Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter VI

The Complaint of Books Against the Mendicants

Poor in spirit, but most rich in faith, off-scourings of the world and salt of the earth, despisers of the world and fishers of men, how happy are ye, if suffering penury for Christ ye know how to possess your souls in patience! For it is not want the avenger of iniquity, nor the adverse fortune of your parents, nor violent necessity that has thus oppressed you with beggary, but a devout will and Christ-like election, by which ye have chosen that life as the best, which God Almighty made man as well by word as by example declared to be the best. In truth, ye are the latest offspring of the ever-fruitful Church, of late divinely substituted for the Fathers and the Prophets, that your sound may go forth into all the earth, and that instructed by our healthful doctrines ye may preach before all kings and nations the invincible faith of Christ. Moreover, that the faith of the Fathers is chiefly enshrined in books the second chapter has sufficiently shown, from which it is clearer than light that ye ought to be zealous lovers of books above all other Christians. Ye are commanded to sow upon all waters, because the Most High is no respecter of persons, nor does the Most Holy desire the death of sinners, who offered Himself to die for them, but desires to heal the contrite in heart, to raise the fallen, and to correct the perverse in the spirit of lenity. For which most salutary purpose our kindly Mother Church has planted you freely, and having planted has watered you with favours, and having watered you has established you with privileges, that ye may be co-workers with pastors and curates in procuring the salvation of faithful souls. Wherefore, that the order of Preachers was principally instituted for the study of the Holy Scriptures and the salvation of their neighbours, is declared by their constitutions, so that not only from the rule of Bishop Augustine, which directs books to be asked for every day, but as soon as they have read the prologue of the said constitutions they may know from the very title of the same that they are pledged to the love of books.

But alas! a threefold care of superfluities, viz., of the stomach, of dress, and of houses, has seduced these men and others following their example from the paternal care of books, and from their study. For, forgetting the providence of the Saviour (who is declared by the Psalmist to think upon the poor and needy), they are occupied with the wants of the perishing body, that their feasts may be splendid and their garments luxurious, against the rule, and the fabrics of their buildings, like the battlements of castles, carried to a height incompatible with poverty. Because of these three things, we books, who have ever procured their advancement and have granted them to sit among the powerful and noble, are put far from their heart’s affection and are reckoned as superfluities; except that they rely upon some treatises of small value, from which they derive strange heresies and apocryphal imbecilities, not for the refreshment of souls, but rather for tickling the ears of the listeners. The Holy Scripture is not expounded, but is neglected and treated as though it were commonplace and known to all, though very few have touched its hem, and though its depth is such, as Holy Augustine declares, that it cannot be understood by the human intellect, however long it may toil with the utmost intensity of study. From this he who devotes himself to it assiduously, if only He will vouchsafe to open the door who has established the spirit of piety, may unfold a thousand lessons of moral teaching, which will flourish with the freshest novelty and will cherish the intelligence of the listeners with the most delightful savours. Wherefore the first professors of evangelical poverty, after some slight homage paid to secular science, collecting all their force of intellect, devoted themselves to labours upon the sacred scripture, meditating day and night on the law of the Lord. And whatever they could steal from their famishing belly, or intercept from their half-covered body, they thought it the highest gain to spend in buying or correcting books. Whose worldly contemporaries observing their devotion and study bestowed upon them for the edification of the whole Church the books which they had collected at great expense in the various parts of the world.

In truth, in these days as ye are engaged with all diligence in pursuit of gain, it may be reasonably believed, if we speak according to human notions, that God thinks less upon those whom He perceives to distrust His promises, putting their hope in human providence, not considering the raven, nor the lilies, whom the Most High feeds and arrays. Ye do not think upon Daniel and the bearer of the mess of boiled pottage, nor recollect Elijah who was delivered from hunger once in the desert by angels, again in the torrent by ravens, and again in Sarepta by the widow, through the divine bounty, which gives to all flesh their meat in due season. Ye descend (as we fear) by a wretched anticlimax, distrust of the divine goodness producing reliance upon your own prudence, and reliance upon your own prudence begetting anxiety about worldly things, and excessive anxiety about worldly things taking away the love as well as the study of books; and thus poverty in these days is abused to the injury of the Word of God, which ye have chosen only for profit’s sake.

With summer fruit, as the people gossip, ye attract boys to religion, whom when they have taken the vows ye do not instruct by fear and force, as their age requires, but allow them to devote themselves to begging expeditions, and suffer them to spend the time, in which they might be learning, in procuring the favour of friends, to the annoyance of their parents, the danger of the boys, and the detriment of the order. And thus no doubt it happens that those who were not compelled to learn as unwilling boys, when they grow up presume to teach though utterly unworthy and unlearned, and a small error in the beginning becomes a very great one in the end. For there grows up among your promiscuous flock of laity a pestilent multitude of creatures, who nevertheless the more shamelessly force themselves into the office of preaching, the less they understand what they are saying, to the contempt of the Divine Word and the injury of souls. In truth, against the law ye plough with an ox and an ass together, in committing the cultivation of the Lord’s field to learned and unlearned. Side by side, it is written, the oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them: since it is the duty of the discreet to preach, but of the simple to feed themselves in silence by the hearing of sacred eloquence. How many stones ye fling upon the heap of Mercury nowadays! How many marriages ye procure for the eunuchs of wisdom! How many blind watchmen ye bid go round about the walls of the Church!

O idle fishermen, using only the nets of others, which when torn it is all ye can do to clumsily repair, but can net no new ones of your own! ye enter on the labours of others, ye repeat the lessons of others, ye mouth with theatric effort the superficially repeated wisdom of others. As the silly parrot imitates the words that he has heard, so such men are mere reciters of all, but authors of nothing, imitating Balaam’s ass, which, though senseless of itself, yet became eloquent of speech and the teacher of its master though a prophet. Recover yourselves, O poor in Christ, and studiously regard us books, without which ye can never be properly shod in the preparation of the Gospel of Peace.

Paul the Apostle, preacher of the truth and excellent teacher of the nations, for all his gear bade three things to be brought to him by Timothy, his cloak, books and parchments, affording an example to ecclesiastics that they should wear dress in moderation, and should have books for aid in study, and parchments, which the Apostle especially esteems, for writing: AND ESPECIALLY, he says, the parchments. And truly that clerk is crippled and maimed to his disablement in many ways, who is entirely ignorant of the art of writing. He beats the air with words and edifies only those who are present, but does nothing for the absent and for posterity. The man bore a writer’s ink-horn upon his loins, who set a mark Tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry, Ezechiel ix.; teaching in a figure that if any lack skill in writing, he shall not undertake the task of preaching repentance.

Finally, in conclusion of the present chapter, books implore of you: make your young men who though ignorant are apt of intellect apply themselves to study, furnishing them with necessaries, that ye may teach them not only goodness but discipline and science, may terrify them by blows, charm them by blandishments, mollify them by gifts, and urge them on by painful rigour, so that they may become at once Socratics in morals and Peripatetics in learning. Yesterday, as it were at the eleventh hour, the prudent householder introduced you into his vineyard. Repent of idleness before it is too late: would that with the cunning steward ye might be ashamed of begging so shamelessly; for then no doubt ye would devote yourselves more assiduously to us books and to study.

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