Thursday, 30 July 2020

Rare books 27: Mechtild of Magdeburg in French

Translation of ‘Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit’, in English ‘The Flowing Light of the Godhead’, but here in French ‘La Lumière de la Divinité’ by the thirteenth century Beguine mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg. (Poitiers, 1878) Notes: Mechtild wrote in a local Magdeburg mixture of Middle High and Middle Low German. Her original writings do not survive but we have two copies, one in Latin the other in another variant of German, which became the focus of rapt attention when she was rediscovered in the nineteenth century. The monks of Solesmes produced a two-volume edition in the 1870s while, it seems, simultaneously putting it into accessible French. As the title page states: “Traduites en français pour la première fois.” There is wide interest today in Mechtild and other of the so-called Rhineland mystics, both by scholars and general readers, and presumably translations flourish in French now just as they do in English. The Bibliothèque nationale de France record provided lots of useful information, after download records proved elusive.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Rare books 26: Quietly Going About Their Business

Unimposing volume of homiletic instructions on the life, thought, and virtues of Saint Teresa of Avila, given at the Carmel of Bordeaux on the third centenary of her death. (Soligny-la-Trappe, 1896) Notes: This title is not among the eleven works of this author listed on the Bibliothèque nationale de France, nor the 25 on WorldCat, rendering the work very very rare and the cataloguer temporarily speechless. The author is a Passionist, hence the order’s sign on the cover, with the slightly formidable name in religion Louis-Thérèse de Jésus Agonisant (1818-1907). It was another age that had such people in it. If the centenary was 1882, why are the homilies published in 1896? Because that which was lost has been found. The book is a rescue mission. “Ces instructions n’ont rien perdu, comme on serait tenté de la croire, de leur actualité,” as we read in the Avertissement on page iii. They are more especially not lost while there is a copy in the Carmelite Library, given it may be the only public copy in existence. How big was the print run? Should I scan the book this week? Arresting too is the name of the publisher: Imprimerie de la Grand-Trappe. The very concept conjures deep meanings in French church history, the printing room of the Cistercian Abbey at Soligny-la-Trappe, original home of the Trappists, founded in 1664. Clearly on this occasion, the monks were quietly going about their business.  

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Rare books 25: Murder in the Cathedral

Dom Albert L’Huillier of Solesmes, his two-volume history of Saint Thomas à Becket, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury. (Paris, 1891-92) Notes: This is one of the first things to come out of the seventeen boxes of rare books recently received as part of the donation of the Carmelite nuns of Varroville. According to Trove there is no copy of L’Huillier’s work in an Australian library. Until now. It’s possible that a set is held in a private Benedictine library and that it has been scanned somewhere, but we are looking at something very rare. The story of the life and assassination of Becket would have had special meaning to the author, given the troubled relationship of Solesmes Abbey with the powers of the French state. Closed at the Revolution, it escaped consequent destruction but by good fortune. We only need to ponder Henry VIII’s demand, four centuries earlier, that all public reference in England to Becket be erased in 1538 to appreciate why the present author might over-identify with Becket. In Trumpian mode Henry even destroyed Becket’s bones, which is considerably more alarming than an old statue. Solesmes Abbey was restored in the 19th century, despite occasional efforts to dissolve it by different governments, and is famed for its influential revival of Benedictinism and practical promotion of Gregorian Chant. The record at the Bibliothèque nationale de France contained some perfectly marvellous information, not least a confirmation of the author’s Christian name, which has still not been authorised on the Library of Congress.     

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Rare books 24: The Hebrew Bible in Full Colour

Sixty pages of colour-tinted scenes from the pre- and early history of the House of Israel. (Paris, circa 1913). Notes: This ‘Grand Album d’Histoire Sainte: Ancien Testament’ was too large to fit in the donation of 95 boxes sent this month from the Carmelite nuns in Varroville, New South Wales. This spacious volume was posted separately in bubble plastic. The book must have a companion Nouveau Testament, but we are only working with the Ancien. There is no record for the work at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). Nor the Library of Congress, WorldCat, or elsewhere. Everything is aggravating, if you are a cataloguer. Aggravating that we don’t have an engraver. Aggravating, no date or author. A work with this title dated 1913 is found at BnF under the name Xavier de Préville, also published by Tolra, but ours has no text. Aggravating that the BnF work is actually Tolra et Simonet, one of the many permutations of Tolra coming up to this day. Aggravating. But the tinted images seem to come almost naturally from the Belle Epoche. It is like viewing stills from a lost film by Georges Méliès. The human figure is all, living in dramatic situations at the foreground of the scene. Their actions are silent depictions, silent reminders of the spoken stories heard over again in churches and synagogues all over France. Yet, no engraver. Aggravating. The cataloguer with magnifier scans corners and running headers for an initial, a hieroglyph, anything that may hint at the tinter of these famous legends. Legends memorial and immemorial, greater than the sum of their parts. Even naming Xavier de Préville in the record is a risk, given he is nowhere named in the book itself.  

