The Philobiblon

The Philobiblon

by Richard De Bury


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, June 24


"Will always hold an honorable place for bibliophiles." — The University of Chicago Press
One of the earliest treatises on the value of preserving neglected manuscripts, building a library, and book collecting, Richard De Bury's The Philobiblon was written in 1345 and circulated widely in manuscript form for over a century. The first printed edition appeared in Cologne in 1473, and several others soon followed as the invention of the printing press spread throughout the late Medieval world.  The chapter titles of this legendary work reflect its nature, combining the author's love for and commitment to the importance of books and the knowledge they contain with thoughts on collecting them, lending them, teaching with them, and simply enjoying them: "That the Treasure of Wisdom is chiefly contained in books," "What we are to think of the price in the buying of books," "Who ought to be special lovers of books," and "Of the manner of lending all our books to students."  The Prologue ends with the following thought: 
"And this treatise (divided into twenty chapters) will clear the love we have had for books from the charge of excess, will expound the purpose of our intense devotion, and will narrate more clearly than light all the circumstances of our undertaking. And because it principally treats of the love of books, we have chose after the fashion of the ancient Romans fondly to name it by a Greek word, Philobiblon."
This volume offers modern bibliophiles a splendid edition of one of the first books ever to study, define, and, above all, praise their passion: the all-encompassing love of books. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486832463
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 06/12/2019
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Richard De Bury (1287–1345) was descended from an English knight who fought with William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. De Bury studied at Oxford, became a priest, ultimately rising to be Bishop of Durham, and tutored the future English King Edward III. After Edward III became King in the 1320s, De Bury served Edward's administration in various administrative and diplomatic posts. On a diplomatic visit to the papal court in exile at Avignon in 1330, De Bury met the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch, with whom he shared his devotion to and enthusiasm for books, and who left a brief account of meeting his English counterpart. Wherever he went De Bury assiduously collected manuscripts and bound books, and in time composed his short collection of Latin essays, The Philobiblon, the title having been created by De Bury from the Greek words meaning "the love of books." De Bury completed the text in 1344, though of course it was not printed until after the invention of printing in the middle of the following century.

Read an Excerpt



THE desirable treasure of wisdom and knowledge, which all men covet by an instinct of nature, infinitely surpasses all the riches of the world. In respect to this precious stones are cheap; in comparison with this silver is clay and purified gold but paltry sand. In its splendour both sun and moon darken to the sight; in its admirable sweetness honey and manna grow bitter to the taste.

O excellency of wisdom that wasteth not with time! ever-flourishing virtue that purgeth all venom from its possessor! O heavenly gift of the Divine bounty descending from the Father of Lights, to bear up the rational spirit, even unto heaven! Thou art the heavenly food of the mind, and they who eat thee shall hunger again, and they who drink thee shall thirst again. Thou art a melody bringing joy to the soul of him that is weary, and he who hears thee shall in no wise be confounded, Thou art the mistress of morals, and the rule which he that observeth shall do no sin. By thee kings reign and princes decree justice. By thee, laying aside the rudeness of nature, polishing their thought and speech, and plucking out by the roots the thorns of vice, they attain the heights of honour, becoming fathers of their country and companions of princes, who, but for thee, had beaten their spears into pruning-hooks and ploughshares, or, haply, with the prodigal son had now been feeding swine.

Where is thy hiding place, O choicest treasure, and where shall thirsting souls discover thee? In books assuredly hast thou set up thy tabernacle, for there the Most High, the Light of Lights, the Book of Life, hath established thee. There every one that asketh for thee receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to those that knock with importunity it is quickly opened. In these the cherubim spread forth their wings, that the mind of the student may mount aloft and view everything from pole to pole, from the rising to the setting sun, from the north and from the sea. In these the Most High incomprehensible God Himself is apprehensibly contained and worshipped. In these appears the nature of things celestial, terrestrial, and infernal. In these are to be seen the laws by which every state is governed; the ranks of the heavenly hierarchy are set in their order, and dominions of demons are described, such as neither the ideas of Plato transcend nor the chair of Crato ever explained.

