More great libraries, their downfalls

(Previously at-risk libraries.)

Two more historical libraries have crossed my path, both of which had a dismal time in the 16th century.

On a trip to Ghent, I was told about the downfall of the Dominican library. In the Iconoclastic Fury of 1556, 30,000 handwritten books were chucked out of the windows of the monastery, into the river Leie.


These windows

My tour guide said that it was possible to cross the river at that time without getting your feet wet. Imagine the vellum crumpling under the soles of your bare feet. You’re really sad, obviously, but you’ll never get to do anything like this again, so you’re tucking up your trouser legs and walking gingerly across…

Here’s a bit of the library which still remains in that excellent building:


Also, the tour guide also said that now they have very intelligent fish, so I don’t totally trust her.

I also went to an excellent exhibition (in London) about John Dee. I really like Dee, I’ve written fiction on Dee, and yet somehow I’d forgotten that:

  • He had a library of 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, in his specially extended house at Mortlake
  • He left them in the care of his brother-in-law while he travelled Europe
  • When he came back, he no longer had a library of 3,000 books etc.

His bro-in-law either flogged the books, or took backhanders to let a bunch of pseudo-chums, ex-pupils and randos into the Dee library to help themselves. Dee said he ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’. Dee clawed back a few books from friends, but most were gone.

A moment’s silence for Dee, allegedly the model for Prospero, having his life’s accumulated texts spirited away.

UEL Prospero tiles

Prospero-quoting tiles at the University of East London

Two other facts I learned about Dee, from the same excellent exhibition:

  1. Dee tried to persuade Elizabeth I to start a kind of British Library, drawing back together the texts scattered when Henry dissolved the monasteries. Hurrah! (She declined.)
  2. Dee was the first to use (in print) the phrase ‘British Empire’, or as he had it, Brytish Impire. Damn! He advocated for Britain to use the Pacific as a source of wealth to establish global dominance, and overtake the Spanish. (Elizabeth I was more keen on this idea.)

It’s a facile comparison, but I do keep picturing the polymath colonialist wizard:

  • banging on about how great it is to barge into someone else’s country and take their mineral reserves/anything else not tied down
  • coming home and finding that his priceless library’s been nicked.

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