A 17th Century Handheld Library

IMG_0431All of us have become accustomed in the 21st century to holding libraries in our hands on a regular basis.  People walk around routinely with music libraries on their ipods, photo libraries on their phones, and e-book libraries on their tablets and e-readers.  Anyone who owns such digital libraries is also familiar with the sometimes frustrating experience of trying to transfer these digital libraries from one device to another when an old phone dies or it’s time to replace a dated laptop.  Sometimes the attempt to re-create the original library works well, but often there are glitches.  Even if all the music or e-books or photos successfully get transferred to another device (and sometimes things get lost, or aren’t compatible with your new device or software), getting all the digital items arranged as they were on the previous device can be a challenge.  Re-creating a library is not simply a matter of transferring that library’s contents–all the mp3s in a music library–but the structure of those contents–your “Favorite Love Songs from the Decade When I Was 20” or “Best of Duke Ellington” playlists.

A reader in the Kislak Center at Penn Libraries who requests up call number  Z997 .T524 1679, will receive a 17th century version of a handheld library.  Or, more accurately, the 17th century approach to preserving and, potentially, recreating a library in the same way that the owner of a modern handheld library attempts to recreate his or her playlists.  The book, titled the Bibliotheca Thuana is the catalog of the library of of Jaques August de Thou (1553-1617), a French statesman, historian, and book collector who amassed almost 13,000 books in his lifetime.  The catalog was printed in 1681 when de Thou’s library was purchased by Jean-Jacques Charron, Marquis de Ménars (1643-1718).  Thanks to a recent donation from Jay I. Kislak, Penn has several of the original books from de Thou’s library, many of which are marked with one of the three crests associated with his bachelor days and his two wives (for more on de Thou’s binding, see  this post by Penn blogger, Regan Kladstrup).  The Bibliotheca Thuana allows us to get a sense of what a re-creation of that library from centuries ago might look like and how books at Penn and elsewhere that we know from the provenance marks on their bindings originally belonged to de Thou were originally placed in that library.

The image at the top of this blog post indicates one way in which this book allows us to imagine a library from another time.  This engraving, which appears as the header for several main sections in the catalog, may or may not resemble the actual de Thou library, but certainly depicts what some bibliophiles might consider an ideal past library.  Alternating windows and bookcases create a play of light and shadow in which well dressed men wander from book to book as though through a loggia or a garden arbor. The lines of bookshelves create the sense of apparently limitless knowledge as they recede from somewhere outside the reader’s frame of sight to the vanishing point at the end of the space, a set of classically adorned doors framed by the curving arch of the room’s ceiling. A large globe, the bust of some long dead scholar or statesman, and the large desk in the foreground all add the comfortable air of learned authority to the setting.

The text of the catalog fIMG_0430ollowing this header image not only lists the books in de Thou’s collection, but provides an “Index Titulorum”, or title index, which provides the reader with a guide to the major headings and subheadings under which bibliographic entries of individual titles are grouped in the 500 page catalog that follows. This bibliographical system was relatively novel for its time and made the book useful enough as a reference source that it was reprinted in 1704 and became widely adopted as an approach for organizing French book catalogs.[1]

Perusing these headings and subheadings gives the modern reader a sense of how the people in a library like the one shown in the header engraving may have thought about the stacks they moved through.  Primary place in the list goes to Theology (Theologia) under which one can find the references for which page to turn to if one is looking for books about the Carmelite orders, under the sub-heading “History of the Religious Orders,” (Historia Ordinvm Religiosorvm) or books related to Luther and Calvin grouped under the subheading “Commentaries of heretics on the holy scriptures” (Hæreticorvm Commentarii in Scripturam sacram), reflecting the still fresh Protestant, Catholic divide. A section titled De Hypothesibvs Astronomicis & Systematibus refers one to books related to both the Ptolemaic (earth centered) Copernican (sun centered) models of the universe, a debate that was not fully settled yet in the late 17th century.

The text of the catalog completes the verbal replication of de Thou’s library with two lists at the back of the catalog that add the furniture. One lists the two globes, the astrolabe, thermometer, concave silver mirror, marble statue of Laocon and many maps held in the library. The other provides a list of the 129 portraits “painted in the style of the Masters, serving as ornament above the shelves of the library.” (Portraits de Differentes grandeurs, peints par d’habiles Maistres, servant d’ornement au dessus des tablettes de la Bblioteque.) Listed are portraits of popes, of kings, of the mistresses of kings, admirals, poets, and illustrious de Thou family members whose painted forms looked out from the walls of the library. These entries suggest that the engraving in the header of the catalog, while not an exact representation of duThou’s real life library, does resemble the sort of grand space it must have been, adorned with art, globes, and scientific instruments.

A final representation of a library appears in the header of a small pamphlet bound in the back of Penn’s copy of the BibliothecaIMG_0437 2 Thuana and titled “Bibliotheca Thuana, nunc Menarsiana, Carmen” (Song of the de Thou library, now the Ménars Library). This engraving depicts an idealized library similar to the one shown in the header, lined with elegant bookcases, populated by gentlemen scholars of another age, adorned with a large globe. However, dominating this image is the huge crest of the Marquis de Ménars in the foreground. Indeed, the crest appears to invade the space of the library itself as though it were a huge presence in the room, dominating the small figures of the men and books that surround it. Below the image is an 8 page latin poem praising the learning of de Thou’s library and its transfer to the marquis.

 If the engraving of the imaginary library at the start of the Bibliotheca Thuana lets us imagine a library as a pleasant, luxurious reading space, and if the catalog itself helps us to understand a library in terms of the different fields of thought and knowledge it contains, then this final image lets us understand a library as something tied to ownership. Ménars’ crest resting in the space of the library is a tribute to the importance of those who collected and maintained the books that have been passed down to us in the present, and knowing the provenance of these books, who possessed them in the past helps to document the enduring legacy of such collectors. At the same time, the image of Ménars’ crest at the top of a poem announcing the transfer of de Thou’s library to its new owner, also highlights the ephemeral nature of ownership. What was de Thou’s library is now Ménars’, the image declares, and it will then be passed to another and another across future generations. For all of us in the present day the Bibliotheca Thuana is a reminder that we all hold libraries, in our hands for a small space of time, using them to define our own ideas about the world, before passing them on to future readers.IMG_0443 2

[1] Grolier Club. Bibliography: Its History and Development. New York: Grolier Club, 1984, 76.

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4 Responses to A 17th Century Handheld Library

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 34) | www.weyerman.nl

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  3. Eugene Flamm says:

    Small correction: The catalogue is dated 1679 in the imprint. The sale took place in 1681. Twenty- five years later Menars sold the de Thou books to Cardinal Rohan-Soubise, making a handsome profit. Upon the Cardinal’s death, this portion of the library passed to the Prince de Soubise. This group of books was finally dispersed by auction in 1788.


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