by Marjorie M.K. Hlava (President, Access Innovations, Inc.)
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library Hardcover — Edward Wilson-Lee March 12, 2019 — ISBN-10: 1982111399 — ISBN-13: 978-1982111397
The title was intriguing and I thought it would be about the building of Hernando Columbus’s library in Seville, Spain. I expected a historical treatise, and it is that. However, there is a great deal more between these covers which make it a fascinating, albeit slow going, read. It is in some ways a dual biography of Hernando Columbus (AKA Ferdinand Colon) that combines the love of a son for an eccentric and hard driving father (Christopher Columbus or Christof Colon), the Renaissance passion for making order of the world, the adventures of discovery of the New World now known as the Americas, and philosophical justification and rebuilding of his father’s often tarnished reputation. It was the beginning of the grand age of European exploration, the emergence of the printing with a printing press, collecting books and scrolls into modern libraries, and the beginnings of the global world as a concept. Of course, how Hernando conceived, assembled, and created an organization system for his library is the central thesis of the book. He created “the largest private library of the day” and became a master of cataloging and classification: a modern librarian!
Hernando Colón (1488-1539) was the beloved illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus and his partner Beatriz Enriquez de Arana. Christopher’s first wife had died birthing their son Diego and he never remarried. Hernando was given to the Spanish court as a companion for Prince Juan, perhaps as security, during the first voyage of Columbus in 1492. Hernando therefore was provided an excellent education alongside the crown prince. When Prince Juan died he became a page to Queen Isabella. Hernando became a trusted courtier in public life. He started early as an avid collector focusing on the prints and books he loved. From the ages of 13-15 he accompanied his father on his fourth and last voyage to the Caribbean and saw the New World first hand. It is through Hernando that we have learned most of what we know about the explorer’s life. Hernando would eventually make two other trips west, one with his half-brother Diego, as Diego assumed colonial administration of Hispaniola, and once later in life to rebury his father’s remains in the city he founded. Diego, just like his father, did not survive well in the colonial administration.
The general story of Christopher Columbus is well known. In 1492 he sailed west from Spain with a fleet of three ships, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, on what he believed would be a shortcut to the Far East. Instead of reaching the incredible riches of India and China he ended up in the islands of the Caribbean. On his return, not having found what he was seeking but something else instead, he had a bit of a sales job to accomplish. He promoted the islands as an Eden, a paradise flowing with riches. Isabella and Ferdinand anointed him the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, a title later removed. Columbus was a wily man and showed his son that well-ordered knowledge bestows power. During the fourth voyage the crew desperately needed food and the hostile Taino were unwilling to supply it. However, using an almanac he had on board, Columbus was able to prophesy a lunar eclipse, threatening the Tanio with his power if they did not provide the supplies. It emphasized to young Hernando the power of knowledge held in books.
Without Hernando Columbus, much of what we know today of his famous father, Christopher, and the information on the Spanish interaction with the new world would be lost. Hernando was 18 when his father died. Columbus was not always welcomed back to Spain. While he was away exploring, others laid claim to his discoveries. He had to struggle to keep his family’s claim to wealth from the profits of the voyages. Hernando spent much of his life fighting to preserve his father’s legacy and territorial claims and papering over his father’s excesses. In order to restore the reputation of Columbus’s legacy, battered by court politics and additional New World explorations, Hernando wrote a biography of his father entitled Life and Deeds of the Admiral in 1530. It was widely distributed. The book showed the Admiral in a favorable light and was published for wider circulation in 1571.
Hernando’s various European journeys and compulsive acquisition of the world’s knowledge into a library to rival that of the lost Library of Alexandra was supported intermittently by the crown and regularly by him. He cataloged everything he acquired so when the ship bringing his 1,637 newly acquired treasures was lost at sea in 1622 he still had a catalog of what was lost and could acquire those items again and did!
