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Rare Manuscript Found Reveals Massive Lost World of 16th Century Books

Stefan Andrews

Hernando Colón (anglicized to Ferdinand Columbus) was born in 1488 to explorer Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, and his mistress Beatriz Enriquez de Arana. Although an out-of-wedlock child, Colón was recognized by his father. Like father like son, Colón also had a project which was larger than life.

While Columbus was exploring the oceans and pursuing a quest to find the New World, his son was avidly trying to read every book he could lay hands on. In fact, he aimed “to create a universal library ‘containing all books, in all languages and on all subjects, that can be found both within Christendom and without’,” according to the Guardian.

For his zealous effort, Colón even hired a fleet of scholars to go through the books he owned, asking them to produce quick summaries for what would be a ground-breaking 16-volume manuscript with cross-references to other items in the library collection. He would personally proofread and edit each of those summaries before submitting them to the manuscript.

Hernando Colón

Hernando Colón

The manuscript was called Libro de los Epítomes (The Book of Epitomes) and has been compared to being a Middle Age search engine due to its extensive cross-referencing. In it, the knowledge of the books and other early print material collected by Colón was meticulously distilled and classified.

For centuries, The Book of Epitomes was considered lost, until it was recently identified as part of the Arnamagnæan Collection at the University of Copenhagen, the Guardian reports. The summaries fill over 2,000 pages and a great deal of them refer to books that have been entirely lost to history. For shorter volumes, the scribes added one-pagers; for books such as those of the great Greek philosophers more extensive abstracts taking up dozens of pages were added.

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The manuscript was, in fact, one of four means of navigating through Colón’s library. According to The Arnamagnæan Institute, Colón had “four types of inventories to keep track of his books,” included “a list of authors, a list of sciences (that is, subjects), a list of materials (that is, themes of keywords) and finally a list of epitomes.” Each of these “could be cross-referenced through numbers assigned to the books in each of the lists.”

Colón tirelessly added to the book collection until his death in 1539. It’s estimated that the library comprised around 15,000 volumes; sadly, only a quarter of these are known to have survived. After his death, Colón’s collection was relocated to Seville Cathedral, where negligence led to the loss of much of the library.

Cambridge-based scholar Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee, author of a recently published biography of Hernando Colón titled The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, has said The Book of Epitomes is like a window into a “lost world of 16th century books,” reports the Guardian.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Reitz/Arnamagnæan Institute, University of Copenhagen

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Reitz/Arnamagnæan Institute, University of Copenhagen

“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,” he said.

The collection in which The Book of Epitomes has now resurfaced is ascribed to Icelandic-Danish scholar and collector Árni Magnússon, who lived from 1663 until 1730.

Upon his death, Magnússon gifted his personal book collection to the University of Copenhagen. The great majority of his 3,000 volumes donation is in Icelandic and other Nordic languages. Only about 20 items are in Spanish, including The Book of Epitomes, and the language barrier was likely a reason why hardly anyone paid attention to it over the last few centuries.

Illustration from La Piteuse Complainte, from the works of Pierre Gringore, with handwritten note by Fernando Colón

Illustration from La Piteuse Complainte, from the works of Pierre Gringore, with handwritten note by Fernando Colón

In 2013, during a visit to the Arnamagnæan Institute, Guy Lazure, an Associate Professor at Canada’s University of Windsor and a researcher on Colón, was the first to point out the manuscript could be connected with Hernando Colón’s library. Following which, other scholars were contacted by the Danish-based institute to investigate and confirm the find.

The information eventually reached Colón’s biographer, Wilson-Lee, and co-author María Pérez Fernández. In collaboration with the Arnamagnæan Institute, Wilson-Lee and Fernández are due to work on digitizing the long lost manuscript.

It’s surprising that The Book of Epitomes reappeared in a country so far north, and how, in the first place, a copy of it came to be a possession of Árni Magnússon. One possibility is that it journeyed with a bunch of other manuscripts, from Seville to Copenhagen, through diplomatic channels.

Signature of Ferdinand Columbus in a lease contract dated 1534, preserved at the Provincial Historical Archive of Seville, Spain

Signature of Ferdinand Columbus in a lease contract dated 1534, preserved at the Provincial Historical Archive of Seville, Spain

Back in the 16th century, Spain was the wealthiest country on the planet and its prowess was reflected in undertakings such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus. In the same spirit of achieving greatness, his son wanted a library of the sort never seen before. A universal library that would function like “the brain” of the powerful Spanish empire.

If Colón had someone to look up to for such an aspiration, it was definitely his explorer-father, who was confident enough to believe Spain would one day reign over the entire known world.

Hernando Colón’s house

Hernando Colón’s house

Colón himself traveled a lot, sometimes even accompanying his father. He also authored one of the earliest biographies on Columbus. “Between 1509 and his death in 1539, Colón traveled all over Europe — in 1530 alone he visited Rome, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Constance, Basle, Fribourg, Cologne, Maastricht, Antwerp, Paris, Poitiers and Burgos,” notes the Guardian.

The purpose of his extensive traveling time was again to collect books and any other printed material, for example, tavern posters or news pamphlets. At the time, his mass of books was called Biblioteca Hernandina and it grew to be at least three times the size of other private library collections of the era.

Colón also had some intriguing reading habits. On each book, he noted where and at what cost the copy was purchased — in what currency the exchange rate that day. He was also keen to note where he was reading the book and his thoughts as he moved through the pages. Colón also kept to strict protocols of organizing his collection of books, so the production of The Book of Epitomes should come as no surprise.

Biblioteca Colombina, 1913

Biblioteca Colombina, 1913

At the time the biggest private library in Europe, today Biblioteca Hernandina is called Biblioteca Colombina. The collection has shrunk to as few as 4,000 titles. While it was stored at Seville Cathedral, some of the copies are said to have been stolen; others were damaged in incidents such as flooding.

Read another story from us: The Ancient Cathedral Library Where all the Books are Chained to the Shelves

Beyond the loss of books, the remnants of Colon’s great project are here with us, and his character teaches a fantastic story about a man who was resolute to gather all the books out there. If not read them all, at least have a brief idea of what they were all about. Unknowingly, Colón was reinventing the very idea of knowledge.

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