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  • 11 Burning Libraries: Book Lovers Beware April 29, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    burning alexandria

    This blog has pioneered a series of burning libraries: books that didn’t make it (23 to date)… But what about real burning libraries? Libraries that, at some point in Antiquity or the Middle Ages, were gutted by fire, accidental or deliberate. I have included here a list of eleven devastatingly bad ‘burning libraries’ or ‘burning book collections’: so bibliophiles clutch your inhalers this is going to be get nasty. I have not focused on numbers of book but rather significance. For example, when Coventry was blitzed in November 1940 it lost its central library and 100,000 volumes. But though any loss of any book is unpleasant many of these were easily replaceable. The horror is when  collections go up in flames with rare books, unique manuscripts and archives.

    1) China c. 221 BC: Qin Shi Huangdi was first Chinese emperor and general thickie. On unifying the lotus kingdom he decided it would make a lot simpler if all competing views of politics and history were rubbed off the historical ledger: Qin had evidently never read J.S. Mill. He, therefore, arranged a massive burning of books and those who did not get behind his project were made into convicts working on the Chinese Wall or killed outright. Books on divination and medicine were, interestingly, exempt. Quin also buried almost 500 ‘scholars’ alive, the year following. To respectfully rephrase Heinrich Heine ‘Where they burn books so they will too, in the end, bury human beings.’

    2) Egypt 48 BC: An important Alexandrian library, very likely the Great Library of Alexandria, was burnt in 48 BC. Caesar’s troops somehow, with that special talent they had for destruction, accidentally set the library on fire, in the fight in the city against Ptolemy XIII. How much was destroyed? The number 40,000 is mentioned by Seneca (70,000 by Ammianus Marcelinus). 40,000 books in 48 B.C. was a lot of knowledge: and probably a lot of pornographic Greek novels too… But that’s besides the point.

    3) Syria, 371 AD: Valens, Emperor in the East, in a fit of Christian pique, orders all non-Christian books, including legal books, to be burnt in Antioch. Our only sources for this, other than some cinders lost somewhere in the Syrian winds, is Ammianus Marcelinus and he relates how private individuals in Syria burnt their own libraries for fear of being accused of paganism or anti-Valensianism. Valens himself, architect of Adrianople, got a pucker-load of kismet when he himself was burnt in 378 at the retreat from that battle: at least this is one of two versions of his death offered up by the ancients.

    4) Syria, 1109: The Crusaders finally break through into the city of Tripoli, after an angry seven-year siege, and there they come face to face not only with innumerable mosques but also the great library of the city, the legendary Dar il-‘ilm with well over a hundred librarians, ordering, copying and acquiring. The books, of course, didn’t stand a chance: they were written in the wrong language, in the wrong script by practitioners of the wrong religion. The number of 100,000 is commonly banded around in terms of volumes burnt.

    5) Constantinople, 1204: After a display of extraordinary treachery on the part of the Venetians (from whom you would expect it) and the Crusaders (who should have known better), Constantinople the bulwark of Christianity in the Eastern Med was besieged and ravished. In and among the terrible damage done out on the streets and to several of the churches, the Imperial Library was burnt by impious westerners. In the early Middle Ages it was estimated that perhaps 100,000 works lined the shelves of that wonderful burning. By the early thirteenth-century it will not have been a smaller number. There is the suspicion that were we today to have access to the contents of the library we would have triple or quadruple the works of Plato and Aristotle, inter molti alii.

    6) Spain, 1499: Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a fanatic even by the sorry standards of the later middle ages, was responsible, as cardinal, for the forced conversion of Granada. While there he had all books in the city written in Arabic inspected. Those dealing with medicine were preserved: a fascinating choice for a fifteenth-century churchman, whereas all the others, some 24,000 were burnt in front of the cathedral.

    7) Mexico, 1561: Diego de Landa took it upon himself to wipe every trace of Mayan culture from the new Christian state he helped preside over. 12 July in this year he gathered Mayan cult objects together: ‘We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented.’ In all the descriptions of library burning this is the one case where we see the sheer horror on the locals’ faces and Diego is naturally recounting this as a point of pride.

