Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter V

The Complaint of Books Against the Possessioners

The venerable devotion of the religious orders is wont to be solicitous in the care of books and to delight in their society, as if they were the only riches. For some used to write them with their own hands between the hours of prayer, and gave to the making of books such intervals as they could secure and the times appointed for the recreation of the body. By whose labours there are resplendent to-day in most monasteries these sacred treasuries full of cherubic letters, for giving the knowledge of salvation to the student and a delectable light to the paths of the laity. O manual toil, happier than any agricultural task! O devout solicitude, where neither Martha nor Mary deserves to be rebuked! O joyful house, in which the fruitful Leah does not envy the beauteous Rachel, but action and contemplation share each other’s joys! O happy charge, destined to benefit endless generations of posterity, with which no planting of trees, no sowing of seeds, no pastoral delight in herds, no building of fortified camps can be compared! Wherefore the memory of those fathers should be immortal, who delighted only in the treasures of wisdom, who most laboriously provided shining lamps against future darkness, and against hunger of hearing the Word of God, most carefully prepared, not bread baked in the ashes, nor of barley, nor musty, but unleavened loaves made of the finest wheat of divine wisdom, with which hungry souls might be joyfully fed These men were the stoutest champions of the Christian army, who defended our weakness by their most valiant arms; they were in their time the most cunning takers of foxes, who have left us their nets, that we might catch the young foxes, who cease not to devour the growing vines. Of a truth, noble fathers, worthy of perpetual benediction, ye would have been deservedly happy, if ye had been allowed to beget offspring like yourselves, and to leave no degenerate or doubtful progeny for the benefit of future times.

But, painful to relate, now slothful Thersites handles the arms of Achilles and the choice trappings of war-horses are spread upon lazy asses, winking owls lord it in the eagle’s nest, and the cowardly kite sits upon the perch of the hawk.

Liber Bacchus is ever loved,
And is into their bellies shoved,
By day and by night;
Liber Codex is neglected,
And with scornful hand rejected
Far out of their sight.

And as if the simple monastic folk of modern times were deceived by a confusion of names, while Liber Pater is preferred to Liber Patrum, the study of the monks nowadays is in the emptying of cups and not the emending of books; to which they do not hesitate to add the wanton music of Timotheus, jealous of chastity, and thus the song of the merry-maker and not the chant of the mourner is become the office of the monks. Flocks and fleeces, crops and granaries, leeks and potherbs, drink and goblets, are nowadays the reading and study of the monks, except a few elect ones, in whom lingers not the image but some slight vestige of the fathers that preceded them. And again, no materials at all are furnished us to commend the canons regular for their care or study of us, who though they bear their name of honour from their twofold rule, yet have neglected the notable clause of Augustine’s rule, in which we are commended to his clergy in these words: Let books be asked for each day at a given hour; he who asks for them after the hour is not to receive them. Scarcely anyone observes this devout rule of study after saying the prayers of the Church, but to care for the things of this world and to look at the plough that has been left is reckoned the highest wisdom. They take up bow and quiver, embrace arms and shield, devote the tribute of alms to dogs and not to the poor, become the slaves of dice and draughts, and of all such things as we are wont to forbid even to the secular clergy, so that we need not marvel if they disdain to look upon us, whom they see so much opposed to their mode of life.

Come then, reverend fathers, deign to recall your fathers and devote yourselves more faithfully to the study of holy books, without which all religion will stagger, without which the virtue of devotion will dry up like a sherd, and without which ye can afford no light to the world.

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