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Thomas Bartholin's "On the Burning of a Library", a Work of Self-Consolation


As a result of the burning of his home and the destruction of his library, which included numerous unpublished manuscripts on a wide range of subjects, in 1670 Danish physician and anatomist, Thomas Bartholin, published in Copenhagen (København) De bibliothecae incendio, a work of self-consolation. In this work Bartholin recounted examples in history of other library losses through fire, and catalogued and summarized the vast amount of his intellectual work that was "lost to Vulcan." He also consoled himself with a bibliographical list of his works that had already been published in print, and thus had their content protected from catastrophic loss from fire:

"Books are not so readily exposed to destruction if they have multiplied themselves by the aid of type so that they may be read in more than a thousand copies dispersed throughout the earth, unless this universe which we inhabit be subjected to common ruin or flames spread themselves to all corners of the earth. It is by the benefit of divine art that I am as yet able to collect or seek again from friends or from booksellers my other works which were previously published. If judgment in this matter had been left in the hands of Vulcan, I should be bereft even of this small portion of my books. Unless it is burdensome to the reader, I shall subjoin a catalogue of my personal library constructed from works hitherto published in my name or dedicated to me, which Vulcan consumed with the rest, but with less harm to me since they are available elsewhere." (p. 32).

Bartholin then listed 129 printed works either written and published by him or dedicated to him.  At the end of De bibliothecae incendio Bartholin expressed gratitude that he survived the fire even if his "brain-children" were sacrified, and thanks the king, Christian V, for his support after this tragedy. By this time Bartholin was regarded as the leading physician in Denmark, and because of this tragic accident the king of Denmark freed Bartholin's estate of all taxes and appointed Bartholin his personal physician, with handsome compensation.

♦ Bartholin's work reflects a scholarly perspective very different from our time, and also exhibits what would have to be called credulity, especially with the following reference to Homer written in gold on a dragon's intestine—a story which, according to Bartholin, was repeated by several authorities:

"The library of Constantinople, founded by Theodosius the younger in 473, and a rival to that of Ptolemy [i.e. the Library of Alexandria], in the reign of the Emperor Zeno was consumed by a fire instigated by the leader of the image-breakers, the [later] Emperor Leo the Isaurian. Earlier, in the time of Basilicus Tyrannus, the same library had perished in flames aroused by the plebs in their hatred of Basilicus [Basiliscus], and among the books was the intestine of a dragon twenty feet long on which the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer had been written in letters of gold. But Claudius Clemens in his Bibliothecae Instructio considers that it had been snatched from the conflagration, because when Leo the Isaurian, struck by a mad fury against the sacred images, burned whatsoever volumes had been restored of the thirty-three thousand of the library, Constantinus, Cedrenus, Zonaras and Glycas testify that the intestine was still there, unless perchance, in a kind of veneration a new one had been fashioned in imitation of the former intestine which had perished in the first fire. According to the Annals of Constantinus Manassus [Manasses], translated by Lewenclavius, in which the fire is well described, I am disposed to consider the one instigated by Leo III, the Isaurian, as the first." (p.7.)

Bartholin, On the Burning of His Library and On Medical Travel, translated by C. D. O'Malley (1961) 7, 32. (Bracketed insertions and hyperlinks are my additions.)

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