Two Carmelite Libraries : Varroville Library arrives at Middle Park Library

Today an historically significant donation arrived at the Library. The Carmelite community of nuns at Varroville in New South Wales is shifting house. One of the challenges in this change to their lives has been the necessary downsize of their library collection. The Carmelite Library was approached and we readily accepted such an important treasure. Thus, the boxes arrived on three pallets at 9 o'clock this morning. I directed that they be placed in the drive between the church and the Library. 

The big job was moving the boxes in threes via the trolley into the Library itself. It was quite a workout as I did everything myself. I counted 78 regular boxes and 17 of 'old books'. All the books had been expertly packed and sealed. In keeping with quarantine habits developed this year, I leave them now for seven days, to start on checking and description of the 'old books' next Wednesday. I am expecting these to be rare books and early imprints, all of which will now have permanent security and accessibility in their new habitat.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Rare books 23: Reading the Small Print

In a volume of bound pamphlets, a learned encomium for Saint Simon Stock (circa 1165-1265), the English Carmelite who, according to legend, had a vision of the scapular. This list of great deeds and good was delivered, it seems, by Andrea Mastelloni (1641-1723) Neapolitan Carmelite in the presence of Cardinal Decio Azzolino (1623-1689) in the Roman titular church of Santa Maria in Traspontina in 1680. (Naples, 1680) Notes: The magnifying glass was the only way to read the engraved title page. Transcription of early imprints requires capitalisation as given in the text, contrary to the Rules for modern books. Fortunately, the BLOCK LETTERING for important people and places is no longer required, a style of rare book cataloguing let go of in the middle of the last century. Scholars interested in the legend of the Marian devotion and its promotion will find this document invaluable. It is also a charming footnote for those who follow the fortunes of Cardinal Azzolino, one of the Vatican’s best cryptographers, capable not just of analysing the indecipherable small print but knowing how to interpret it for political advantage. Azzolino is thought by many historians to have been more than just the papal appointee to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden.  He handled her financial affairs and they wrote many letters over a lifetime. Pope Alexander VII shifted him to Romania to allay suspicions. On the 26th of January 1667, Christina wrote (in French) that she never would offend God or give Azzolino reason to take offence, but this "does not prevent me from loving you until death, and since piety relieves you from being my lover, then I relieve you from being my servant, for I shall live and die as your slave". Azzolino’s wiki follows this stunning declaration with the enigmatic note: ‘Maintaining celibacy, his replies were more reserved.       

Friday, 10 July 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-seventh: Library Lockdown

Library Lockdown: Two Sonnets

Philip Harvey


Thump of returns chute, earphones unmute
Clatter of trolley, splatter of brollies
Beep beep of beep wand, wrong drop-off unfond
Backspace of laptop, novels slip slop slap slop
Much less sloppier photocopier
Soft keyboard touch, neat handwriting clutch
Coughs stifled resigned, crack of antique spine
Swish of page turning, page swish returning
Stack’s muffled laughter, thoughts ever after
Mumble at ‘reserved’, grumble of self-serve
Ring of connecting, ping an incoming thing
CDs in CDs, press stud DVDs
Clickclack of loans gate, phone calls with books late
Hard to believe, sounds missed in libraries


Hard to mist sights of library lockdown
Tip-tap that rain makes, phone calls with no takes
Desktops and opacs, square blanks and all blacks
Titles inspecting across their aisles same thing
Uncalled-for reserves that are there but to serve
Stack’s ghostly laughter, no thoughts hereafter
Spurned pages unturning, pages’ wish unlearning
No covid coughs here, no customers appear
For them no happy hush, no last-minute essay rush
No Encyclopaedia Britannica
No hideout with laptop, no time to talk and stop
Deep deep the deep quiet, a silverfish diet
Mollified trolleys, no bowl of soft lollies
Slump of returns chute, all tute rooms quite mute

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-sixth: Zen Libraries

Gary Snyder 2020 :

