Law Society to sell Mendham collection – and my own experience of it

In the days when I was hunting for rare early editions of the works of Tertullian, in order to photograph them and place them online, I became aware that a copy of the 1493 Scinzinzeler incunable existed at Canterbury cathedral, in the Mendham collection.  This was the property of the UK Law Society — the solicitors’ trade union, essentially — but since they had no use for a collection of theological books, it was in the hands of the library at Canterbury cathedral.

I remember this volume.  The librarian at the time was some woman whose name I have forgotten.  For some reason, as I could tell from her emails, she took a dislike to me and my enquiry, even though we had never met, and decided to frustrate my wishes.    I wrote quite a number of emails to various people, both at the cathedral and at the Law Society, but in vain.  Someone at the cathedral decided to run a trial of user photography, with the idea that I might contribute; the woman made sure that I wasn’t told about it.  Eventually I gave up, and I believe she went off to Durham, there to cause trouble for others, no doubt.  There is, even now, no access to this edition online anywhere.

Yesterday I read that the Law Society has sent Sothebys down to Canterbury to remove 300 of the choicer items from the collection, in order to sell them.  Cash, cash, cash, apparently is the motive.   Of old lawyers were men of literature.  But since I was quite unable to interest the Law Society in the matter of access, I am not in the least surprised. 

Kent Online have the story:

Medieval documents taken from the Canterbury Cathedral library will be auctioned off unless academics can raise enough money to buy them back.

The University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral campaigned together to stop the removal of 300 books and manuscripts from the Mendham Collection by The Law Society. …

It has been in Canterbury since 1984, attracting academics and researchers from across the world.

The Law Society said they needed to sell the documents to raise much-needed cash and have given the university and cathedral until November to submit a bid to reclaim the collection.

Spokesman Emma Alatalo said: “In these challenging times, we can no longer justify the ongoing cost of maintaining the collection, which despite its great value to academics does not form part of an archive useful to our members.

“We owe it to our members in these hard-pressed times to get the very best price that the market can offer.”

Of course they do; and society as a whole can go hang.  What “on-going cost” there might be,  for a bunch of books maintained by someone else, is not explained. 

There is a petition here, and there are blogged comments at Infoism here and at the Rechtsgeschiedenis blog here and the Medievalists here.  The THES comments here.

So … how do I feel about the sale of the collection?  Well, I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand there is little doubt in my mind that the Law Society are acting improperly.  Lawyers, above all men, should understand the value of past times, and rely on stability in records and institutions.  They, like all of us, have a duty to be good citizens.  A historical collection should be preserved in its entirety, in nearly every case. 

It is doubtless the case that the Law Society has no interest in it, but they should simply transfer it to the cathedral or some suitable body.  Lawyers are very rich men, on the whole, and the idea that the Law Society needs the money so badly that it must destroy heritage need hardly be considered.  Any one of the richer members of that society could write a cheque for the sum that will be raised and not notice it.

Yet the fact is that the collection is inaccessible to researchers as it stands, unless they live in Canterbury.  The only person to express interest in a volume in the collection in the last 20 years — myself — was unable to make use of it, in its current location and ownership.  Even the catalogue of the collection is not online!  I can’t determine whether the Tertullian is one of the 300 volumes already removed by Sothebys.  They fought like demons to make sure that no copy was made of that Tertullian edition; and they are now watching it vanish into the hands of some rich collector, never to be seen again, perchance. 

Any library that holds a collection of rare books has a duty to make a copy of them, simply for security reasons.  Books burn.  Mice nibble.  And the losses of unique items during the last century have been terrible.  Something like 5% of all surviving medieval manuscripts perished in the events of the 20th century, it has been estimated; in the burning of Dresden, of Louvain, in the massacres of the Armenians and Nestorians in 1915, and so forth.  The real figure is probably higher. 

But this, as far as I know, Canterbury have not done.  Over 150 years after the invention of photography, their books remain at the mercy of fire, theft and the Law Society.  A school-leaver on minimum wage with a digital camera could photograph the lot in a year.  Why has this not been done?

Likewise any such photographs should appear online.  For very few people can make any use of books in a collection such as this.  A day trip might be possible, but real work tends to require real access.  The copies of early editions in our major libraries go almost unused, as Pierre Petitmengin discovered when he inspected a number, because scholars resort to buying copies on the art market so that they can have them where they can use them. No-one has ever been able to use that Scinzinzeler.

So … it is possible that the dispersal of the Mendham collection will actually serve the public interest, unlikely as this might seem.  A new owner might be more public spirited, although I fear this will not in fact happen.  But only because Canterbury have been asleep at the wheel.  Why, why is there no catalogue online?

But the failures at Canterbury — will they be remedied? — should not disguise the fact that the Law Society are doing something which is immoral.

The Law Society should cease this discreditable and sleazy-looking action and return the books at once.


9 thoughts on “Law Society to sell Mendham collection – and my own experience of it

  1. Re: maintenance — Depending on how the Law Society is taxed, they may have to pay lots of tax on such a valuable bunch of possessions; or they may be paying a lot of insurance.

    Of course, it may just be that the guys are counting “stuff we haven’t sold yet” as “money we’re being cost.”

  2. The stupidity of all is very frustrating, though. The lawyers up in Edinburgh sold facsimiles of their mss and rare books. Back in the 19th century, even.

  3. A small private collection of cuneiform tablets , generally 1″ to 2″ square, about 40 of them, one case marked “Ur” will be on the London auction market shortly. Had a chance to closely inspect them this week before…

  4. It is completely untrue that no catalogue of the Mendham Collection is available.
    I was co-editor of a full catalogue of the collection published by the Law Society in 1994 (when it had a very different attitude). The records have been available online via the Univesity of Kent’s OPAC for the past decade and also on the HPB database of the Consortium of European Research Libraries.

    The Cathedral Library at Canterbury is regularly used by scholars including students from the two local universities.
    The question of refusing you photographic access to the 1493 Tertullian is one for the Law Society to answer, not the Cathedral. It is the only recorded copy in the UK and will no doubt be far more inaccessible once the Law Society has sold it in November.

  5. Thank you David: I was quite unaware that the catalogue material — an offline catalogue is not much use these days — was online, albeit buried in an OPAC. But is it possible to browse through the catalogue online? To see what it contains?

Leave a Reply