"Extraordinary" 500-year-old library catalogue discovered
April 10, 2019 2:53 AM   Subscribe

From The Guardian: It sounds like something from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and his The Cemetery of Forgotten Books: a huge volume containing thousands of summaries of books from 500 years ago, many of which no longer exist. But the real deal has been found in Copenhagen, where it has lain untouched for more than 350 years.

The Libro de los Epítomes manuscript, which is more than a foot thick, contains more than 2,000 pages and summaries from the library of Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus who made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known in the early part of the 16th century. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels. Today, only around a quarter of the books in the collection survive and have been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552.

The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is “extraordinary”, and a window into a “lost world of 16th-century books”, said Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the recent biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. “It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries,” said Wilson-Lee. “The idea that this object which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project and which one always thought of with this great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved, for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”

The manuscript was found in the collection of Árni Magnússon, an Icelandic scholar born in 1663, who donated his books to the University of Copenhagen on his death in 1730. The majority of the some 3,000 items are in Icelandic or Scandinavian languages, with only around 20 Spanish manuscripts, which is probably why the Libro de los Epítomes went unnoticed for hundreds of years. It was Guy Lazure at the University of Windsor in Canada who first spotted the connection to Colón. The Arnamagnæan Institute then contacted Mark McDonald at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who passed it on to Wilson-Lee and his co-author José María Pérez Fernández, of the University of Granada, for verification.
posted by Bella Donna (25 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Considering that much of Árni Magnússon’s library burned in the 1728 Great Fire of Copenhagen, it’s an even more miraculous survival.

Of course, now I wonder whether some of the lost books from Hernando Colón’s library perished in the same fire.
posted by Kattullus at 3:21 AM on April 10, 2019 [17 favorites]

this is way better that any Dan Brown
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 3:34 AM on April 10, 2019 [18 favorites]

Holy shit!
posted by Fizz at 3:36 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I know, right? Discovering copies of the lost books would be even better but absent that ... Thanks, Kattullus! I don’t actually know anything about this stuff, I am just an amateur lover of books and libraries and librarians, so your mention of that great fire is much appreciated and does add to the wonder.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:41 AM on April 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Chills! This is so cool!
posted by Harald74 at 4:12 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Whoa. What's the word for what it must feel like to read an incredibly tantalising summary of a book and know it no longer exists?
posted by lucidium at 4:37 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've read this Borges story before. If I remember correctly, the library contained all books that were ever written and will ever be written except they're bound together such a way that the last page of the last book precedes the first page of the first book. The library only flickers into existence in the split second of the final thought of a dying priest before he is executed for heresy. In that split second, all the world's knowledge was available to him and with that knowledge he found peace in the unification of all life. He died with an expression of such beatific calmness that the man who ordered the death of priest became obsessed with what the priest knew. He began to read the preiest's notes which led him to embrace the same heresy of the priest which eventually lead to his own execution. That catalogue was found in his wardrobe after the inquisition searched his home.

Maybe I'll just read the article.
posted by Telf at 4:39 AM on April 10, 2019 [39 favorites]

What an incredible find. Also, so tantalizing to know that there are all these books we can now know about, but don't have the ability to read!
posted by xingcat at 5:12 AM on April 10, 2019

Telf: I've read this Borges story before.

The Borges story that’s kinda like Telf’s summary of a Borges story lost to time is called “The Book of Sand”, which you can listen to here, read by Mohsin Hamid for the New Yorker.
posted by Kattullus at 5:34 AM on April 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

The Arnamagnæan Institute in Denmark wrote about the find, and you can read the catalogue entry for the book in English on the website of the Icelandic Árni Magnússon Institute, and apparently it includes marginalia in the hand of Hernando Colón.
posted by Kattullus at 5:51 AM on April 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Damn it. I'll be angry if that was an actual Borges story. I'd hoped I kept it vague enough.
posted by Telf at 5:54 AM on April 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

I went looking to see if any online metadata was available for the manuscript, since it's sometimes the case that a "discovery" like this boils down to a scholar recognizing what had been present in a finding aid or catalog entry all along. Looks like this may be the real deal, though; compare (what looks to be) the original metadata record with the current one.

Bonus: the original announcement by the Arnamagnæan institute.
posted by metaquarry at 6:19 AM on April 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

... there are all these books we can now know about, but don’t have the ability to read.

xingcat, you’ve just described how I feel about picking up a copy of The London Review of Books and virtually all similar publications. Wow. Who knew all these books existed? Will I ever to be able to read even a fraction of them? Alas, no. Still, comforting that someone is keeping track.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:37 AM on April 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Item 1317: "A Brief History of Time", with some puzzled marginalia from Colón about he has no idea what language this is.
posted by Mogur at 6:41 AM on April 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

But seriously, this is really cool, and I can't wait for a digitization and/or a transcript.
posted by Mogur at 6:43 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I will light a candle for Colon in recognition of his gift to posterity.

The Book Of Epitomes is a great title.
posted by Segundus at 6:43 AM on April 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

I know this kind of thing can happen, but it still amazes me that some entity in charge of collecting and cataloguing rare books has somehow overlooked in their collection a 500-year old tome — that is a foot thick — until now.

Chills to think such discoveries are possible! The discoverer must be floating on cloud 9.
posted by darkstar at 6:53 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

So cool! Both excited and ...wistful?... at the same time.
posted by widdershins at 7:26 AM on April 10, 2019

I'll be angry if that was an actual Borges story. I'd hoped I kept it vague enough.

Everything is an actual Borges story.

It's very apropos that this is news on the same day at the black hole. This, too, is peeking around the edges of the great suck of time.

Worth noting that the catalogue is valuable not just for it's list of books, but also for an insight in to the way it organizes and classifies knowledge.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:38 AM on April 10, 2019 [15 favorites]

What's the word for what it must feel like to read an incredibly tantalising summary of a book and know it no longer exists?

It's similar to when you click the 10 Years Ago link under This Day in MeFi History
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

Metafilter: is an actual Borges story.
posted by JohnFromGR at 10:17 AM on April 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Don't worry, one day the judicial application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and markov-chains will recreate all those books using nothing more than their summaries, and a couple of photos of owls.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

There was an interview with the head of the Danish Arnamagnæan Institute, Matthew James Driscoll, on RÚV, the Icelandic state broadcaster. He said that the reason why no one had twigged until now that this was Hernando Colón’s Book of Epitomes because the first 200 pages are missing. They knew it was a catalog of books, but didn’t know the context.

The institute is planning to digitize and translate the whole book, but as there are 2000 pages still extant, it will take years to do. There are two photos of the book on RÚV’s website.
posted by Kattullus at 10:44 AM on April 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is wonderful! Thanks for posting this, Bella Donna!
posted by homunculus at 10:51 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

See also, Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York, NY: Norton (2012) rare book hunting.
posted by xtian at 11:47 AM on April 13, 2019

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