Last year saw the publication of two volumes of essays on learning edited by colleagues over in Classics: Ancient Libraries and Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance. These well-received collections came out of a project conceptualising learning in the Roman World. Today, the ringleaders – Greg Woolf and Jason König – started planning a new phase in this project, moving their investigation into Late Antiquity and beyond.
Historians have not always seen learning in the period 300-900 in a positive light of course. The fourth century starts brightly and ends with heady world of Augustine and Jerome. But then, with the fall of Rome, it all starts to look… different. Public libraries are well into decline. Monastic libraries start to emerge but are often concerned with only a narrow syllabus. When Henri-Irénée Marrou started exploring post-classical learning in the 1940s, he was initially shocked at how far it had declined. Here was a real Dark Age. Except he eventually changed his mind, and it was one of his students – Pierre Riché – who really started a push-back in which it was possible to see learning in the West in a positive light. In Germany, Bernhard Bischoff was already doing much with manuscripts to promote an equally positive view of learning in the period, which inspired Rosamond McKitterick’s seminal work on learning and literacy in the Carolingian world (on which more shortly).
The role of libraries in all this is maybe not so well understood. Often, they are barely visible in our sources. And what counts as a library? Jill Harries was keen that we should not discount private collections such as that of Sidonius Apollinaris, and rightly so. But where might we put ‘archives’, given that they often did not contain ‘just’ bureaucratic material?
Matthew Nicholls started us off today with a discussion of Late Antique libraries in general, following on from his chapter in Ancient Libraries. We might like to think of libraries as nodal points in networks, he suggested. Public libraries might fade from the third century onwards, but book production did not. It is worth asking what functions libraries performed – was there teaching? A café? Performance? Were there programmes of accumulation? And what were the technical needs of the users? Were lawyers, for instance, better supported by specialist libraries?
Rosamond McKitterick followed Matthew, re-sketching much of the material from Carolingians and the Written World (1988). Well, as she pointed out, in many respects study of libraries in the Carolingian world has not needed to progress so much because of the foundations laid by Elias Lowe, Bernhard Bischoff and herself. Still, she argued that a new chapter (or chapters) could build up more from the manuscript evidence than has been traditional. Scholars such as Laistner achieved much by seeing what texts were available to people through literary borrowings. Maybe that picture will change if we build up from copying texts instead, especially if we begin by focussing on collections that have not been dispersed quite so much – principally Verona, Lyon and St Gall (the latter two both being available to browse online).
After lunch, my former colleague Rob Hoyland presented a survey of some of the problems and possibilities of looking at libraries in the Islamic world. There are many problems in the extant scholarship, he pointed out, because there is a tendency for people to write anachronistically about learning in the seventh and eighth centuries based on what happens under the ‘Abbasids. There were no theological institutions really until the eleventh century and there is not even a single world in early Arabic for ‘library’. It was the incorporation of Iraq, and the move away from the coast, which most defined any bibliocosmos in early Islam.
Finally, Tim Greenwood looked at the issue from the perspective of Armenian history. Every time I hear Tim, I feel a little embarrassed, because he has a wealth of material to deal with and – because of the language barriers – so few people to take on the challenges with him. There are tens of thousands of Armenian manuscripts but there has never been an Armenian Bischoff to systemise study of book production in the region. The oldest securely datable manuscript is only from 862 (the Mlk’e Gospel), but generalising on the basis of it is impossible. Still, there is enough incidental evidence to suggest that there were collections of learning, and that many of these must have incorporated Greek and Syriac learning as well as Armenian. The issue of translation came up prominently, too – the number of texts for which there are multiple translations into Armenian suggests that there was little systematic exchange of knowledge compared to the West.
The working part of the day concluded with plans being sketched for a volume on Post-Classical Libraries. There may yet be a full conference, with a range of papers to facilitate comparative study of the systematisation of knowledge in the post-Roman world. Given many of the problems raised in today’s papers, it will be a fascinating occasion and the final volume will be well worth looking forward to.