Sunday, October 4, 2009

Riffling through Margaret of York's library

I’m not much of a social butterfly. I tend to quickly run short on patience when I’m stuck talking to people who don’t have much of interest to say. I find one way to predict the potential boredom factor of pending conversations is to stealthily scope out what people like to read. I do this all the time when I visit people’s houses. If they have a shelf full of Mills & Boons – or, even worse horrors, NO BOOKS AT ALL! – chances are our social intercourse is probably going to be pretty brief and unfulfilling. If, on the other hand, the shelves reveal some classic fiction or a sprinkling of lovely, gory whodunits, well then, things are looking up for our relationship. And if there’s some history and philosophy there as well, it’s possible I may be your new best, ear-bending friend.

So I wonder, how would I have got on with Margaret of York (1446 – 1503), whose personal library has been catalogued as part of LibraryThing’s I See Dead People’s Books project? Margaret, whose library represents the oldest collection so far catalogued, was the Duchess of Burgundy by marriage, and sister of Edward the IV and Richard III. Like many noblewomen of her period, she was an intelligent and skilled politician, using marriage alliances to manoeuvre her way through the byzantine politics that marked fifteenth century relations between the ruling houses of Europe. (Not least of her problems, of course, were the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York.)

It’s no surprise to find titles like Les faits d'Alexandre le Grand by Quintus Curtius Rufus or Les chroniques des comtes de Flandre amongst Margaret’s books of history and philosophy, and the classical authors Seneca and Justinus are also represented. For lighter reading, there is courtly romance in the form of Raoul Le Fevre’s The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy. This was the first book printed in English and Margaret’s copy is the only one that survives. A well-educated and cultivated woman, Margaret’s patronage supported numerous artists and writers including the printer William Caxton. The title page of this book features an engraving of Caxton presenting it to her.

By far the bulk of Margaret’s library comprises religious and meditational works. Her lifetime was a period of great religious turmoil in Europe, marked by fierce debates over the authority of the papacy, the corruption of the Catholic Church, and the emergence of heretical sects like the Lollards. Literacy was increasing as the development of printing was making books cheaper and more accessible, and the trade was partly fuelled by demand for works of devotion and meditation written in English and designed for a lay readership. Such books promoted an interior, personal relationship with the divine, thus helping lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. One of the central tenets of Lollardy, for example, was that the faithful should come to know God by reading scripture for themselves. The Oxford Doctor John Wycliffe, who is usually considered the sect's founder, translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into vernacular English in 1382. Like many proto-Protestant sects, the Lollards rejected the validity of the Catholic hierarchy of priesthood and Pope mediating between the people and God, and also denounced many of the ritualistic elements of Catholicism, such as saints and pilgrimage.

Amongst Margaret’s books are some texts that are characteristic of this new form of literate lay devotion, including The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and The Mirror of Sinners (both medieval bestsellers, and The Imitation of Christ is still in print today). But from what we know of her, Margaret remained conventionally Catholic, and this is reflected in her collection of saints’ lives and her Guide to the pilgrimage churches of Rome. Like all good English nobles, she had a Life of St. Edmund the Martyr, and she also had several works by Jean de Gerson, theologian, chancellor of the University of Paris, and rabid persecutor of heretics.


Digger said...

I've always found it so very strange to visit a house with no books! Thanks for the peek at Margaret of York's bookshelves :D

ZACL said...

Not sure what you'd make of our reading materials. :)

As regards Margaret, it sounds as if she had a particular philosophy over and above all others. That is to "Knowest thine enemy within and without".

Certainly, her curiosity sounds great and her interests appear to be wide. It is not clear though, if Margaret retained her Catholicity because of nature and nuture, or because of societal and peer expectation. We do not know if her religious interests did 'mellow' into other realms. She was obviously confident of her position, and diplomatic ability, (perhaps) not to concern herself with how her reading materials and interests would be viewed.

Bavardess said...

I think religious faith is always a matter of nurture and socialisation, not nature. And in this period, when politics and religion were so intertwined in Europe and the stakes were terribly high, it took on a whole other level of meaning beyond the personal. That’s one of the things that I find fascinating about this period, though, because the lines between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ were so blurred and shifting all the time. While the scholars and doctors of divinity were arguing about it from a theological and philosophical perspective, the secular nobility were sometimes taking sides based on far more pragmatic reasoning (and, definitely, ‘peer pressure’ in the form of armies).

I suspect Margaret would have been quite conscious of how the contents of her library were perceived by others, at least by her contemporaries. Partly because she had that very high profile role as a patron of the arts, but also because the issue of lay literacy and what people were reading was such a political hot potato in 15thC England.

ZACL said...

I tend to veer on the side of agreement with your views on the 'nature' point of nurture/nature. However, I have a little subjectively based ambivalence in this area.

The lines on Orthodoxy and heresy were certainly shifting, they always did. I still think about what truly protected Margaret, both as a woman and one who was a knowledgeable patron of the known Arts, philosophies and the range of religious practices that prevailed. In my view, it has to be her family and political connections.

It was good for posterity that Margaret was able to survive her times and that her library collection is known to us.