Re-reading the Old English poem known as 'The Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn' (which I wrote about this time last year), I was reminded of a lovely passage on the value of books. This poem is a debate between the wise king Solomon and a pagan prince named Saturn, who exchange questions and answers about the nature of the world - and on the subject of books, they agree. Solomon says:
Bec sindon breme, bodiað geneahhe
weotodne willan ðam ðe wiht hygeð.
Gestrangað hie and gestaðeliað staðolfæstne geðoht,
amyrgað modsefan manna gehwylces
of ðreaniedlan ðisses lifes.
Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.
Sige hie onsendað soðfæstra gehwam,
hælo hyðe, ðam ðe hie lufað.
'Books are glorious. They abundantly proclaim
the appointed purpose to anyone who thinks at all.
They strengthen and made stable the steadfast thought,
gladden the heart of every man
amid the pressing miseries of this life.
Bold is he who tastes the skill of books;
he will ever be the wiser who has command of them.
Victory they send to each of the true-hearted,
the haven of healing for those who love them.'
The value to be found in books, and in learning and wisdom generally, is a common theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry - although the most famous bookworm in Old English gets nothing by the books he devours! The 'Solomon and Saturn' example is particularly nice because it doesn't just talk about the value but the pleasure of books: they amyrgað 'make merry, gladden' the heart in the midst of the troubles of the world. Don't they, indeed?
This image shows one of my favourite medieval bibliophiles, St Dunstan (in BL Royal 10 A XIII, f. 2v), of whom we are told "Many were the meadows of sacred and divine volumes which, like some bee of genius, he flew over on the swift wings of his able nature." Something for every reader to aspire to! Dunstan has been proposed as a possible author of 'Solomon and Saturn'. In twelfth-century Canterbury, today (21 October) was celebrated as the feast of St Dunstan's ordination.