“The Library” by Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen


In 2016, my late colleague Larry Hurtado Destroyer of the gods: specificity of the first Christians in the Roman world offered a compelling explanation for the rapid spread of early Christianity in an initially hostile Roman culture. Although Hurtado’s book is by no means a textbook of missiology, his account of the growth of the early church nevertheless reminded readers of an important principle: churches that grow are both familiar and foreign to their cultures. ‘homepage.

Such a church will combine “a certain level of continuity with its cultural framework”, while maintaining a loving and constructively critical attitude towards that culture. It is neither a baptized retort of everything the local unbelievers think and do, nor a grumpy voice that speaks only in negative, condemnatory tones of its neighbors. The Church inhabits the culture differently.

Although Hurtado’s book assumes this element of cultural continuity between the early church and its host culture, it emphasizes the things that made early Christians different: they puzzled their unbelieving neighbors in their childcare unwanted, their counter-cultural view of sexuality and the dignity of the human body, their ethic of love of neighbor and their monotheistic eagerness to overcome ethnic and national divides.

Along with this – and perhaps more surprising to some today – Hurtado showed the early church to be countercultural in its love of books. In the Greco-Roman world, Christians were both the Book, and the people of books: they embraced the shift from scrolls (bulky and cumbersome) to the new technology of their day, the codex (the compact and highly portable precursor to the modern book). For the most part, the ancient Christians wrote, bought, and used many more books than their pagan neighbors. Those to whom the Word had come became bibliophiles in general. They treasured books.

The library: a fragile history

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

The library: a fragile history

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Profile Books. 528 pages.

Famous in the known world, jealously guarded by private collectors, built over centuries, destroyed in a single day, adorned with gold leaf and frescoes or filled with poufs and children’s drawings, the story of the library is rich, varied and full. incident.

In this first major story of its kind, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen explore the contested and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the beleaguered public resources we cherish today. Along the way, they introduce us to the antiquarians and philanthropists who shaped the world’s great collections, trace the rise and fall of fashions and tastes, and reveal the serious crimes and misdemeanors committed in pursuit of rare manuscripts and precious.

Profile Books. 528 pages.

Ancient and modern libraries

Hurtado’s work provided an excellent guide to the early Christian community that devoured the written word. Even more recently, historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, both of the University of St. Andrews, produced a superb book—The library: a fragile history– which pairs well with Hurtado’s volume to help readers understand Christianity’s complex relationship to book culture across the wide span of history, from the ancient world to the present day.

In the Greco-Roman world, Christians were both the Book, and the people of books.

Beginning with cuneiform tablet libraries in Mesopotamia and ending in today’s world of e-readers and Google Books, Pettegree and der Weduwen provide a detailed and vivid account of library history. Although The library begins in pre-Christian history (with extensive collections of clay tablets in the ancient Near East, the famous library of Alexandria, etc.), and occasionally glances at the great libraries of the Islamic world and East Asia, it is for the most part a history of libraries in the West – where the profound cultural transformation wrought by Christianity also extended to the culture of books and the library.

Building and destroying libraries

While the book covers an enormous amount of material (with some skill), it is held together by a small number of existential questions about the nature of libraries: What is a library? Why does it exist? Is it essentially a vanity project to pay homage to the greatness of its owner, and open only to a handful of visitors, or a resource that should be publicly funded and available to everyone? Should its shelves be filled with everything people want to read or be guided by the librarian’s discernment in selecting books that will benefit visitors? And in very recent times, as the printed book faces the challenges of mass digitization, should libraries be physical environments filled with printed books? (The book’s epilogue on the monopolization of digitization and online libraries by Google and Amazon and the challenges this poses – i.e. the dystopian possibility that these private companies have the right to endorse or censoring what books are made available to the world – makes for alarming reading.)

As the title suggests, the library is a fragile institution. The contents of a particular library are always a threat to someone, and absent human ill will, its books are always susceptible to dampness and mold. I didn’t expect to be shocked by the number of libraries and books – millions and millions and millions of volumes – that were destroyed during the war, left to the elements, looted, burned by those who hated their contents , reused by those who thought them worthless (e.g. French revolutionaries who used the pages of classical theological texts to wrap cheese), or stolen by thieves who thought they were worth a pretty penny. (The book mentions a notorious book thief, a German theologian, who stole enough valuable library books to earn himself imprisonment in a Soviet gulag.)

Bibliophile Christians

The book’s account of the role played by early monastic communities – places where books (both Christian and pagan) were preserved through repeated copying – is striking. Criticisms of the negative effect of the Reformation on European library culture are thought-provoking and, for a Reformed reader, sometimes painful to read. In counterpoint, the depiction of Puritans crossing the Atlantic, carrying with them case upon case of seminal theological works – libraries housed in wooden cases, rising and falling with the waves, but libraries nonetheless – was moving.

Obviously, the history of Christianity is one of bibliophilia, although this love does not extend to all books in the same way: Pettegree and der Weduwen underline the will of medieval monks to preserve pre-Christian literature, the will of early Protestants and modern Catholics to burn rival Christian texts, and later, the will of (some) French revolutionaries to purge Europe of theological literature in general.

It is clear that the history of Christianity is that of bibliophilia, although this love does not extend to all books in the same way.

Although I hesitate to criticize such an accomplished book, I wonder if more should be said about Christianity’s complex relationship with books: like the medievals before him, for example, the Protestant reformer John Calvin is committed to the study and preservation of pre-Christian pagan literature. (In this Reformation-era mindset, non-Christian and heretical Christian literature were two very different things and faced distinct reactions.)

Reading The library as a theologian, I was struck by the reminder that Christianity provides idiosyncratic reasons for valuing books written by non-Christians. For example, Calvin’s justification for reading “profane authors” was that the Holy Spirit also gives unbelievers skills in writing and truth. “By despising gifts,” wrote Calvin, “we insult the Giver.”

Love of books, love of neighbor

It’s hard to find anything that comes close to Calvin’s view, for example, the secular beliefs of French revolutionaries who wanted to destroy or dishonor writings beyond their own ideological camp, or the Nazis who destroyed Jewish libraries while building their own closed library of Jewish literature. only to figure out those they wanted to murder.

I have no doubt that Pettegree and der Weduwen are right in saying that Christianity’s contribution to library and book culture is mixed: people of the book are not entirely innocent of bibliocide. But more fundamentally, in reading this book, I was struck by the sense in which it confirms Hurtado’s idea that Christianity bases its love of books on a prior love of neighbor. This seems clear in the way this book treats those whose own profound rejection of Christianity’s long remaking of the West – in revolutionary France and Nazi Germany – was terrifyingly evident in their view of the books written by their neighbors. .


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