How Medieval Book Hunters Saved History
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
Europe’s book hunters sought to rescue the ancient classics many thought forever lost to history. In doing so, they not only rescued history, but helped change the history that followed.
“Let us spend our leisure with our books, which will take our minds off these troubles, and will teach us to despise what many people desire.”
- Poggio Bracciolini, 15th Century Book Hunter
Sometimes when I’m feeling down with daily life and need a shot of wonder, I visit an independent bookstore. Opening the door, hearing it jingle, and whiffing the stale tobacco-stained pages of used hardbacks, I nod to the gray bookstore cat in the window and the bespectacled owner hunched over a mess of books on his counter. While side-stepping along a tight labyrinth of books, titling my head as I go, I slip beyond the monotony of my day and into a magical realm of wonder.
Bookstores offer serendipity for our predictable lives. Hunting for one book, I often stumble upon another and then another. And as much as I love reading books, I love hunting them too, finding that rare treasure which at one time - perhaps thousands of years before me - was sold on a scroll to a visiting scholar, soldier, or scribe in the ancient world.
Yet I’d never get to enjoy these ancient works from authors like Plutarch, Livy, and Cicero, had it not been for a few forgotten heroes of history: the book hunters. These intrepid men of medieval Europe helped rescue history, and this week we travel back to meet them and learn why they matter. So buckle up barbarians! It’s time to journey back to where we often begin here at The Barbarian in You – back to the fall of Rome.
Monks and Abbeys
When barbarians descended upon Rome from the eastern steppes and northern forests, they didn’t exactly prize the written word. As they sacked and conquered Europe, the once united continent of Pax Romana cracked like a vase, fragmenting into a collage of territories ruled by illiterate German warlords. As the Franks took Gaul, the Goths grabbed Spain, and the Vandals seized North Africa, classical Rome died alone. And as the centuries passed, and Roman roads and aqueducts fell into disrepair, the now isolated villages, hamlets, and fiefdoms of Western Europe turned inward. The robust trade, commerce, and art of Europe would take an 800 year nap. The Dark Ages had begun.
For Europe’s book lovers, another casualty of Rome’s fall beyond her crumbling roads, bridges and aqueducts, was the death of her words. Centuries of drizzling rain eventually breached the ceilings of abandoned libraries and academies, washing away centuries of ink marked by the chroniclers, philosophers, and poets of the ancient world.
Within the bleakness of Dark Age ignorance, however, a few literary candles remained lit. High atop alpine passes and low along rivers, candles flickered behind the stone walls of Europe’s monasteries, where Christian monks became the final guardians of history. To preserve Greek and Roman literature, letters, and histories during the thousand years between Rome’s fall and Gutenberg’s printing press, monks painstakingly copied old scrolls onto new manuscripts.
Deep inside their monasteries (or abbeys), they worked in workshops called scriptorias, where a dozen monks would sit on stools and copy fading pre-Christian texts word-for-word until their hands cramped and candles melted. These simple, silent, and cloaked men – the few literates left in the West – are the very reason we can read Virgil, Tacitus, and Cicero today. In many ways, Christian monks helped rescue ancient history.*
By the Fourteenth Century, Europe began to slowly awaken from its dogmatic slumber. Beginning in Italy and then spreading throughout western Europe, a rebirth of learning and art had begun. In the centuries that followed, men called “humanists” (those who studied the humanities) exploded onto the scene and promoted the art, music, science, and literature of Europe’s Renaissance.
After almost a thousand years in the dark, Europe’s elites, plus the now literate merchant and bureaucratic class, caught the Renaissance bug. Beyond war, wealth, and power, they also wished to learn. This curiosity soon led to a demand for books about the ancient world. To satiate this demand, a new savior emerged: the book hunter.
This is the story of one of those hunters who not only rescued history, but helped change the history that came after him.
The Book Hunter
Brought to life by Stephen Greenblatt’s masterpiece, The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini arrived in Florence "a nobody… with five pennies in his pocket.” Yet, one day this boy from the provinces would help swerve the world from Dark Age ignorance towards Renaissance light.
When the poor (yet educated) Poggio arrived in the 1390s, Florence was one of many independent republics and kingdoms on the fragmented Italian peninsula, including Venice, Milan, Naples, and the papacy in Rome. A city of 50,000 and dominated by mercantile, banking, and noble families, Florence was a sophisticated city with a litigious and profit-driven culture.
After eking out a living as a copyist and notary, word eventually spread about the young man with beautiful handwriting. Leveraging his well-earned reputation and administrative chops, Poggio began assisting wealthy patrons throughout the city, including Coluccio Salutati -- the city’s powerful chancellor. When Poggio got up the nerve to ask Salutati for a letter of recommendation to the Vatican, the chancellor agreed. After that, Poggio's life would never be the same. With letter in hand, he moved to Rome.
Over the next three decades, Poggio’s skills as an administrator catapulted him from a lowly copyist to the apex of global power, eventually becoming the pope’s private secretary -- the most coveted position in the papal bureaucracy. From the day he arrived until his retirement fifty years later, Poggio Bracciolini would serve seven different popes.
