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Cathedral of Knowledge

Cathedral of Knowledge

March 8, 2019 6:33 pmComments are Disabled

Today I visited the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in the world. The centerpiece of the university is the campus, and the centerpiece of this campus is Biblioteca Joanina, a veritable cathedral of knowledge finished in 1750.

I don’t use the word cathedral lightly. When this library was built, the school it was built for was already 500 years old. The campus was already 200 years old. Like all European universities of the time Coimbra was sanctioned by the authority of the Church and run by rectors. It had a theological seminary long before it had a sciences faculty.

This library was built, I’m sure not coincidentally, like a chapel, with three vaulted chambers, ornamented with gold and decorative patterns that rival most royal chapels of the era. The most beautiful decorations are of course the shelves stacked with centuries of leather-bound books, which represent “the best of what was published in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.” It remains an active library today, with a security-minded checkout procedure and, surprisingly, an active colony of bats they employ for pest control (in case you were wondering they put down leather mats at night for the scat).

It is also not a coincidence, I am sure, that the library was built at the height of the renaissance, when publishing was taking off in Europe as an independent medium to disseminate knowledge beyond the pulpit. The early books of that era no doubt hugged the line of faith and didn’t stray too much, but the very idea that knowledge can be found in a book other than the Bible, especially in fanatically Catholic 18th-century Portugal, would have been a very new one at the time. It had scarcely been a hundred years since the Wars of Reformation ravaged Europe under the very principle that people should have the ability to learn religion–much less anything–on their own, with their own books.

It is not crazy to think that this library may have been seen by many as the beginning of the end of the Age of Religion and the beginning of the Age of Reason. And certainly that’s how we must see such an bibliophilic edifice today: as a symbol of the lasting power of knowledge and reason, while respecting the sanctity and authority of the traditions which bore the universities in which such reason once found life, and have since thrived.

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