Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter IV

The Complaint of Books Against the Clergy Already Promoted

A generation of vipers destroying their own parent and base offspring of the ungrateful cuckoo, who when he has grown strong slays his nurse, the giver of his strength, are degenerate clerks with regard to books. Bring it again to mind and consider faithfully what ye receive through books, and ye will find that books are as it were the creators of your distinction, without which other favourers would have been wanting.

In sooth, while still untrained and helpless ye crept up to us, ye spake as children, ye thought as children, ye cried as children and begged to be made partakers of our milk. But we being straightway moved by your tears gave you the breast of grammar to suck, which ye plied continually with teeth and tongue, until ye lost your native barbarousness and learned to speak with our tongues the mighty things of God. And next we clad you with the goodly garments of philosophy, rhetoric and dialectic, of which we had and have a store, while ye were naked as a tablet to be painted on. For all the household of philosophy are clothed with garments, that the nakedness and rawness of the intellect may be covered. After this, providing you with the fourfold wings of the quadrivials that ye might be winged like the seraphs and so mount above the cherubim, we sent you to a friend at whose door, if only ye importunately knocked, ye might borrow the three loaves of the Knowledge of the Trinity, in which consists the final felicity of every sojourner below. Nay, if ye deny that ye had these privileges, we boldly declare that ye either lost them by your carelessness, or that through your sloth ye spurned them when offered to you. If these things seem but a light matter to you, we will add yet greater things. Ye are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy race, ye are a peculiar people chosen into the lot of God, ye are priests and ministers of God, nay, ye are called the very Church of God, as though the laity were not to be called churchmen. Ye, being preferred to the laity, sing psalms and hymns in the chancel, and, serving the altar and living by the altar, make the true body of Christ, wherein God Himself has honoured you not only above the laity, but even a little higher than the angels. For to whom of His angels has He said at any time: Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech? Ye dispense the patrimony of the crucified one to the poor, wherein it is required of stewards that a man be found faithful. Ye are shepherds of the Lord’s flock, as well in example of life as in the word of doctrine, which is bound to repay you with milk and wool.

Who are the givers of all these things, O clerks? Is it not books? Do ye remember therefore, we pray, how many and how great liberties and privileges are bestowed upon the clergy through us? In truth, taught by us who are the vessels of wisdom and intellect, ye ascend the teacher’s chair and are called of men Rabbi. By us ye become marvellous in the eyes of the laity, like great lights in the world, and possess the dignities of the Church according to your various stations. By us, while ye still lack the first down upon your cheeks, ye are established in your early years and bear the tonsure on your heads, while the dread sentence of the Church is heard: Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm, and he who has rashly touched them let him forthwith by his own blow be smitten violently with the wound of an anathema. At length yielding your lives to wickedness, reaching the two paths of Pythagoras, ye choose the left branch, and going backward ye let go the lot of God which ye had first assumed, becoming companions of thieves. And thus ever going from bad to worse, dyed with theft and murder and manifold impurities, your fame and conscience stained by sins, at the bidding of justice ye are confined in manacles and fetters, and are kept to be punished by a most shameful death. Then your friend is put far away, nor is there any to mourn your lot. Peter swears that he knows not the man: the people cry to the judge: Crucify, crucify Him! If thou let this man go, thou act not Caesar’s friend. Now all refuge has perished, for ye must stand before the judgment-seat, and there is no appeal, but only hanging is in store for you. While the wretched man’s heart is thus filled with woe and only the sorrowing Muses bedew their cheeks with tears, in his strait is heard on every side the wailing appeal to us, and to avoid the danger of impending death he shows the slight sign of the ancient tonsure which we bestowed upon him, begging that we may be called to his aid and bear witness to the privilege bestowed upon him. Then straightway touched with pity we run to meet the prodigal son and snatch the fugitive slave from the gates of death. The book he has not forgotten is handed to him to be read, and while with lips stammering with fear he reads a few words, the power of the judge is loosed, the accuser is withdrawn, and death is put to flight. O marvellous virtue of an empiric verse! O saving antidote of dreadful ruin! O precious reading of the psalter, which for this alone deserves to be called the book of life! Let the laity undergo the judgment of the secular arm, that either sewn up in sacks they may be carried out to Neptune, or planted in the earth may fructify for Pluto, or may be offered amid the flames as a fattened holocaust to Vulcan, or at least may be hung up as a victim to Juno: while our nursling at a single reading of the book of life is handed over to the custody of the Bishop, and rigour is changed to favour, and the forum being transferred from the laity, death is routed by the clerk who is the nursling of books.