In books I behold the dead alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books the affairs of war are displayed; from books proceed the rightful laws of peace. All things decay and waste away in time, and those whom Saturn begets he ceaseth not to devour. Oblivion would overwhelm all the glory of the world, had not God provided for mortals the remedies of books. Alexander, the subduer of the earth; Julius, the invader of Rome and of the world, who, first in art and first in arms, took on himself the empire in his single person; the faithful Fabricius and the severe Cato would to-day be out of memory, had they lacked the support of books. Towers are razed to the earth, states are overthrown, triumphal arches have mouldered into dust, and neither Pope nor King will find aught by which the warrant of eternity is conferred more easily than by books. A book once made renders its author this return, that, so long as it shall endure, the author remaining athanatos, or immortal, cannot perish, as witness Ptolemy in the Prologue of his Almagest. That man, he saith, is not dead who hath given life to knowledge.

Who then will limit by aught of lesser value the price of the infinite treasure of books, from which the wise scribe brings forth things both new and old? Truth, surpassing all things, excelling the king and wine and women, and the honouring of which above friends ranks as a kind of holiness (for it is the way without a winding and the life without an ending, and to it the holy Boethius assigned a triple nature, to wit, in thought, in writing, and in speech), seems to dwell more usefully and to bear fruit to richer advantage in books. For the virtue of the voice dies with the sound, and truth lying in the mind is hidden wisdom and unseen treasure. But the truth that shines in books seeks to manifest itself to every impressible sense; to the sight when it is read, to the hearing when it is heard, and moreover commendeth itself in some sort to the touch, while suffering itself to be transcribed, collated, corrected, and preserved.

Though the undisclosed truth of the mind may be the possession of a noble soul, yet, because it lacks a companion, it cannot be called delightful, for neither sight nor hearing judge of it. And the truth of speech is manifested unto the hearing alone, avoiding the sight which showeth us more of the various differences of things, and, being attached to a most subtle motion, hath its beginning and its ending as in an instant. But the written truth of a book, not fleeting but lasting, discloses itself plainly to the sight, and, passing through the open portals of the eyes, the antechamber of perception and the halls of the imagination, enters the chamber of the understanding and reclines upon the couch of memory, where it engenders the eternal truth of the mind.

Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; ancl should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration! Ye are the mines of deepest wisdom unto which the wise man, in the Second of Proverbs, sends his son thence to dig treasure. Ye are the wells of living water which father Abraham digged at first, Isaac cleared, and which the Philistines strove to fill again (the Twenty-sixth of Genesis). Ye are, in truth, most delightful ears filled with corn, to be rubbed by apostolic hands alone, that the sweetest food may drop forth for hungering souls {the Twelfth of Matthew). Ye are the golden pots in which is stored the manna; rocks that flow with honey, yea, also honeycombs; udders streaming with the milk of life; storehouses ever full. Ye are the tree of life and the fourfold stream of Paradise, by which the human mind is fed and the arid intellect is moistened and watered. Ye are the ark of Noah and the ladder of Jacob, and the troughs in which the young of those that look therein are changed in colour. Ye are the stones of testimony, the pitchers that hold the lamps of Gideon, and the scrip of David, from which the smooth stones are taken for slaying Goliath. Ye are the golden vessels of the temple, and the arms of the soldiery of the Church, by which the darts of the most Wicked One are quenched. Ye are fruitful olives, vineyards of Engadi, fig-trees that know not barrenness, burning lamps ever to be held forth in the hand; yea, all the best of Scripture could we adapt to books did it please us to speak in figures.



AS everything according to the degree of its value merits a like degree of love — and that the value of books is unspeakable the preceding chapter convinces us — so it is plainly clear to the reader what with probability should be thence concluded. For we make no use of demonstration in moral questions, calling to mind that it is the mark of a disciplined man to seek for certitude, according as he has perceived the nature of his question to require, as witness the archphilosopher in the First of his Ethics. Thus Tully hath no need of Euclid, nor doth Euclid lean on Tully.