    8) Belgium, 1914: The Germans acted appallingly in Belgium in the summer of 1914, with the arrogant assumption that this little country should play dead and roll over as the master race marched through. Instead, the Belgians fought and the German army resented the act of resistance, which arguably saved the British and French armies waiting to the south. One of the great tragedies of that initial period of occupation was the burning of some 300,000 books in the University of Leuven/Louvain with, more seriously, many unique manuscripts going up in flame.

    9) Germany 1943-1945: Germany was hit very hard in the last two years of the war by American and British bombers and many libraries were damaged or destroyed in that time. The Third Reich seemed not to have prioritised the evacuation of books: having said that they had other things to worry about. Perhaps the most heart-breaking casualty was the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, which was hit four times by the Allies in their blanket raids. Half a million volumes were destroyed in these four fires and included there was a great deal of the irreplaceable Bavarica collection.

    10) Italy 1944: In that year the retreating German army of Kesselring destroyed the 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society in Naples, one of the great book tragedies of the Second World War; and that is without thinking of the damage done to other city libraries. If this had been Pittsburgh library and 80,000 works, then the world would have picked itself up and got over it: not least because there would have been few unique works. But this was Naples, the capital of the Two Sicilies, home of pizza and the Camorra. Many precious treasures were lost for ever and the labyrinths of Europe’s most frightening city became acrid with smoke.

    11) Russia, 1988: It is estimated that 10 million books were destroyed in the Second World War in the USSR, but spare a thought for the Academy of Sciences Library (dating back to 1714) that went up in flames 15 Feb 1988.  3.6 million books and 400,000 newspapers and books were destroyed or damaged. As in all cases on this list, many of the casualties were unique or rare. All that secret Soviet science, you know…

    Other burning libraries: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    30 April 2014: Mauro C writes in: ‘Hello Doctor. I was reading your piece about burning libraries and wished to add another, much less known one.Before 357 the Roman Emperor Constatius II (Constantine’s son and successor) set up in Constantinople a public library wholly dedicated to secular authors in the Basilica (near Hagia Sophia and the Zeuxippos Baths).This burned down in 476, a most ominous date, with the loss of 120000 volumes, not an impossible figure if those were mostly scrolls.  The basilica was later rebuilt, but the collection was never reconstituted.The exact causes of the fire are unknow, but all that knowledge went up in smoke while Emperor Zeno the Isaurian was scouring Constantinople for the usurper Basiliskos, after retaking the city from him with the help of the Senate (which opened the gates to his army) and Patriarch Akakios (who betrayed Basiliskos and his family after they had seeked asylum in a church). Apparently this fire left a definite impression on the Byzantine mind against the accumulation of too much knowledge in a single place to guard against wholesale destruction. Until the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (912-959), knowledge was widely dispersed.A patriarchal library is attested, as well as a palace one, but neither was well stocked. This is confirmed when in 814 Emperor Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-820) ordered a search for patristic texts favorable to Iconoclasm. The texts existed, but had to fetched from a large numbers of churches, monasteries and private residences, often outside Constantinople itself. Some texts were found in Arab-held territory. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867 and again 877-886), was long believed to have ammassed a large collection of books, but present historians aren’t so sure. There isn’t a single text in existance bearing Photios’ ex-libris, while his disciple Arethas of Caesarea (860-939) left us six books unquestionably bearing his ex-libris (and a detailed breakdown of the the price he paid for them), plus another twenty-five whose original owner was “most likely” Arethas. Books weren’t cheap. Arethas paid 14 nomismata (Byzantine gold coins) for his copy of Euclid, 21 for his Plato and a massive 26 for his corpus of Christian Apologists. These were huge sums: in the same period a well  paid medium level court dignitary or military officer earned 72 nomismata a year. Apart preventing so much accumulated knowledge to be lost to an accident (somebody tripping an oil lamp, for example) or to a marauder’s torch, dispersal of knowledge was also an insurance against huge monetary losses, something Byzantines were extremely aware of. There’s a lot to be said on how Byzantines selected the text they preserved, but let’s save that for another day.’ And MLadds this link to another depressing library fire  Thanks Mauro and ML!