But now let us speak of the clerks who are vessels of virtue. Which of you about to preach ascends the pulpit or the rostrum without in some way consulting us? Which of you enters the schools to teach or to dispute without relying upon our support? First of all, it behoves you to eat the book with Ezechiel, that the belly of your memory may be sweetened within, and thus as with the panther refreshed, to whose breath all beasts and cattle long to approach, the sweet savour of the spices it has eaten may shed a perfume without. Thus our nature secretly working in our own, listeners hasten up gladly, as the load-stone draws the iron nothing loth. What an infinite host of books lie at Paris or Athens, and at the same time resound in Britain and in Rome! In truth, while resting they yet move, and while retaining their own places they are carried about every way to the minds of listeners. Finally, by the knowledge of literature, we establish Priests, Bishops, Cardinals, and the Pope, that all things in the ecclesiastical hierarchy may be fitly disposed. For it is from books that everything of good that befalls the clerical condition takes its origin. But let this suffice: for it pains us to recall what we have bestowed upon the degenerate clergy, because whatever gifts are distributed to the ungrateful seem to be lost rather than bestowed.

Let us next dwell a little on the recital of the wrongs with which they requite us, the contempts and cruelties of which we cannot recite an example in each kind, nay, scarcely the main classes of the several wrongs. In the first place, we are expelled by force and arms from the homes of the clergy, which are ours by hereditary right, who were used to have cells of quietness in the inner chamber, but, alas! in these unhappy times we are altogether exiled, suffering poverty without the gates. For our places are seized now by dogs, now by hawks, now by that biped beast whose cohabitation with the clergy was forbidden of old, from which we have always taught our nurslings to flee more than from the asp and the cockatrice; wherefore she, always jealous of the love of us, and never to be appeased, at length seeing us in some corner protected only by the web of some dead spider, with a frown abuses and reviles us with bitter words, declaring us alone of all the furniture in the house to be unnecessary, and complaining that we are useless for any household purpose, and advises that we should speedily be converted into rich caps, sendal and silk and twice-dyed purple, robes and furs, wool and linen: and, indeed, not without reason, if she could see our inmost hearts, if she had listened to our secret counsels, if she had read the book of Theophrastus or Valerius, or only heard the twenty-fifth chapter of Ecclesiasticus with understanding ears.

And hence it is that we have to mourn for the homes of which we have been unjustly robbed; and as to our coverings, not that they have not been given to us, but that the coverings anciently given to us have been torn by violent hands, insomuch that our soul is bowed down to the dust, our belly cleaveth unto the earth. We suffer from various diseases, enduring pains in our backs and sides; we lie with our limbs unstrung by palsy, and there is no man who layeth it to heart, and no man who provides a mollifying plaster. Our native whiteness that was clear with light has turned to dun and yellow, so that no leech who should see us would doubt that we are diseased with jaundice. Some of us are suffering from gout, as our twisted extremities plainly show. The smoke and dust by which we are continuously plagued have dulled the keenness of our visual rays, and are now infecting our bleared eyes with ophthalmia. Within we are devoured by the fierce gripings of our entrails, which hungry worms cease not to gnaw, and we undergo the corruption of the two Lazaruses, nor is there anyone to anoint us with balm of cedar, nor to cry to us who have been four days dead and already stink, Lazarus come forth! No healing drug is bound around our cruel wounds, which are so atrociously inflicted upon the innocent, and there is none to put a plaster upon our ulcers; but ragged and shivering we are flung away into dark corners, or in tears take our place with holy Job upon his dunghill, or — too horrible to relate — are buried in the depths of the common sewers. The cushion is withdrawn that should support our evangelical sides, which ought to have the first claim upon the incomes of the clergy, and the common necessaries of life thus be for ever provided for us, who are entrusted to their charge.