The entire book progresses through the nonstop procession of marvels, ordeals, and apparitions from the voyages of discovery while so many other things were happening at the same time: the onset of the Spanish Inquisition in Spain, Luther wrote his 95 theses in Germany, and in England, Henry was divorcing Catherine. It was a time of immense intellectual excitement in European history and the book does a wonderful job of capturing that epic time. Renaissance thinking was originally guided by medieval viewpoints and the encyclopedias and scriptural commentaries of the time. Knowing this, Christopher Columbus wrote The Book of Prophecies which argued that his discovery of the New World was part of a divinely ordained plan. It was superbly done and many of the predictions came true. It recasts Bible passages to make Columbus a nearly mythical hero of the coming apocalypse. This was another important teaching for Hernando. In an age of abundant and unreliable information, the person who can impose order can shape history.
Hernando Colón had a mind perfectly suited to gathering and organizing the world’s largest library. He loved making order of the complex world he lived in. He created lists, grids, inventories, alphabets, hieroglyphs, maps, registries, and shelving systems. Hernando’s lists of authors and works, book indexes, a hieroglyphic code used in an early version of the card catalog, keywords, and content summaries allowed readers to find the volume they needed.
As the master librarian, he was the first known collector to put books in specially built “bookcases,” spine out, and on end instead of storing them flat. He collected throughout his world and arranged a system to have others gather material for him. His collection went far beyond books and manuscripts to include pamphlets, poems pasted on columns, street ballads, menus, pornographic images, flyers sold by street hawkers, and every other bit of printed matter. He added to his collection items like the questionable The Story of the Blonde and the Brunette. He paid dearly for Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, now widely regarded as the most beautiful of all Renaissance incunabulas, but at the time just a sexual fantasy. His collection policy was… everything!
Throughout his life he was a compulsive note taker. His journals are copious and every purchase recorded, including the date and place of purchase, price, notes on the author, where he read it, and more. He collected over 20,000 items, about 15,000 books and manuscripts and another 3,000 images. He also collected and preserved all of his father’s journals. He did two major book buying trips. During one he purchased 700 books in a month, then 200 in three days, then over the next month bought approximately 1,000. To be certain he did not acquire duplicates, he created a system of indexes, a modern equivalent of a card catalogue. He obtained a sizable number of books printed between the years 1453-1500.
Hernando hired scholars from the Low Countries to serve as its librarians. These scholars lived on site at the library to ensure their focus was solely the library. He developed an elaborate cataloging system to index the books’ contents and manage his ever growing library. The Table of Authors and Sciences was an author/title index. The Book of Materials was an index of subjects using common terms rather than a controlled list of headings. The Book of Epitomes included 5-7 line summaries written by the hired scholars, giving an “abstract” of the contents. It also provided support for the acquisitions policy. As Wilson-Lee points out “Searching an index is all but useless unless you know the term you are looking for, and in the instructions Hernando left for his assistants he directed them to use the most common term for the subject in question, as well as putting it under more than one heading when in doubt.” Charles Ami Cutter would have loved him! To paraphrase Descartes, to obtain more knowledge one must “know” what knowledge is out there; undiscovered knowledge is unknowable. Hernando’s innovations in library organization changed history.
The acquisitions process Hernando put in place is fairly normal today. He arranged with bookstores in Rome, Venice, Nuremberg, Antwerp, Paris, and Lyon to supply the books. Every year, each would send five “ducados” worth of printed material, of all kinds, to Hernando’s universal library in Seville which he called “Hernandina.” The bookstores’ priority was to first buy as much grey literature, or “ephemera,” as possible and then move to larger printed books. They collected, “all books, in all languages and on all subjects, which can be found both within Christendom and without” (page 316). Then, every six years an agent from the Hernandina would travel to a selection of smaller cities seeking titles new to the catalogues of the Hernandina.
Hernando planned a universal library, where all the thoughts of the world were stored, in all languages, covering all of the possible fields of knowledge. He knew that the library needed to be guarded, arranged, documented, and well-curated. He felt that the universal library could be a way of extracting all the knowledge of mankind. He sought ways to order things so everything known and new could be gathered forever. He did not want to put any limits on it. He was not bounded by language, subject, or religion. He wanted “a place of pleasure, magic and astonishment” (page 84, 240 and 314-317).