But this, indeed, we would strive to prove, be it by logic or rhetoric, that all riches or delights whatsoever ought to give way to books in the spiritual mind, where that Spirit, which is charity, ordaineth charity; and this, first, because wisdom is chiefly contained in books beyond all that mortals naturally comprehend, and wisdom surpasses riches, as the preceding chapter alleges. Moreover, Aristotle in his Problems, the Thirtieth Particle and Tenth Problem, decides this question, Why the ancients, who established prizes for the stronger in gymnastic and bodily contests, never proposed any prize for wisdom? This he solves in his Third Answer thus: In gymnastic exercises the prize is more to be desired and better than that for which it was given. But nothing can be better than wisdom; hence, no prize could be assigned to wisdom, and, therefore, neither riches nor pleasures surpass wisdom.

Again, that friendship is to be preferred before riches none but the fool will deny, since the wisest of men beareth witness to this, the most holy of philosophers honours truth above friendship, and the true Zorobabel sets it above everything. Riches then are less than truth. But truth is chiefly contained and preserved in holy books. Nay, they are the very written truth, inasmuch as for the present we do not assert the material parts of books to be books. Wherefore, riches are less than books, and though friends especially are the most precious kind of all riches, as Boethius witnesseth in the Second of his Consolation, yet, according to Aristotle, the truth of books is to be preferred before friends. Again, as riches are seen to pertain first and chiefly to the support of the body alone, but the excellence of books is in the perfecting of reason, which is properly called the true good of man, it is clear that, to a man who useth his reason, books are dearer than riches. Moreover, that by whose means the faith maybe more suitably defended, more widely spread and more clearly preached, ought to be loved the more by the faithful. But this is the truth that is written in books, as our Saviour made more than plain. For when making ready to quit Himself stoutly against the Tempter, He girded Himself with the shield of truth, not truth of any sort, but that which was written, saying "It is written" concerning that which He was about to utter by the oracle of His living voice (the Fourth of Matthew).

Again, no one doubts that happiness is better than riches. But happiness consisteth in the operation of that noblest and diviner power that we have, when the mind is wholly free for contemplating the truth of wisdom, which is the most delectable of all operations next to virtue, as the chief of philosophers determines in the Tenth of his Ethics. On this account philosophy, as he conformably writes, appears to possess marvellous pleasures from its purity and certainty. Now the contemplation of truth is never more perfect than through books, for the act of imagination while continued by a book does not allow the action of the mind upon the truths it beholds to be interrupted. Wherefore books appear to be the most immediate instruments of speculative pleasure. Hence Aristotle, the sun of philosophic truth, after defining the principles of choice, teaches that in itself it is more desirable to be a philosopher than to be rich, although on occasion, according to circumstances, as in the case of one in need of the necessities of life, it may be more desirable to be rich than to be a philosopher (the Third of the Topics).

Still again, since books are our most agreeable teachers, as the preceding chapter assumes, it is right to pay to them both the love and the honour due a master. Finally, as all men by nature desire knowledge, and as by books we can obtain the knowledge of the ancients, which is to be chosen above riches, what man that liveth true to nature would not have a hungering for books? And though we know that swine despise pearls, the judgment of a wise man is in no way altered by this, that he should not gather the pearls that lie before him. More precious then than all wealth are the libraries of wisdom, and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her (the Third of Proverbs). Whosoever, then, confesseth himself zealous for truth, for happiness, for wisdom, or for knowledge, or even for the faith, must needs make himself a lover of books.



EROM what has been said before, we draw a corollary pleasing to ourselves, but, as we believe, acceptable to few. It is this: that no dearness ought to hinder a man from buying books, if he has that which is asked for them, save when he resists the avarice of the seller or awaits a more convenient time for buying. Therefore, if it is wisdom alone that makes the price of books, and wisdom is an infinite treasure for man, and if the value of books is unspeakable, as our premises suppose, how shall the bargain be proved to be dear when the good that is purchased is infinite? Wherefore, Solomon, that sun of men, admonishes us in the Twenty-third of Proverbs that books should be bought freely but sold unwillingly. Buy the truth, he saith, and sell not wisdom. But what we are proving by rhetoric or logic let us add unto by the facts of history.