Again, we complain of another sort of injury which is too often unjustly inflicted upon our persons. We are sold for bondmen and bondwomen, and lie as hostages in taverns with no one to redeem us. We fall a prey to the cruel shambles, where we see sheep and cattle slaughtered not without pious tears, and where we die a thousand times from such terrors as might frighten even the brave. We are handed over to Jews, Saracens, heretics and infidels, whose poison we always dread above everything, and by whom it is well known that some of our parents have been infected with pestiferous venom. In sooth, we who should be treated as masters in the sciences, and bear rule over the mechanics who should be subject to us, are instead handed over to the government of subordinates, as though some supremely noble monarch should be trodden under foot by rustic heels. Any seamster or cobbler or tailor or artificer of any trade keeps us shut up in prison for the luxurious and wanton pleasures of the clergy.

Now we would pursue a new kind of injury by which we suffer alike in person and in fame, the dearest thing we have. Our purity of race is diminished every day, while new authors’ names are imposed upon us by worthless compilers, translators, and transformers, and losing our ancient nobility, while we are reborn in successive generations, we become wholly degenerate; and thus against our will the name of some wretched stepfather is affixed to us, and the sons are robbed of the names of their true fathers. The verses of Virgil, while he was yet living, were claimed by an impostor; and a certain Fidentinus mendaciously usurped the works of Martial, whom Martial thus deservedly rebuked:

“The book you read is, Fidentinus! mine,
Though read so badly, ‘t well may pass for thine!”

What marvel, then, if when our authors are dead clerical apes use us to make broad their phylacteries, since even while they are alive they try to seize us as soon as we are published? Ah! how often ye pretend that we who are ancient are but lately born, and try to pass us off as sons who are really fathers, calling us who have made you clerks the production of your studies. Indeed, we derived our origin from Athens, though we are now supposed to be from Rome; for Carmentis was always the pilferer of Cadmus, and we who were but lately born in England, will to-morrow be born again in Paris; and thence being carried to Bologna, will obtain an Italian origin, based upon no affinity of blood. Alas! how ye commit us to treacherous copyists to be written, how corruptly ye read us and kill us by medication, while ye supposed ye were correcting us with pious zeal. Oftentimes we have to endure barbarous interpreters, and those who are ignorant of foreign idioms presume to translate us from one language into another; and thus all propriety of speech is lost and our sense is shamefully mutilated contrary to the meaning of the author! Truly noble would have been the condition of books if it had not been for the presumption of the tower of Babel, if but one kind of speech had been transmitted by the whole human race.

We will add the last clause of our long lament, though far too short for the materials that we have. For in us the natural use is changed to that which is against nature, while we who are the light of faithful souls everywhere fall a prey to painters knowing nought of letters, and are entrusted to goldsmiths to become, as though we were not sacred vessels of wisdom, repositories of gold-leaf. We fall undeservedly into the power of laymen, which is more bitter to us than any death, since they have sold our people for nought, and our enemies themselves are our judges.

It is clear from what we have said what infinite invectives we could hurl against the clergy, if we did not think of our own reputation. For the soldier whose campaigns are over venerates his shield and arms, and grateful Corydon shows regard for his decaying team, harrow, flail and mattock, and every manual artificer for the instruments of his craft; it is only the ungrateful cleric who despises and neglects those things which have ever been the foundation of his honours.

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