Hernando did much besides collect and catalog a collection. He was a lawyer for the king and for his brother. He was a diplomat drafting treaties. Because of his connections to the court and the wealth from his father’s demesne in the Indies (for which he had to repeatedly fight the crown), Hernando was able to move easily through the courts of Europe and in publishing or artistic circles as well. He collected Dürer prints and original copies of Luther’s heretical treatises. He also mingled with some of the renowned figures of the age, including Michelangelo, Erasmus, Thomas More, Magellan, and Henry VIII, and recorded information about them in his journals. He was part of the royal entourage and an advisor to King Charles I of Spain when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by the Pope Julian, the Charles that sacked Rome in 1527. He designed an elaborate garden plan for his family home, the Alcazar de Colon, and applied the same system used to amass his books to gathering botanical specimens worldwide for the gardens, including a large medicinal herb garden.
He began a geographic survey of Spain and wrote long debates about the circumference of the earth, although his requests to attempt a full circumnavigation of the earth were turned down.
He began drafting a Latin dictionary but gave up at almost 1,500 pages. The last entry, “bibo,” in English, “I drink” appears to be the point at which he realized he could never finish it.
Hernando had a vast collection of maps for the time and had traveled with both his father and his brother. Therefore, he was asked to create the final, authoritative map of the New World so that Portugal and Spain could once and for all settle on territorial rights.
He was also asked to create a census map of Spain. This project quickly expanded to provide very detailed coverage of both topography and the varied local cultures. Hernando used the novel idea of drawing his map on a background of grid lines for accuracy. He sent census collectors out following strict methods of collection and verification, and then collated the data into his Description of Spain. The multiple layer of information is reflected in his notes: “a descriptive vocabulary, recording that the land is harsh or barren or fertile. Before long the list of words has multiplied to include pebbled beaches, sweet-water inlets, clear rivers, treacherous hillsides, forests of chestnut and of oak, vineyards, a hot spring that rolls boiling in summer or winter. The abstract space is also invaded by the seasons: the route inland from Sanlúcar (where Hernando had landed with his father in 1504) has lagoons that turn into marshes in winter and must be waded through knee-deep, the Galician town of Porriño has delicious turnips as big as pitchers, and nearby in Sancroy they have a technique for saving their vines by digging up their roots and stems and planting them again the next year” (p.185). He needed a taxonomy!
Although Hernando’s beloved collection was well-endowed for its future by his will, enabling it to continue growing as Spain’s global empire increased, this was not to be. The universal library never got Hernando’s preferred name “Hernandina,” but was rather named “Biblioteca Colombina” in 1539. The ownership of his library was contested for several decades after his death until it passed into the hands of the Seville Cathedral. It was neglected, and then much of it dispersed by later Catholic curators. The library was reduced by half to just over 7,000 books and then further to its current size of 3,000 books. Those are now held at the Biblioteca Colombina in Sevilla, and housed in Institución Colombina.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is a tough read. The book only covers a 50-year time span, but it does so in great detail. It is not something to be read in a single week but rather to be savored. Wilson-Lee does a masterful job of describing the mindset of the times and putting historical events into perspective. The book conveys a sense of the chaos and free-thinking of the period, but is not a normal biography. It is the story of the library Hernando Columbus collected, and the challenges of the new horizons of information we still face today. The book includes deep discussions on the philosophy of information science. There are discussions of how he wrestled with how to present information, and how the information we articulate both reflects and shapes people’s access to the information. If you are interested in the Renaissance or are a bibliophile, you will love this meticulously researched and documented book, weaving the lives of two men, father and son, in the context of the renaissance and the early age of exploration that resulted in a universal library.
About the Author
Edward Wilson-Lee is a Fellow in English, professor of medieval literature, at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he teaches medieval and Renaissance literature. His research focuses on books, libraries, and travel, which during this project has involved journeys to and through Spain, Italy, India, and the Caribbean. He is the author of Shakespeare in Swahililand and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. https://www.edwardwilsonlee.com/