7 December 2010

Merton Priory

In an uncharacteristically beneficent moment - you know how mean I am - I promised a charming couple who turned up at S Thomas's that I would lend them a hand. They were members of the Friends of Merton Priory: an Augustinian House (as were Oseney and Rewley Abbeys in this parish) South of London. They wanted someone to go to Bodley and order up and look at six books recorded as having come from the library at Merton.

How glad I was that I did. The books were fascinating to look at, and gave an interesting picture of intellectual life in the century before suppression. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether these six books were typical of the contents of the canons' library. But if they were, they would certainly support a 'Duffy' view: that there was nothing torpid about the late Medieval Church. Three of them were crammed full of mathematics, astronomy, trigonometry, and what we fuddy duddies call Natural Philosophy; books which had been used and bore marginal comments. A text of S Isidore's Summum Bonum recorded how it had been bought in Italy in 1463. The solitary printed book was a collection of works of Desiderius Erasmus, printed in Basle in a lovely Renaissance fount in 1519 ... less than two decades before the Priory's Suppression. It included Erasmus' classicising poems in Latin and in Greek.

The after-History of these books was also not without interest. One of them bore embossed on its covers the arms of Sir Kenelm Digby; another, those of blessed William Laud, Bishop and Martyr. Digby, a colourful Roman Catholic and occasional Anglican with persistent Court connexions, studied in Oxford at Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College in this parish), which was a Recusant annexe to the more ambiguously 'Church Papist' S John's College; Laud of course was an Anglican and a St John's man. Current historiography emphasises the dark discontinuities of the 'Elizabethan' Church and its radical Protestantism. But no one denies that the Stuart period brought with it a softening of antitheses, a Hermeneutic of Continuity, and a building up of broken bridges with the past and with the currents of intellectual life in Counter-Reformation Europe.

It was good to handle and think about these books, which escaped destruction in the massive book-burnings of Protestantism (Duke Humphrey's Library - not yet refounded as Bodley - was stripped of all its books, which went into an enormous bonfire); happy survivors which made it through the bottle-neck and helped to pass on the wisdom, science, culture of two millennia and of the Humanist springtime embodied in S John Fisher and Reginald Cardinal Pole. God bless the Lauds and the Digbys, who worked to gather up all the fragments so that nothing be lost. And God be blessed for our Anglican patrimony and inheritance of heroic faith.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating, Father. I do not know how you can resist popping into the Bodleian on a regular basis to peer at old manuscripts and printed books.

johnf said...


James Hannam's book 'God's Philosophers' shows how the mediaeval world laid the foundations of modern science.

j1aut said...

We can learn a lot from the Canons of Merton Priory, whose stated purpose on founding the priory in 1117 AD was as follows. "To make hidden things manifest, to elucidate obscurities, to unlock things closed and to certify to all dubious matters." John Auton.