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Richard de Bury

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Richard de Bury, bishop and bibliophile, b. near Bury St. Edmund’s, Suffolk, England, January 24, 1286; d. at Auckland, Durham, England, April 24, 1345. He was the son of Sir Richard Aungerville, but was named after his birthplace. He studied at Oxford, and became a Benedictine. Having been appointed tutor to Prince Edward, son of Edward II and Isabella of France, he was exposed to some danger during the stormy scenes that led to the deposition of the king. On the accession of his pupil to the throne (1327), de Bury eventually rose to be Bishop of Durham (1333), High Chancellor (1334), and Treasurer of England (1336). He was sent on two embassies to John XXII at Avignon, and on one of his visits, probably in 1330, he made the acquaintance of the poet Petrarch. He continued to enjoy the favor of the king, and in his later years took a prominent part in the diplomatic negotiations with Scotland and France. He died at his manor of Auckland, and was buried in the cathedral of Durham. He founded Durham College at Oxford, and according to tradition bequeathed to its library most of the books which he had spent his life in collecting. There they remained until the dissolution of the College by Henry VIII. They were then scattered, some going to Balliol College, others to the university (Duke Humphrey’s) library, and still others passing into the possession of Dr. George Owen, the purchaser of the site whereon the dissolved college had stood. These books were of course all in manuscript, for the art of printing had not yet been discovered.

Bale mentions three of de Bury’s works, namely: “Philobiblon”; “Epistolae Familiarium”; and “Orationes ad Principes”. It is by the “Philobiblon” that he is principally remembered. It was first printed at Cologne in 1473, then at Spires in 1483, in Paris in 1500, and at Oxford in 1598-99. Subsequent editions were made in Germany in 1610, 1614, 1674, and 1703, and in Paris in 1856. It was translated into English in 1832 by J. B. Inglis, and of this translation a reprint was made at Albany, New York, in 1861. The standard Latin text—the result of a collation of 28 manuscripts and of the printed editions—was established by Ernest C. Thomas and edited by him, with English translation, in 1888. A reprint of Thomas’s translation appeared in the “Past and Present” Library in 1905.

Bishop Richard had a threefold object in writing the “Philobiblon”: he wished to inculcate on the clergy the pursuit of learning and the cherishing of books as its receptacles; to vindicate to his contemporaries and to posterity his own action in devoting so much time, attention, and money to the acquisition of books; and to give directions for the management of the library which he proposed to establish at Durham College, Oxford. The work is important for its sidelights on the state of learning and manners and on the habits of the clergy in fourteenth-century England. He is the true type of the book-lover. He had a library in each of his residences. Conspicuous in his legacy are Greek and Hebrew grammars. He did not despise the novelties of the moderns, but he preferred the well-tested labors of the ancients, and, while he did not neglect the poets, he had but little use for law-books. He kept copyists, scribes, binders, correctors, and illuminators, and he was particularly careful to restore defaced or battered texts. His directions for the lending and care of the books intended for his college at Oxford are minute, and evince considerable practical forethought. His humility and simple faith are shown in the concluding chapter, in which he acknowledges his sins and asks the future students of his college to pray for the repose of his soul.


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