Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Recovery Of Manuscripts
by [?]

Our ancient classics had a very narrow escape from total annihilation. Many have perished: many are but fragments; and chance, blind arbiter of the works of genius, has left us some, not of the highest value; which, however, have proved very useful, as a test to show the pedantry of those who adore antiquity not from true feeling, but from traditional prejudice.

We lost a great number of ancient authors by the conquest of Egypt by the Saracens, which deprived Europe of the use of the papyrus. They could find no substitute, and knew no other expedient but writing on parchment, which became every day more scarce and costly. Ignorance and barbarism unfortunately seized on Roman manuscripts, and industriously defaced pages once imagined to have been immortal! The most elegant compositions of classic Rome were converted into the psalms of a breviary, or the prayers of a missal. Livy and Tacitus “hide their diminished heads” to preserve the legend of a saint, and immortal truths were converted into clumsy fictions. It happened that the most voluminous authors were the greatest sufferers; these were preferred, because their volume being the greatest, most profitably repaid their destroying industry, and furnished ampler scope for future transcription. A Livy or a Diodorus was preferred to the smaller works of Cicero or Horace; and it is to this circumstance that Juvenal, Persius, and Martial have come down to us entire, rather probably than to these pious personages preferring their obscenities, as some have accused them. At Rome, a part of a book of Livy was found, between the lines of a parchment but half effaced, on which they had substituted a book of the Bible; and a recent discovery of Cicero De Republica, which lay concealed under some monkish writing, shows the fate of ancient manuscripts.[13]

That the Monks had not in high veneration the profane authors, appears by a facetious anecdote. To read the classics was considered as a very idle recreation, and some held them in great horror. To distinguish them from other books, they invented a disgraceful sign: when a monk asked for a pagan author, after making the general sign they used in their manual and silent language when they wanted a book, he added a particular one, which consisted in scratching under his ear, as a dog, which feels an itching, scratches himself in that place with his paw–because, said they, an unbeliever is compared to a dog! In this manner they expressed an itching for those dogs Virgil or Horace![14]

There have been ages when, for the possession of a manuscript, some would transfer an estate, or leave in pawn for its loan hundreds of golden crowns; and when even the sale or loan of a manuscript was considered of such importance as to have been solemnly registered by public acts. Absolute as was Louis XI. he could not obtain the MS. of Rasis, an Arabian writer, from the library of the Faculty of Paris, to have a copy made, without pledging a hundred golden crowns; and the president of his treasury, charged with this commission, sold part of his plate to make the deposit. For the loan of a volume of Avicenna, a Baron offered a pledge of ten marks of silver, which was refused: because it was not considered equal to the risk incurred of losing a volume of Avicenna! These events occurred in 1471. One cannot but smile, at an anterior period, when a Countess of Anjou bought a favourite book of homilies for two hundred sheep, some skins of martins, and bushels of wheat and rye.

In those times, manuscripts were important articles of commerce; they were excessively scarce, and preserved with the utmost care. Usurers themselves considered them as precious objects for pawn. A student of Pavia, who was reduced, raised a new fortune by leaving in pawn a manuscript of a body of law; and a grammarian, who was ruined by a fire, rebuilt his house with two small volumes of Cicero.