Imagine coming home on a fog-heavy evening to find a letter waiting for you on your desk. You’re almost sure of who it’s from and what it says. There’s been rumors and you believe them. So you engage in every distraction you can before bringing yourself to slice open the envelope and pull out the single piece of paper. You read the words. You bow your head. Tomorrow morning authorities are coming to confiscate all your books. You’ll never see them again.
Your eyes run over your shelves, pausing on the spines of your favorite books. The titles alone invoke the power of the words within. How many times have you enjoyed letting those pages take you away?
You’ll never see them again.
The clerks and students of Duke Humphrey’s library have just endured such an event. The books gifted to them in 1444 by the duke numbered more than 281. Now they are left with no more than a handful. Only two will survive into modern times.
It’s 1550, sixty years after Duke Humphrey’s library was opened to book-hungry students. I’m sorry to bring you to such a bleak time in history. But if we’re going to study a library as old as the Bodleian, we’re bound to come across dark moments. Our Great Libraries Folio will not come away clean, because the past is rarely a clean place. King Edward VI is only thirteen years old, but he’s following his father’s footsteps and completing England’s break with Rome. He’s ridding the country of any “superstitious books and images” of the Roman Catholic Church. Richard Cox, the dean of the newly founded Christ Church, was instructed to do the job of clearing the library. And the job was done right.
He had the books taken this morning, given away to merchants of all trades or burned. According to one historian, some were even sold to “Glovers to press their gloves.” Oxford is not wealthy enough to build a new library. Everyone in town knows this. That’s why, if you listen, you can hear students reciting passages. They’re trying to commit to memory every sentence they studied and every hand-painted picture that lined the pages. Older townsmen remember the stories of when the library held only 20 books and of how proud the people were when that number grew. But now…the library has been defeated. The books are gone.
They’ll never see them again.
When you go home this evening, there won’t be a letter waiting for you. No one will come tomorrow and remove all the books from your bookcase as has happened to so many readers throughout history. Be thankful for your books and for your freedom to read them.
Then go employ a dragon for security.