A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Introductory Note

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FEW of the biographers of Justus Lipsius have devoted their attention to that part of his writings which, in an English translation by John Cotton Dana, is here offered to lovers of libraries. They have found matters of greater importance to the world at large in the chief things of his life,—his theological, historical and literary writings. Mr. Peter Bayle, in his famous General Dictionary, which first appeared in 1697, and afterwards Englished, in 1710, says in this connection, as an introduction to his own contribution to Lipsius's biography:

"I might relate a great many curious particulars concerning him; but as others[1] have already collected them, and have not even omitted what relates to his education and his early learning, I am obliged to confine myself to such particulars as they have not mentioned." These particulars related to one of Lipsius's greatest faults, for which he was chiefly censured,—his inconsistency with regard to religious beliefs,—and they take on an additional interest when treated by Bayle, who was himself given to tasting of religion at all its different founts. With gossipy pen, he briefly summarizes the facts in Lipsius's stormy theological career, which to a sixteenth-century mind, and even to one of the eighteenth century, must have seemed as important as it was chequered.

The theologian of a century or so ago undoubtedly found that Lipsius had contributed something to religious thought, but to us, in this century of freedom in such matters, Justus Lipsius is chiefly a subject for antiquarian curiosity, just as he was to Bayle. It would be idle to speculate on the present-day value of his Diva Virgo Hallensis, or his Diva Sichemiensis, written for the Jesuits, when late in his life he had accepted the professorship of Latin in the Colegium Buslidanium at Louvain and had become, to quote from Bayle, "a bigot, like a silly woman." The polite literature which Lipsius taught at Louvain, in a manner "very glorious to him," is quite unread to-day; it is unnecessary now when so much polite literature has been, and is constantly being, added to the world's carefully shelved stock. Whatever defects of matter or style our writer may have had, like all the humanists he served a great purpose in retailing to further generations—and especially to librarians—the opinions of the classic writers on the history of libraries. It is not for us, who have received so great a favour at his hands, to criticise his scholarship, as some have done,—as does one writer who says, speaking of one of his mental tendencies, "The other, derived from his Jesuit training, showed itself in his merely rhetorical or verbal view of classical literature, of which the one interest lay in its style," Neither need we concern ourselves with his tendency to change his religious point of view,—now Jesuit, now Lutheran, now Calvinist, now Romanist. To Lipsius bibliophiles owe their thanks because he published the first history of libraries, in the modern sense of the word,—a history which is as fresh and useful to-day as it was when it was written. Only a man of great scholarship could have written such a story, requiring the searching of the original authorities in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and only the scholarship of the sixteenth century—careful, conscientious and leisurely—could have brought together all the facts that Lipsius did. All of the histories since his time have borrowed freely from our author, or, like Edwards, have used his references for further elaboration of their texts.

If, however, but few of his biographers have devoted themselves to a matter which must have been of no small interest in Lipsius's life (judging from his enthusiastic manner of treating it), one, at least, has done full justice to it,—a Frenchman, Étienne Gabriel Peignot, who, born in Arc-en-Barrios in 1767, devoted his whole life to the cause of bibliography. The account of this scholar written by Simonnet, in his Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages de Gabriel Peignot, 1863, deserves to be on the shelves of every librarian, certainly of every bibliographer.

Early in his career Peignot planned a great bibliographical work, of which his Manuel bibliographique, published in 1804, was a first part, and his Dictionnaire Raisonné de Bibliologie a second. The Manual is chiefly devoted to Lipsius, having for its opening chapter a life of our author, followed by a translation of the Syntagma. Peignot tells us that the plagiarism of Lipsius by authors who have not thought it worth their while to mention their indebtedness to him was one of the reasons why he was led to give the Syntagma the chief place in his own book,—he wished to secure to this learned man his just due.

In his "Notice préliminaire sur Juste Lipse et ses ouvrages" Peignot gives a selected list of Lipsius's works dated from 1599, wherein it is seen that the book in which we are interested, J. Lipsi de Bibliothecis Syntagma, Antverpiae, came, like all of the others, "ex officina Plantiniana, apud J. Moretum."[2] This, to the librarian, is a fact worthy of special note, because it gives the evidence of the friendship that existed between the printer, John Moretus, son-in-law of the great Plantin, founder of the house, "first printer to the king, and the king of printers," and Lipsius, covering a long period of years.

In the house of Christopher Plantin at Antwerp, now known as the Plantin-Moretus Museum, in the room called, since the sixteenth century, the "Room of Justus Lipsius," the bust of the friend of the house looks down from its place of honour over the entrance door. And so, just as Lipsius's name is closely linked with one of the great epochs of printing, it has also a part in the history of the development of the library idea. Whatever the facts concerning his theology, polite literature or other writings, whatever the final vote on the value of his style, the little tract, here reprinted, in the hands of friends of libraries will justify the faith that Lipsius had in his claim to fame, when, in hanging a votive silver pen before an altar of the Virgin, he wrote:

"O Blessed Virgin, this pen, the interpreter of my mind, which soared up as high as the sky; which searched the most hidden recesses of land and sea; which always applied itself to learning, prudence and wisdom; which dared to write a treatise on constancy; which explained civil and military matters, and such as relate to the taking of cities; which described, O Rome, thy greatness; which variously illustrated and cleared up the writings of the ancients,—that pen is now, O Blessed Virgin, consecrated to thee by Lipsius, for by thy assistance have they all been completed. Let thy kind influence constantly attend me for the future; and in return for that vanishing fame which my pen gained, vouchsafe to grant, O Divine Lady, a continual joy and life to your devoted servant, Lipsius."

New York, February, 1907

  1. Teissier, Additions aux Éloges de M. de Thou, ii. 381, 432; Bullart, Académie des Sciences, ii. 190; Balliet, Enfans Célèbres, 184.
  2. Ed. 1. De Bibliothecis Syntagma, Antwerp, 1602; Ed. 2. Helmstadt, 1620; Ed. 3. Antwerp, 1629. In his Opera Omnia, 1610-30, 1637, 1675.