- Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England by Jennifer Summit
The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered the public destruction of all medieval service books that had survived the dissolution of the English monasteries during the previous decade. Though a majority of medieval manuscripts were indeed destroyed, some still managed to survive into the post-Reformation period. Jennifer Summit is interested in the fate of these medieval books in early modern England, seen especially in the context of the history of libraries. She focuses on the period between 1431 and 1631, stretching from the collecting activities of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, to the equally influential work of Sir Robert Cotton.
Disclaiming 'a general history of libraries' as her goal, she proceeds through close readings of texts written by a number of important figures of this period: John Lydgate, Thomas More, Thomas Starkey, Thomas Elyot, [End Page 312] Matthew Parker, Edmund Spenser, Robert Cotton, William Camden, John Weever, Francis Bacon, and Thomas James. These readings draw out the authors' views about the medieval past, the nature of libraries, the organization of knowledge, and much more. The result is a rich and sophisticated study that deals with a wide range of topics and ideas. It is exhaustively documented, with the notes making up more than a quarter of the text.
This is a challenging book, which addresses a number of significant questions. Ultimately, though, the results are unsatisfactory, in several important ways. To start with the title: though the book begins and ends with the statement that 'memory is a library', and the 'Coda' contains some brief allusions to concepts of memory in cognitive science and computer science, the substance of the book is not really about memory. Where the concept of 'memory' does occur, it is used loosely to refer to a whole series of different types of 'remembering'. 'Memory as a library' tends to be used interchangeably with 'library as memory' - whereas, in reality, they are two very different things that ought to be carefully distinguished.
In her Introduction, Summit draws a contrast between monastic libraries which upheld the authority of the Church of Rome and the major post-Reformation libraries which became 'centers of national memory' (p. 3). This is a surprisingly simplistic statement from an author who, on several occasions, emphasizes her commitment to a more 'nuanced' view of the relationship between the pre- and post-Reformation eras. It begs a whole series of questions about the nature and purposes of medieval libraries, let alone the nature of 'national memory' and the role of libraries in the modern world. At the very least, the statement needs to be explained and discussed more fully.
Summit's assumptions about the nature and history of libraries tend to be over-simplified in other ways too. Medieval libraries and monastic libraries are referred to as if they were one and the same - even though cathedral, college, and school libraries (and even personal libraries) are referred to several times in passing. The extent and contents of post-Reformation libraries are never fully discussed, and the fact that they contained many more printed books than medieval manuscripts is largely glossed over. But this has significant implications for the survival of 'medieval books'. How did the manuscripts fit into the larger context of the post-Reformation library as a whole? Should the survival of medieval manuscripts be distinguished from the survival of medieval texts in printed form? Libraries were only one aspect of the various collecting activities of men like Cotton, as Summit acknowledges. How did their collections of 'curiosities' affect their approach to medieval manuscripts and their understanding of the meaning and significance of those manuscripts? [End Page 313]
The methodology adopted for this book produces a series of admirably close and sensitive readings of specific texts. But this is achieved at some cost to the coherence of the overall argument. The themes in More's Utopia, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Camden...