Bibliophile heroes turned villains and the Cottonian fire of 1731

We all know about the famous fire that destroyed parts of the Cottonian manuscript collection in 1731. The fire started at the Ashburnham House in Westminster on 23 October 1731. More than a hundred irreplaceable manuscripts were lost in the conflagration, with many others badly damaged, including one whose transcription almost cost me my eyesight. Ok, this I knew. I also know that where there are fires – and no firemen – heroes must come to the fore. Richard Bentley, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has been regarded as a hero for having rescued the precious Alexandrian manuscript of the New Testament. One eyewitness account noted that Bentley

issued from the burning house in his dressing gown, a flowing wig on his head, and a huge volume under his arm.

However, Bentley was a bibliophile Spiderman, it turns out, for some also regarded him as a villain and, perhaps, the primum movens of the blaze. The Earl of Oxford, writing to the antiquarian Thomas Hearne on Christmas Day 1731, reviles Bentley in these words:

As to what you desire in your letter of Nov. 17, that I would lend you Mr Wanley’s transcript of Benedictus Abbas Petriburgensis de Vita et Gestis Henrici Secundi, this bring into my mind the terrible calamity that has befallen the Cottonian library, through the villainy of that monster in nature, Bentley. He must be detested by all human creatures — I mean the civilized part of them. I think the man that stole the books at Cambridge by much the honester man. I beg pardon for this, but I have not yet been able to bring myself either to write or to speak on this subject with any sort of temper or patience; I believe I never shall.

I haven’t been able to discover the reason for such otium. Does anyone know what sort of accusations were levelled against Bentley? Perhaps he was impugned for not having rescued more than the Alexandrinus, or that he was playing with ancient matches. Perhaps, in the earl’s eyes, he had picked the wrong manuscript to rescue.

And of course, if we’re uncivilised, much of what the earl’s damnatio memoriae seems to suggest, we may not even detest Bentley.

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