And when powerful cardinals offered young Poggio the opportunity to become a priest and enjoy the wealth and prestige that accompanied all Vatican clerics, Pogio said no. According to Greenblatt, Poggio chose to “turn his back on a particularly comfortable and secure existence,” in order to pursue his one true passion: books.
Poggio owed his “book mania” to the seminal humanist in Italy: Petrarch. Born two generations before Poggio, Petrarch discovered Livy’s History of Rome and other famous works from Cicero. As a result, book-loving men throughout Italy, including Poggio, aspired to be like Petrarch and "seek out [other] lost classics."
Yet one thing held Poggio back from his book hunting ambition: time and money.
After a decade at the papacy, Poggio’s fortunes suddenly changed when the pope he served, John XXIII, was thrown in prison for corruption and attempting to usurp the papacy.+ Without a master, Poggio got the time he needed to go book hunting. Now all he needed was the cash to finance it.
Writing other humanists with financial means, Poggio eventually secured just enough money to finance a two-year trip throughout Switzerland and Germany – all while Europe was distracted by church drama.
As Poggio and a scribe packed their bags and gathered their horses for the long trek over the Alps, he had one particular book on his mind: An epic poem by a 1st Century BC Roman named Lucretius. The poem was entitled, “On the Nature of Things.”
Book of Wonder
Through beautiful beats and rhythms, Lucretius 7,400 lines of poetry provide a cosmic understanding of our existence. In short, that the universe is not the product of a creative god, but is entirely random and contains an infinite number of tiny particles (atoms) that continuously bang into one another, hook together, and form larger compounds of matter, which includes us. The poem's intent is for man to appreciate the wonders of our vast universe and our tiny place in it.
The only reason Poggio even knew about the poem is because Rome’s best writers -- Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero – all mention it in their own writings which the humanists had. For book hunters like Poggio, Lucretius' work was the grand prize that had yet to be discovered. Poggio became obsessed with finding it.
As he navigated the narrow trails between alpine peaks and descended into central Europe, Poggio and his companion began visiting monasteries, searching for Lucretius' epic poem.
Journeying from one monastery to the next, the Fulda Abbey in central Germany was always on Poggio's mind. This is because six hundred years before, the abbey’s abbot (or leader) was “a learned man" who collected manuscripts. Those manuscripts, according to Greenblatt, “were far enough into the past to hold out the possibility of a link to a more distant past” – i.e. a link all the way back to ancient Rome.
As Poggio approached Fulda, I’m sure he could barely contain his excitement on what tattered wonders lay behind the abbey's stone walls. Arriving with a knock, Poggio likely turned on the charm, dropped a few names, and produced a letter of recommendation from an important cardinal to gain entrance. As he heard the heavy gate close and lock behind him, Poggio would have crept by fixed torches through a silent stone corridor. Making his way to the courtyard, he would have strolled past chicken coops, pigsties, and cowsheds reeking of manure, while hearing the clanks of blacksmiths and grindings of mills. Once settled, he likely met with the abbot and paid tribute to the martyred bones of Saint Bonifice in the abbey’s basilica.
When the time was finally right, Poggio asked to see the shabby manuscripts tucked away in the abbey library. Greenblatt describes the scene: Led “into a large, vaulted room and shown a volume attached by a chain to the librarian’s own desk,” Poggio hunched over and his eyes gleamed. Observing the strict code of silence within the library, he “pointed to the books he wished to see.”
As quiet monks brought out the requested manuscripts and laid them on the table, Poggio peeled open pages that had likely gone untouched for centuries. He saw undiscovered poems and histories written during the reigns of Augustus, Caligula, and Nero. And then he saw one he recognized.
Opening the cover and taking a breath, he stared at the worn ink, brown page, and name, Titus Lucretius Carus. The book hunter had found his prey.
Returning to Italy with his copy of “On the Nature of Things,” the humanists rejoiced it, the church condemned it, and one day, the scientists would corroborate it. Poggio carried with him a seismic work, that according to Greenblatt, “would help in time dismantle his entire world.”
Lucretius’ description of a random, atomized, an infinite universe swerved history towards da Vinci, Galileo, and Newton. While his promotion of beauty and pleasure swerved Western culture towards Montaigne, Mozart, and Shakespeare. The world was about to explode with scientific inquiry and artistic wonder, and Poggio’s discovery helped light the fuse.
Each Sunday around 6pm, I retreat into my little home library, my room behind the shop. I light a bourbon-scented candle, pour an actual bourbon, close the wood and iron barn door entrance, and sit easy into my old leather chair. Then I do what Poggio did six hundred years ago, and Lucretius did two thousand years ago: I open an old book, read the words, and journey “north of the wall” towards barbarian bliss. Thank you book hunters for the wonder you saved.
*The Byzantine and Islamic scribes who lived in a golden age as Europe went dark, also deserve credit for saving several Latin and Greek texts.
+Because the Vatican never recognized Pope John XXIII (the "antipope") as a legitimate pope, they never recognized his title either. Thus the reason for another Pope John XXIII, who held the papacy from 1958 to 1963.