Thursday, February 21, 2013

Richard de Bury: The Greatest Bibliophile of the Middle Ages


Richard de Bury, former priest, Bishop of Durham and Lord Palatine, tutor to the royal prince, ambassador for peace, High Chancellor, and Treasurer to the English Crown under Edward III, would eventually die penniless. He would be buried wearing a plain linen undershirt and laid to rest in a cheap, wooden coffin. This tragic end is partly attributable to his charitable disposition but mostly to his love of books (Thompson, 1949, p.265; de Bury, 1970, p. xxii).

De Bury is considered the greatest bibliophile of the Middle Ages (Martin, 1986, p.2). Born Richard Aungervilles (d’Aungervilles by some accounts) in c.1286 to a lord knight, de Bury can claim his lineage to those who fought under the flag of William the Conquerer (Martin, 1986, p.7). As was the custom of the time, Richard took the place of his birth as his last name, thus he is known as “de Bury” (Martin, 1986, p. 9).

It is often reported that de Bury was a Benedictine monk (see Murray, 2009; p. 70) although several respected sources dispute this as there is no evidence of him joining the Order (de Bury, 1970, xii; Martin, 1986, p.9 fn.8). In fact, both entries for de Bury in Wikipedia and Britannica Online have him as a Benedictine monk (see and

De Bury received his M.A. and B.D. from Oxford in 1312. It has been debated whether he was an intellect of the first order or just an avid supporter of the academics (de Bury, 1970, p. xxix; Martin, 1986, p.11). The issue seems to have confused even the great Petrarch who met the bishop and formed a lasting relationship with him due to their shared love of books (de Bury, 1970, p.xxxi; Martin, 1986, p. 11).

De Bury was an ardent supporter of learning. In the Philobon, the bishop states that one of his goals is
to found in perpetual charity a Hall in the reverend university of Oxford…for the maintenance of a number of scholars; and moreover to enrich the Hall with the treasures of our books, that all and every of them should be in common as regards their use and study[.](de Bury, 1970, p.165)
Unfortunately, and contrary to Murray (2009, p. 70), de Bury did not have the funds to found Durham College. This was done by his successor, Bishop Hatfield, and Durham College would eventually become Trinity College (Martin, 1986, p. 14).

Book Collecting In his introduction to his translation of Philobiblon, E.C. Thomas, states that “[n]o man has ever carried to a higher pitch of enthusiasm the passion for collecting books” (de Bury, 1970, p. xxxi). He had an immense amount of books. According Brown-Syed (2004) his biographer Chambr√© wrote that:

[H]e had more books, as was commonly reported, than all the other English bishops put together. He had a separate library in each of his residences, and wherever he was residing, so many books lay about his bed-chamber, that it was hardly possible to stand or move without treading upon them. (p.77)
De Bury was an accomplished politician and diplomat. This enabled him to travel throughout Europe, searching for old manuscripts and books (Murray, 2009, p. 70). As a priest and powerful member of the clergy, de Bury was given access to convents and monasteries with their trove of forgotten books (Murray, 2009, p.70). However, this was not the only way the bishop acquired books. Brown-Syed (2004) states:

Richard de Wallingford, bribed de Bury with four books by Terence, Vergil, Quintilian, and Jerome, and sold him 32 more for £50 (p. 377). In fact, de Bury admits that he was more easily swayed by books than by money, and that he was quite willing to lobby at court for those who gave them to him, though he claims to have acted within ethical bounds. (p. 76)
As a bishop, however, this “sale” was even too much for his conscience to bear and he eventually gave some of the books back (Cheney, 1973, p. 325).

De Bury was not shy about how he sometimes obtained his books by virtue of his offices and influence with the royal court. In Chapter VIII of the Philobiblon entitled “Of the numerous Opportunities we have had of collecting a store of books” he writes:

And indeed while we filled various offices to the victorious Prince and splendidly triumphant King of England, Edward the Third from the Conquest—whose reign may the Almighty long and peacefully continue—first those about his court, but then those concerning the public affairs of his kingdom, namely the offices of Chancellor and Treasurer, there was afforded to us, in consideration of the royal favour, easy access for the purpose of freely searching the retreats of books. In fact, the fame of our love of them had been soon winged abroad everywhere, and we were reported to burn with such desire for books, and especially old ones, that it was more easy for any man to gain our favour by means of books than of money. (de Bury, 1970, pp. 81-82)
Whether one agrees or disagrees with his methods, there is a special quality to a clergyman who accepts books as bribes in lieu of money.

The Philobiblon Before his death in 1345, de Bury wrote a book of essays that he compiled in a work entitled Philobiblon. This was a word he created from the Greek meaning “love of books”. Written in Latin, as was the custom of the day, it is separated into twenty chapters (de Bury, 1970, p. 3,5). These essays discuss book collecting, the care of books, the “advantages of the love of books”, and the vagaries of wars and how they destroy books. In Chapter VII entitled “The Complaint of Books against Wars” de Bury writes:

ALMIGHTY AUTHOR AND LOVER OF PEACE, scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all plagues injurious to books. For wars being without the control of reason make a wild assault on everything they come across, and, lacking the check of reason they push on without discretion or distinction to destroy the vessels of reason. (de Bury, 1970, p.71)
Fortunately, these were not idol words of an academic and bibliophile. As a diplomat, de Bury sought to seek peace throughout the realm, sometimes successfully as was the case with Scotland to the north, sometimes unsuccessfully, as was the case with France and the start of the 100 Years War (de Bury, 1970, p.xvii).

One of the most interesting sections in the Philobiblon is Chapter XIX entitled “Of the Manner of lending all our Books to Students”. According to Brown-Syed (2004), thePhilobiblon is “one of the longest extant medieval texts on the subject of library management” (p. 77). Here, de Bury describes the practices for circulation control among the students of the college, utilizing at times an open-stack rather than the dominant closed-stack system (Brown-Syed, 2004, p.79).

As to de Bury’s legacy, it was said about the Philobiblon: “it is the sole memorial of one who loved books so much in an age and country that loved them so little” (Martin, 1986, p.24).

Illness and Death Richard de Bury became ill at some point near the end of his life and withdrew from his public duties. It is at this time it is believed that he wrote thePhilobiblon (de Bury, 1970, p. xxi). While he sought to create a library from his books, this never came to fruition due to his debts. Instead, his library was sold off by his creditors, scattering his books across the realm (Martin, 1986, pp.15-16).

Brown-Syed, C. C. (2004). The love of books: The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, translated by E. C. Thomas. Library And Archival Security, 19(1), 76-81.
Cheney, C. R. (1973). Richard de Bury, borrower of books. Speculum: A Journal Of Medieval Studies, 48(2), 325-328.
De Bury, R. (1970). Philobiblon [by] Richard de Bury. The text and translation of E. C. Thomas, edited with a foreword by Michael MacLagan. New York, Barnes & Noble.
Martin, S. S. (1986). Richard D'aungerville de bury, 1287-1345 (England, Bishop of Durham). Emory University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 286 p. Retrieved from (303446130).
Murray, S.A.P.(2009). The Library: An illustrated history. New York: Sky Horse Publishing.
Thompson, L. (1949). The Philobiblon by Richard de Bury. Speculum: A Journal Of Medieval Studies, 24:2, 265-266.

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