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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

September 2018: Niccolo Machiavelli, Tutte le Opera [Works], Geneva, [1635]

To mark Banned Books Week, which is taking place between 23rd and 29th September this year, September’s Treasure of the Month is one of Durham Cathedral Library’s own ‘banned books’: the works of Italian diplomat and politician Niccolo Machiavelli. This is a book with an interesting provenance and a remarkable history when it comes to censorship: printed in Geneva in 1635 – at a time when the works of Machiavelli had been banned by the Vatican – the date given on the title page is ‘MDL’ – 1550. By giving this volume a false imprint, the printers could get around any subsequent fines or legal implications by simply claiming that the book was produced some nine years prior to the ban actually coming into force.

Best remembered for his seminal work The Prince (although this was not published in his lifetime), Machiavelli is often referred to as the ‘father’ of modern political science, and the concepts with which he has become most associated have helped coin a term all of their own. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or general conduct”, Machiavellianism has come to be associated with duplicity, a disregard for morality, and a desire to hold on to power at any means. The French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot, described it as the “art of tyranny”. Others, meanwhile, including Diderot’s contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that his writings were an inspiration to the Enlightenment ideals of modern democratic political philosophy. Thomas Cromwell was apparently most appreciative of the theories at work in The Prince, and it was said to have helped influence Henry VIII in his eventual turn towards Protestantism. There are also arguments that Machiavelli’s strong leanings towards Republicanism helped inspire the Founding Fathers of the United States – in particular John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

The four Geneva printings of this collection of works by Machiavelli – of which this is one – are collectively known as the ‘Testina Editions’, due to the “little head” of Machiavelli notable on their title pages.

This volume of Machiavelli’s works was purchased for Durham Cathedral at auction in March 2014. It had previously been owned by Thomas Rud: Cathedral Librarian between 1717-26, Rud’s beautiful script can be seen on the title page of this volume, and on a number of others held by Durham Cathedral Library. Much of what we know of the 18th century library at Durham Cathedral is owed to Rud’s meticulous record keeping: he kept a register of books donated and a separate register of books purchased – in both cases, including retrospective accessioning that went back as far as 1630; produced lists of missing books, and well-maintained library accounts; and, perhaps most significantly, produced an exceptionally important – and thorough – catalogue of the remains of the Cathedral’s medieval monastic library (over 300 manuscripts in total). This volume – eventually published almost one hundred years later, by James Raine, and entitled Codicum manuscriptorum ecclesiae Cathedralis Dunelmensis Catalogus Classicus – remains the most complete and reliable source of information on Durham Cathedral’s medieval library collection. Staff at Durham Cathedral Library were most grateful to the anonymous donor who made the purchase of this volume possible.

This volume of the works of Machiavelli – as well as the other 30,000 titles that accompany it in the Refectory Library - are available to be consulted on site by researchers and interested parties. Access is on an appointment-only basis; please see the Durham Cathedral Library website for more information.