Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter XVI

That it is Meritorious to Write New Books and to Renew the Old

Just as it is necessary for the state to prepare arms and to provide abundant stores of victuals for the soldiers who are to fight for it, so it is fitting for the Church Militant to fortify itself against the assaults of pagans and heretics with a multitude of sound writings.

But because all the appliances of mortal men with the lapse of time suffer the decay of mortality, it is needful to replace the volumes that are worn out with age by fresh successors, that the perpetuity of which the individual is by its nature incapable may be secured to the species; and hence it is that the Preacher says: Of making many books there is no end. For as the bodies of books, seeing that they are formed of a combination of contrary elements, undergo a continual dissolution of their structure, so by the forethought of the clergy a remedy should be found, by means of which the sacred book paying the debt of nature may obtain a natural heir and may raise up like seed to its dead brother, and thus may be verified that saying of Ecclesiasticus: His father is dead, and he is as if he were not dead; for he hath left one behind him that is like himself. And thus the transcription of ancient books is as it were the begetting of fresh sons, on whom the office of the father may devolve, lest it suffer detriment. Now such transcribers are called antiquarii, whose occupations Cassiodorus confesses please him above all the tasks of bodily labour, adding: “Happy effort,” he says, “laudable industry, to preach to men with the hand, to let loose tongues with the fingers, silently to give salvation to mortals, and to fight with pen and ink against the illicit wiles of the Evil One.” So far Cassiodorus. Moreover, our Saviour exercised the office of the scribe when He stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground (John viii.), that no one, however exalted, may think it unworthy of him to do what he sees the wisdom of God the Father did.

O singular serenity of writing, to practise which the Artificer of the world stoops down, at whose dread name every knee doth bow! O venerable handicraft pre-eminent above all other crafts that are practised by the hand of man, to which our Lord humbly inclines His breast, to which the finger of God is applied, performing the office of a pen! We do not read of the Son of God that He sowed or ploughed, wove or digged; nor did any other of the mechanic arts befit the divine wisdom incarnate except to trace letters in writing, that every gentleman and sciolist may know that fingers are given by God to men for the task of writing rather than for war. Wherefore we entirely approve the judgment of books, wherein they declared in our sixth chapter the clerk who cannot write to be as it were disabled.

God himself inscribes the just in the book of the living; Moses received the tables of stone written with the finger of God. Job desires that he himself that judgeth would write a book. Belshazzar trembled when he saw the fingers of a man’s hand writing upon the wall, Mene tekel phares. I wrote, says Jeremiah, with ink in the book. Christ bids his beloved disciple John, What thou seest write in a book. So the office of the writer is enjoined on Isaiah and on Joshua, that the act and skill of writing may be commended to future generations. Christ Himself has written on His vesture and on His thigh King of Kings and Lord of Lords, so that without writing the royal ornaments of the Omnipotent cannot be made perfect. Being dead they cease not to teach, who write books of sacred learning. Paul did more for building up the fabric of the Church by writing his holy epistles, than by preaching by word of mouth to Jews and Gentiles. He who has attained the prize continues daily by books, what he long ago began while a sojourner upon the earth; and thus is fulfilled in the doctors writing books the saying of the Prophet: They that turn many to righteousness shall be as the stars for ever and ever.

Moreover, it has been determined by the doctors of the Church that the longevity of the ancients, before God destroyed the original world by the Deluge, is to be ascribed to a miracle and not to nature; as though God granted to them such length of days as was required for finding out the sciences and writing them in books; amongst which the wonderful variety of astronomy required, according to Josephus, a period of six hundred years, to submit it to ocular observation. Nor, indeed, do they deny that the fruits of the earth in that primitive age afforded a more nutritious aliment to men than in our modern times, and thus they had not only a livelier energy of body, but also a more lengthened period of vigour; to which it contributed not a little that they lived according to virtue and denied themselves all luxurious delights. Whoever therefore is by the good gift of God endowed with gift of science, let him, according to the counsel of the Holy Spirit, write wisdom in his time of leisure (Eccles. xxxviii.), that his reward may be with the blessed and his days may be lengthened in this present world.

And further, if we turn our discourse to the princes of the world, we find that famous emperors not only attained excellent skill in the art of writing, but indulged greatly in its practice. Julius Caesar, the first and greatest of them all, has left us Commentaries on the Gallic and the Civil Wars written by himself; he wrote also two books De Analogia, and two books of Anticatones, and a poem called Iter; and many other works. Julius and Augustus devised means of writing one letter for another, and so concealing what they wrote. For Julius put the fourth letter for the first, and so on through the alphabet; whilst Augustus used the second for the first, the third for the second, and so throughout. He is said in the greatest difficulties of affairs during the Mutinensian War to have read and written and even declaimed every day. Tiberius wrote a lyric poem and some Greek verses. Claudius likewise was skilled in both Greek and Latin, and wrote several books. But Titus was skilled above all men in the art of writing, and easily imitated any hand he chose; so that he used to say that if he had wished it he might have become a most skilful forger. All these things are noted by Suetonius in his Lives of the XII. Caesars.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31