Petrarch on the love of books


Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon has echoes of Petrarch’s Epistolae familiares. The two men had indeed met and, according to Ernest Thomas, were ‘kindred spirits’, united in their love for books and the celebration of learning. In book 3 of his Epistles, the Italian humanist observes that

‘gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.’

Aurum, argentum, gemmae, purpurea vestis, marmorea domus, cultus ager, pietae tabulae, phaleratus sonipes, caeteraque id genus mutam habent et superficiariam voluptatem: libri medullitus delectant, colloquuntur, consulunt, et viva quadam nobis atque arguta familiaritate junguntur. (iii, 18)

There seems to be an emulation of enthusiasm between the two men. Richard had stated that

‘in fact, the fame of our love of them (i.e. books) had been soon winged abroad everywhere, and we were reported to burn with such desire for books, and especially old ones, that it was easier for any man to gain our favour by means of books than by money. Wherefore, since supported by the goodness of the aforesaid Prince of worthy memory we were able to requite a man well or ill, to benefit or injure mightily great as well as small, there flowed in, instead of presents and guerdons, and instead of gifts and jewels, soiled tracts and battered codices, gladsome alike to our eye and heart. (Philobiblon, viii)

How dark and ignorant were the Middle Ages, right?

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