Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The lost catalog

After yesterday's rather elegiac post about the breadth of creative work we've lost over the ages, a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link suggesting that in some fortunate cases, maybe "lost" doesn't mean forever.

The ancients knew all too well that the vagaries of time made books and scrolls precious, easily-damaged treasures.  Fire, damage from insects and mice, and even just the wear-and-tear from repeated use all took their toll on written work.  Add to that the fact that before the invention of movable type, hand-copying manuscripts was a laborious and time-consuming occupation, and it's no wonder that books were rare and expensive, often only to be found in libraries, monasteries, and the homes of the very wealthy.

This awareness of how much could perish forever if a single library was destroyed prompted some scholars to try and catalog manuscripts, to create a record of the rich diversity of books out there in the world.  One of these was named Hernando (also known as Ferdinand) Colón, the illegitimate son of none other than Christopher Columbus.

Colón was a fascinating character.  Uninterested in his father's passion of establishing trade routes, exploration, and colonization, he preferred instead to travel around Europe and buy books.  He founded a personal library in Seville where he welcomed visits from other scholars, and at its height it contained over fifteen thousand books.  His library contained all sorts of books -- unlike many of his time, he didn't consider books by non-Christians to be worthless "works of infidels" -- and his library became one of the best-known in western Europe.

It was also unwieldy.  Imagine trying to find a particular piece of information in a library that big, with no indexing system.  Back then, there was no such thing as a card catalog, much less a search engine.  So Colón set about writing the sixteen immense volumes of Libros de los Epitomes, a bibliography and short summary of every single one of the books in the library.

It's a good thing he did, because (like the Library of Cologne I wrote about yesterday) Colón's library wasn't to last.  Besides the aforementioned hazards all books are subject to, Colón came to the attention of the narrow-minded zealous religious bigotry of the Inquisition, and a number of his books -- the ones judged to be heretical -- were seized and burned.  But by that time they had been catalogued, so we have at least a glimpse of what lay inside them.

Fourteen of the sixteen Libros were known to have survived, and reside at the Biblioteca Colombina de Sevilla, along with what is left of Colón's book collection.  But now, quite by accident, the fifteenth volume was found to be still in existence as well -- somehow it had made its way to the Arnamagnæan Institute at the University of Copenhagen, which houses the huge book collection of eighteenth-century Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon.  The three-thousand-odd books in the Institute have only recently been studied in any sort of detail, and it was quite a shock when Guy Lazure, of the University of Windsor (Canada), was working there and found a thirty-centimeter-thick, two thousand page book that turned out to be one of the lost volumes of the Libros de los Epitomes.

The recently rediscovered fifteenth volume of Libros de los Epitomes [Image courtesy of the Arnamagnæan Institute and the University of Copenhagen]

"It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read five hundred years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries," said Edward Wilson-Lee of Cambridge University, who wrote a biography of Colón called The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.  Wilson-Lee emphasizes that Colón was qualitatively different from other book collectors of the time, because he didn't limit his acquisitions to scholarly tomes and the classics.  "This was someone who was, in a way, changing the model of what knowledge is.  Instead of saying 'knowledge is august, authoritative things by some venerable old Roman and Greek people', he’s doing it inductively: taking everything that everyone knows and distilling it upwards from there.  It’s much more resonant with today, with big data and Wikipedia and crowdsourced information.  This is a model of knowledge that says, 'We’re going to take the breadth of print – ballads and pornography and newsletters – and not exclude that from the world of information.'"

It will be fascinating to see what lost gems of antiquity will show up -- in summary form, at least -- in the fifteenth volume of the Libros.  Not as good, perhaps, as having the actual copies as they were before they fell prey to time and the Inquisition, but far better than nothing.  At least it will give us an idea of the scope of what was lost -- and raise the hope that maybe, in other obscure collections somewhere out there, some lost masterpieces of the past are still waiting to be found.


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