The archphilosopher, Aristotle, who Averroes thinks was given mankind as a law of nature, bought the few books of Speusippus, after his death, for seventy-two thousand sesterces. Plato, earlier in time but behind him in his teachings, bought the book of Philolaus the Pythagorean for ten thousand denarii, and from this he is said to have taken his dialogue of the Timaeus, as Aulus Gellius relates in the Sixteenth Chapter of the First Book of the Noctes Attic®. Moreover, Aulus Gellius relates this that the fool may consider how wise men reckon money of no value in comparison with books.

And contrariwise, that we may understand how folly is joined with every sort of pride, consider the folly of Tarquinius Superbus in despising books, related by the same Aulus Gellius in the Nineteenth Chapter of the First Book of the Noctes Atticæ. An old woman, wholly unknown to him, is said to have approached the proud Tarquín, seventh king of the Romans, offering for sale nine books, in which, as she averred, the divine oracles were contained. But she required for them so vast a sum of money that the king said she was mad. In rage she cast three of the books into the fire, and for the residue required the sum which she had asked at first. When the king refused, again she cast other three into the fire, and still for the three that remained demanded the first-named sum. At last, amazed beyond measure, Tarquin paid gladly for the three books the sum for which he could have bought the nine. The old woman, unseen before this or after, straightway disappeared.

These are the Sibylline books, which the Romans consulted as an oracle by one of fifteen men, and the office of the Quindecimvirate is believed to have had its origin from this. What else did this Sibyl prophetess teach the king by so crafty a deed, except that the vessels of wisdom, holy books, surpass all human reckoning? And Gregory speaks likewise concerning the kingdom of heaven: All that thou hast, that is its value.



A GENERATION of vipers destroying their own parents, and the worthless offspring of the ungrateful cuckoo, which, when it has gathered strength, slays its own nurse, the bestower of its powers — such are degenerate clerks toward | books. Lay it to heart ye transgressors, and consider faithfully what ye receive through books, and ye shall find that books are, as it were, the creators of your whole noble estate, and without them, doubtless, your other promoters would have failed you. To us, in sooth, ye crept while wholly rude and without power, ye spake as children, ye thought as children, and crying as children begged to be made sharers in our milk. And we, touched by your tears, straightway extended to you the paps of grammar to suck, and these ye plied assiduously with tooth and tongue, until your native barbarousness was taken away, and ye began to speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. After this, we clad you in the right goodly robes of philosophy, namely, rhetoric and dialectic, which we had and still have with us, for ye were naked, and like a tablet yet unwritten. For all the household of philosophy is clothed in double garments, that both the nudeness and the rudeness of the mind may be covered. After this, in order that being winged in the manner of seraphim ye might soar above the cherubim, adding to you the four wings of the quadrivium, we sent you to a friend at whose door, if only ye would knock importunately, there would be loaned you the three loaves of the knowledge of the Trinity, in which consisteth the final happiness of every pilgrim here below.


Excerpted from "The Philobiblon"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Dover Publications, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


That the treasure of wisdom lieth especially in books.              11
What love is reasonably due to books.                                      15
How in buying books the price is to be fixed.                            18
The complaint of books against the clerks lately promoted.      20
The complaint of books against the religious possessioners.     27
The complaint of books against the religious mendicants.        30
The complaint of books against war.                                         35
Of the manifold opportunity we have had for gathering
     a multitude of books.                                                           39
That though we love more the works of the ancients yet we
     have not condemned the studies of the moderns.               46
Of the successive perfecting of books.                                      50
Why we have preferred the books of the liberal arts before
     the books of law.                                                                 53
Why we have taken such diligent care to amend the books
     of grammar.                                                                        55
Why we have not wholly neglected the fables of the poets.     56
Who ought to be the especial lovers of books.                         59
What benefits the love of books confers.                                   61
How worthy a task it is to write new books and repair old ones. 65
Of showing honourable respect in the care of books.                69
That we have gathered such a multitude of books for the common
     advantage of scholars, and not only for our own pleasure.  73
Of the manner of distributing our books to all students.            76
An exhortation to scholars to repay in supplications on our
     behalf the debt of piety they owe.                                       79

Customer Reviews