Were you in monasteries?
I was partly in monasteries and partly living in a little place nearby. I had to do that because I needed to be able to look things up. They don’t have a library or a dictionary in a Zen monastery, so I had a place just a ten-minute walk away. To pay the rent I took on conversational English teaching jobs.
These words of Gary Snyder this year recall his time in Zen monasteries, years ago. I have made searches to find out why Zen monasteries don’t have a library, or a dictionary. I wonder why Gary Snyder needed a place just ten-minutes away to do his reading. Or why anyone would.
Perhaps the Zen monastery is the place of complete solitude and contemplation. It is where the residents live a life of communal work and prayer. Visitors attend Zen monasteries for their own reasons, entering those doors with personal knowledge and experience that soon will be put to the test. Perhaps that’s enough knowledge for now.
Gary Snyder needed to be able to look things up. I understand that, it is the desire or motivation to want to know more, or just to understand what is being said. His library was a ten-minute walk away. So, he lived in two places. Perhaps what he was after wasn’t in a book. Conversational English is just a way to earn your keep.
He was partly and partly. I keep wondering if having a library in the Zen monastery would have made any difference. My mind asks if the dichotomy of needing words to learn that which has no words, is unique to Zen. My reading tells me that Zen is anything but unique in this regard. A library explains that we are not alone.
If the partly parts of the mind visit a Zen monastery they are still partly living in a little place nearby. Perhaps that is ever the case. We need to be able to look things up. A library or a dictionary may seem incidental, just a ten-minute walk away, until the need becomes essential for understanding. Need may become everything. 
I suppose it doesn’t matter so much about Zen monasteries and their lack of libraries, or Gary Snyder even, if you are in covid lockdown and your library isn’t open whether you want to read anyway. Time to take time. Even paying the rent is perhaps enough for now and how to figure that out in conversational English.
Perhaps it’s not true, that they don’t have a library or a dictionary in a Zen monastery. Perhaps some monasteries have a library, or a book collection, or a trunk of scrolls. Gary Snyder may have visited austere establishments where the monks read in the forest, or have already read everything needful. It is hard to imagine such a state.
The words prepare you for what comes next, though it’s all a clarification of the past, when it happens to be a clarification. Words can be a consolation, they can leave you happy. The more words there are to help console or leave you happy, the greater your need to look up their meanings. Sometimes that involves a walk.
If Zen monasteries don’t have a library then the question is where is the library. Perhaps Gary Snyder just wanted somewhere to read and that space was not provided by the Zen monastery. Or it really is the case that libraries are temptations, distractions from the main business of contemplation upon being. Retreat is wise.
I hope one day to be where the mist surrounding this mystery evaporates. The explanation is not immediately available, even from my keyboard at the other end of all the websites in existence. Looking it up won’t work. Leaving it alone may be more help. It is best to wait a while and read some more Gary Snyder.

Rare books 22: Text upon Text, Notes upon Notes

The letters of Saint Teresa, translated into Italian by Orazio Quaranta, together with the annotations of Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659), translated by Carlo Sigismondo Capece (Venice, 1690). Notes: Pictured left are three slips of paper. 1. A typed catalogue entry of unknown origin, rubber-stamped FEB 1985, and further annotated by unknown hands in ink. Some of this information proved useful for my own description. 2. Marker of the Australian Early Imprint Project scribe, ‘E.I.P. 10.10.85’. 3. My own date marker, also written on acid free paper, for shelving purposes. The source of the card may be explained by Paul Chandler’s handwritten accession note inside the back cover, ‘From Institutum Carmelitarum, Rome 1985, $7.50’ Pictured right is the title page, evidence if we needed it of Teresa’s established place in European thought by the turn of the 18th century. But also of her annotator, Bishop Palafox. Annotating the letters of Teresa would have been a practical and pleasurable break from the daily backlog of work of this erudite man. As Bishop of Puebla in Mexico, he established what most people regard as the first public library in the Americas, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, on the 6th of September 1646. As bishop he protected the Native Americans, forbidding any form of conversion other than persuasion, also writing a work about them entitled ‘Virtues of the Indians’. Palafox came into conflict with the Jesuits, who ignored his episcopal authority by not paying the required land tithe to the church, and this led ultimately to a breakdown in relations and his humiliating recall to Spain. Pope Innocent X responded to his complaints by issuing an order for Jesuits to obey the bishop in Mexico, something which amounted to a rap over the knuckles. As can be seen on the title page, he ended his days as ‘vescovo di Osma’, a parochial backwater in Old Castille. Palafox was designated Blessed in 2011.