new ones in the field of intellectual history as we, too, sift through the sources of the past, and trace the meaning of old debates into the present.

4 comments

  1. One of the many agreeable qualities of some of those early modern information impresarios was their willingness–even eagerness–to collect texts with which they thoroughly disagreed. Often they did so in the service of polemic. But sometimes they were looking for common ground. There’s a meme in wide circulation, according to which reading on line tends to narrow our vision of the world, since we consult sites with which we know we’re in sympathy–instead of confronting the spectrum of opinions that appear on the op-ed page of a traditional newspaper. One way to disprove this rule is to build sites in the cosmopolitan spirit of Gesner or, even more, Hugo Blotius of Vienna. The blogs that have meant most to me–Invisible Adjunct and Obsidian Wings, for example, and USIH more recently–have always hosted varied voices and fostered civil disagreement. Here too, it looks as if the Republic of Letters will live on, in a new digital form.

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  2. Tony, many thanks for your comment (the first on JHI Blog!). I couldn’t agree more. I began thinking with Gesner because I liked how he was aware of and allowed for changes in literary tastes and politics over time and space. That inclusive approach seems central to intellectual history, even if we cannot be as exhaustive!

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  3. Agreed, Maddy: Gesner is very good to think with. And he’s not alone. A truly vast range of knowledge–one that extended from antiquity to modernity–characterized major intellectual historians as late as the generation of my teachers and mentors–Momigliano, of course, but also Donald Kelley and my Chicago teacher Hanna Holborn Gray. Given the vast proliferation of scholarship on every corner of the past, we can’t hope to match their range. But like Gesner, they stand as ideals whom we can admire and imitate from a distance. As Castigione says, “just as when many archers shoot at a target and none hit the very mark, surely he that comes nearest to it is better than the rest.”

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