Update: Famous Hermetic Library Endangered

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 11, 2010 — 9 Comments

Last month I reported that the J.R. Ritman Library (aka The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica) in Amsterdam was endangered, and is currently closed to the public as Ritman and Friesland Bank negotiate a massive 15 million Euro collateral loan behind closed doors. A Dutch heritage site, and home to many rare hermetic and esoteric works, it is now in danger of crumbling apart entirely. First, Ritman’s contested sale of the The Grail of Rochefoucauld, which contains the oldest surviving account of the legends of King Arthur, and the action that sparked the current crisis, has been allowed to go through.

An illuminated 14th-century manuscript containing what is believed to be the oldest surviving account of the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the round table was sold for £2.39m yesterday [...]  It was written in Flanders or Artois some time between 1315 and 1323 and probably produced for Guy VII, Baron de Rochefoucauld, head of one of the leading aristocratic families of medieval France. Sotheby’s specialist Timothy Bolton said: “This is one of the principal manuscripts of the first significant medieval work of secular literature.”

That sale of one of the library’s most prized works is supposed to go towards paying off Ritman’s bank debt, for which the library was used as collateral. In the wake of these events, the Dutch government seems to have lost confidence that a workable solution will be found and is pulling all the works they own, around 40% of the total collection, out of the J.R. Ritman Library in order to protect the works and make them accessible once more.

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“The Ministry of Education has told EénVandaag that the part of the collection owned by the central government is currently secure. [...] The Department announced that [this decision was made] with the utmost care and prudence and that the accessibility of the collection for science is the main reason for this [move].”

So despite the protests and petitions, the dissolution of the library seems all but certain now. The “core collection” owned by the Dutch government will most likely be integrated into one of their existing libraries, with the rest in danger of being sold in order to cover the bank debt. This is a huge blow to hermetic scholarship, with many works now in danger of falling into the hands of private collectors, out of reach to the general public.

I will keep you updated as further news surfaces. Once again, I’d like to thank my Netherlands contact Suus Oudbier for providing essential information and resources for this story.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Robin Artisson

    Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

  • http://www.maryjones.us Tlachtga

    Kind of tangential:

    Depends on what you mean by "oldest surviving account of the legends of King Arthur". There are copies of the Lancelot-Grail cycle (of which the Grail of Rochefoucauld is one) whose manuscripts go back to around 1210-1220; and Chretien de Troyes was writing in the late 12th century.

    If you count Welsh literature, the Black Book of Carmarthen, which contains poems referring to Arthur and his court (specifically "Pa Gur" and "Englynion y Beddau"), and dates to around 1250, though the poems are older. And the Historia Brittonum of Nennius has an early Irish recension in the Lebor na hUidre, going back to the 12th century.

    What makes the Grail of Rochefoucauld stand out is that (IIRC) it's complete, and it's certainly one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts. But it's not the oldest manuscript of the legends of King Arthur.

    For more (and for images of the Grail of Rochefoucauld) see here:
    http://www.lancelot-project.pitt.edu/LG-web/Arthu

    • Kirk Thomas

      "And the Historia Brittonum of Nennius"

      This manuscript is believed to date to 829-30 CE and mentions Arthur. And there is a tiny reference to him in the poem, "y Gododdin", which can be securely dated to the 9th century, but is possibly older as well (perhaps as old as the 6th c.). This article is probably referencing the French re-tellings of the Arthurian tales which were based on the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

      • http://www.maryjones.us Tlachtga

        Well, the text dates to then, but the manuscripts only date to at the earliest the 11th century. Even this particular Grail manuscript dates to a hundred years after the work was composed. I'm only talking about the age of the physical books, not the texts themselves.

  • kenneth

    Why haven't these things been scanned/photographed, as the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works? Or have they? I know there's no substitution for the original in some scholarly work, but a high-resolution copy is much better than nothing.

    • http://www.maryjones.us Tlachtga

      Some are, particularly in France. BNF 95, another Grail manuscript (and also quite beautiful) is entirely scanned at the Gallica website:
      http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000108b.la

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

        Good to know. Thanks for the links, Tlachtga.

        I wouldn't mind this so much if at least images and/or text were available to the public, but when collections are broken up and pieces sold to private individuals, this is rarely the case. The only solace available is the knowledge that when rich people buy rare artifacts, they tend to take good care of them.

  • theo

    I have used the Bibliotheca Hermetica often for my books and studies. It is an incredible loss and I am shocked that no better measures were set in place after the first time the library was threatened by greedy moneymen.

    A loss indeed. And yes, the contents of the library should have been scanned and digitised a long time ago.

  • Mike

    Private ownership is not a deathblow. It really depends on who it is that gains ownership and how they are handled.

    But in the bigger picture, shouldn't we have a system in place so that such treasures are the property of the people of those nations from which they came?

    I am firmly against historic artifacts being assumed to belong to the human race, but to those nations where they came, is just logical. After that, private ownership becomes a flawed concept for such treasures. No man… or woman, has the right to claim what belongs to the greater.