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The Journey of a Book

The Journey of a Book: Bartholomew the Englishman and the Properties of Things OPEN ACCESS

Elizabeth Keen
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: ANU Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h3kw
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  • Book Info
    The Journey of a Book
    Book Description:

    De proprietatibus rerum, 'On the properties of things', has long been referred to by scholars as a medieval encyclopedia, but evidence suggests that it has been many things to many people. The sheer number of extant manuscript copies and printed editions, along with translations, adaptations, and mentions in poems and sermons, testify to its continuous significance for Europeans of all estates and different walks of life, from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. While first compiled soon after the time of St Francis by a humble continental friar to meet the needs of his expanding religious brotherhood, by 1600 English men of letters had claimed Bartholomew as a noble compatriot and national treasure. What was it about the work that propelled it through a progression of medieval cultures and into an exalted position in the world of English letters? This reception history traces evidence for the journey of 'Properties' over four centuries of social, political and religious change.

    eISBN: 978-1-921313-07-3
    Subjects: History
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  1. Historians have been interested in the De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomew the Englishman since the sixteenth century, when John Leland (d.1552) included the compiler in his catalogue of esteemed English writers and planted the notion of Bartholomew’s Glanville origins. Successive ages and literary cultures have found their own uses for the work and its compiler and their own reasons to investigate him and the image of creation that he helped to perpetuate. The present age is no exception — Bartholomew’s identity, career, philosophy and achievement have all been examined and re-assessed since Leland’s time. It is not the intention here to...

  2. There is a still-increasing quantity of evidence attesting to the long life and wide dissemination of ‘Properties’, in the form of manuscripts, incunables and fragments of the 19 Books, and in other medieval writings deemed to be derived from the compilation. In the past, students of ‘Properties’ worked in some isolation on locally available manuscripts and printed materials, and separate scholarly traditions developed in European countries, each with their own claims to affinity with Bartholomew. These include France, where he studied and where most of the Latin manuscripts reside; Germany, where he taught and wrote; Italy, birthplace of the Franciscan...

  3. The subject of this and the following chapter is a suggested way of reconstructing early perceptions of Bartholomew’s work during the first phase of its life story. They can only be suggestions as we have no hard evidence for earliest readers’ responses to the text, but our understanding of the medieval use of allegory can alert us to the need to look beneath the surface at both things and their properties as Bartholomew presents them.

    Bartholomew summarises the contents of each Book in his preface.¹ The categories seem, on the face of it, clear and well-defined, leading modern readers to...

  4. Bartholomew was writing and teaching in the 1220s and ’30s, only a few years after the death of St Francis. As a Franciscan lector, he had the task of transmitting an ideal of homeless mendicancy in town and countryside without appearing to challenge the orthodox ideal of a religious life. Before this, the Benedictine ideal of separation from the world through monastic enclosure had underpinned religious life for five centuries. Although the Minorites shared vows and preaching objectives with their colleagues in the Benedictine and Cistercian Orders, the early years of Francis’ Order were nevertheless politically precarious as factions differed...

  5. This chapter and the next look at ‘Properties’ on the next major stage of its journey through the Middle Ages. This is the later-medieval context of war, famine and plague in which noble lay patrons commission prose translations of ‘Properties’ into vernacular European languages; in which manuscripts of the Latin text, in whole or in part, proliferate in Europe; and in which readers and writers refer to Bartholomew as an authority on the properties of the natural world.

    We saw in the last chapter that in the first half of the thirteenth century the Catholic church was facing great challenges...

  6. The last chapter placed the emergence of ‘Properties’ in England in the context of the church’s concern with preaching, the nobility’s concern to support with authoritative texts their control of their domains, and social networks of wealthy book owners. In the fifteenth century these concerns and networks combine to uphold the position of ‘Properties’ as a prestigious and desirable text. We find it commodified as a manuscript or printed book, adapted as an informative manual, and preserved in ecclesiastical and academic libraries. This chapter looks at some examples of how readers and writers made use of Bartholomew’s authority in the...

  7. As we saw in the last chapter, the size and scope of ‘Properties’ allowed it to become a resource to be mined by specialists of various kinds in the later Middle Ages, but it was still kept and valued as a whole work by religious and scholarly institutions and by book-owning individuals at the highest level of society. This chapter asks how ‘Properties’ could present an image of the world that was a guide to salvation at a time when faith, not works, was required; as history, that could meet the needs of the Tudors; as library substitute in the...

  8. As a topic for research, ‘Properties’ is not new or unexplored, but perceptions of it change during our own times just as they evidently did during the Middle Ages. The earlier literature on ‘Properties’ is an invaluable resource in that so much groundwork has been done as a basis for fresh research into the compiler, the manuscripts, the translations, and the place these occupied in late-medieval English life and letters. Twentieth-century research into the context in which the work appeared, and the excavation of related documents, has brought the compiler more clearly into focus. As a result, this long-lived work,...