The Law Society vs Joseph Mendham
By MICHAEL CAINES
Great book collections are constantly rising and falling – to the horror of book historians, when they realize that unique incunabula have vanished for ever, or that some insight into how a writer's mind worked has disappeared along with their library.
If you read the "In Brief" reviews of the TLS, you'll (surely) remember David Finkelstein's brief account of what happened to the collection of some 16,000 books belonging to the humanist scholar Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, published a few years ago: the attacks of Turkish pirates accounted for a third of it, as it was transported to Naples after Pinelli's death; the Allies bombed the rest out of existence during the Second World War.
Less dramatic but somehow more puzzlingly uncivilized than that is the current action of the Law Society of England and Wales – already condemned by the religious historian Diarmaid MacCulloch as "vandalism", and the subject of an online petition – in seeking to break up the unique collection of books made by the nineteenth-century clerlgyman-controversialist Joseph Mendham.
Mendham (1769–1856) was an Anglican clergyman with a private income (hence the accumulation of unique manuscripts and rare incunabula). He was an inveterate nineteenth-century opponent of Roman Catholicism; his railings against the Index of prohibited books make particularly impressive reading, and required deep knowledge of a great range of Continental literature on the subject; he brought together over eighty separate editions of the Index librorum prohibitorum.
The odd thing is that the Law Society owns this collection, and acknowledged its intellectual worth in the 1980s by loaning it to Canterbury Cathedral Library (which has ties to the University of Kent) – but, last month, they sent the men from Sotheby's down to the Mendham Collection to remove a selection of the most valuable items in order to auction them off and, as Kent's Dr Alixe Bovey has put it, "plug a hole in their finances". (Something has gone wrong, apparently, since 2009.)
So, come the auction in November, out goes the unique 1495 edition of Guy de Montrocher's Manipulus curatorum; out goes the only known survivor of the Modus confitendi of Andreas de Escobar from 1480; and it's goodbye to the Mendham copies of Donne, Aquinas and several editions of that notorious Index. Unless you and a couple more thousand people sign that petition, perhaps.
As Elaine Treharne has put it, the point is not so much that the lawyers need or want to sell a few books in these difficult times. It's that these particular books (which include, incidentally, the owner's annotations, further marking them out as his) belong together. The "deliberate dispersal of an historic collection" is a desponding prospect: "deliberately fragmenting historical evidence of the passions and pursuits of earlier collectors impoverishes our human record". Tell that to the pirates who just want to plug a hole. . . .