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The Ideal Library


In the last post, I talked about the reason why universities needed books (seems pretty obvious) and about a piece of archival evidence that contains a list of books bought for the Colegio de San Ildefonso between 1496 and 1509. Here, I would like to expand the things discussed and to introduce a related piece of archive, a manuscript describing the order in which those books are arranged in the space of a library. This list enumerates the books in different shelves creating an imaginary distribution of knowledge that will be important in order to understand what the Cisnerian cultural view and his university were about.

Madrid, AHN Universidades L.1090, f. 34r.

In my last post I tried to address several questions about the acquisition of books, the foundation of a college, and the emergence of a brand new institution dedicated to deal with knowledge. It probably came off as rather clumsy because these are not easy matters to address and also because I was trying to deal with all of them at the same time. Today I am going to write about the order of the books in the space of the library as a new element to the same equation. A library is not just a series of books bought and then piled up in a room so the students can read them in tables. A library is the result of a previously planned distribution of knowledge available in different physical areas (shelves ordered in a room) and, thus, always willing to reveal the epistemological project behind an institution. So, having an idea of how the books in the Colegio de San Ildefonso were physically distributed and not only a list of the volumes Cisneros’s assistants bought for it would be useful.

The list was compiled as an inventory for all the things belonging to the college and it was written right after the point in time where the previous one finished (ca. 1510). The book in which the list is contained has 77ff. of parchment (AHN Universidades L.1090). Most of the items listed are rentas, beneficios, and other properties that would allow the institution to be financially viable after Cisneros’s death. Other goods such as books, ceremonial objects, or kitchen utilities were catalogued so they could continue being of use of the college. Obviously, the purposes of the catalogue I talked about in the last post and this one are different: the former list was intended to keep a register of the books that were being bought, which meant to keep a register of the money spent; the latter was intended to keep a register of the books inside the college, which meant to keep a register of books possessed. Both catalogues consider books as commodities; both catalogues give us different and useful cultural information. The one including data about places, prizes, and people who buy books, while the other giving an idea of how books are gathered in areas of knowledge.

Ultimately, both catalogues are about fitting serendipity into a program of knowledge. One wants to find books and ends up buying what is available in Medina, Toledo, Barcelona, or Valladolid. My first hypothesis is that catalogues are a means to organize the availability of books. The other has books that are going to be placed in a library for the use of others, which leads inventing categories under which books struggle to fit (here you can insert the reference to the prologue of you-know-which of Foucault’s books). My second hypothesis is that if an epistemological program is always an attempt to create a narration of necessity in order to incarcerate contingency inside it, then a library represents the ultimate image of such contradiction. Libraries give us a deceivingly frozen picture of the circulation of books, the changes in disciplinary frames, and the evolution of the modes of thinking institutions of knowledge. Libraries are static rooms made of moveable pieces.

According to the list, there are two kind of items of furniture in order to place books: plutei and escani. Plutei are placed in the center of the room and have two shelves, they can hold twice the amount of books as escani. Escani are smaller and attached to the walls of the library room, placed around the windows and at both sides of the main door. Thus, the list gives the idea that plutei place some books at the center of the room and that other are held as extensions of that core knowledge at the walls. The first five plutei contained several different versions of the Bible (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, etc.), commentaries on the Sacred Texts, and volumes with the writings of the Fathers of the Church. The following four contained texts of theology and philosophy, among which both Ramon Llull’s De contemplacione and the Arbor scientiae that appeared mentioned in the list of bought books. The last pluteus contained books on natural science and medicine. The escani contained books on canon law, volumes about the art of preaching, and classics in Greek, Latin, and vernacular.

One of the most remarkable features of the library is that it does not follow in its order the traditional division of the seven liberal arts. Many universities at the time displayed such organizing principlie, including Paris, where Pedro Ciruelo had studied. Instead, the library of the Colegio de San Ildefonso established a core of knowledge with a distinguished up front thesis. The Bible is present in five versions, pointing to the organization of the biblical texts that was in process at that time in the Colegio. The task of the edition of the Biblia Polyglota Complutense justifies the necessity of making available all these different versions of the Bible for scholars, breaking to some extent the impossibility of deviating from the version of the Saint Jerome’s Vulgate. The printer of the new Bible would be Arnao Guillén de Brocar (1460-1523), also printer of the two Cisnerian Lullist texts: Libellus de amico et amato (1517) and De anima rationalis (1519). My hypothesis here is that there is an epistemological connection between the planning of the new bible, which is a philological edition aiming to be regarded as definitive, and the Art of Ramon Llull, which is a technique aiming to the understanding of everything that exists.

Moreover, Brocar was not only the printer of Llull and the Bible, but also of many other books. Among them, some of the works of Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), who is remembered as the first grammarian of Castilian vernacular. Nebrija was also a professor at the Colegio de San Ildefonso. Cisneros’s cultural project included a trilingual bible (Greek, Hebrew, Latin), a brand new set of rules for writing in lengua castellana, and Llull’s Art as a clavis universalis. Obviously, all three phenomena were part of Cisneros’s cultural project and strong components of the direction he wanted to give to the Colegio de San Ildefonso. The interest for Llull would grow stronger as the cardinal would acquire books and have them in the library. As a testament to this importance, Llull was one of the philosophers at the core of the spatial model of knowledge along with Aristotle (In octavo pluteo inferiori parte). Interestingly, the key to academic anti-Lullism during most of the 16th century (Fernando de Córdoba, Pedro Ciruelo) is the fear that the figure of Ramon Llull would replace that of Aristotle. Even if paradoxically Llull did not need to be Christianized as Aristotle had, Aristotelians considered Llull a deviation from established dialectic rules of academic debate and Dominicans considered Llull a deviation from doctrine.

Ultimately, the question at the center of this catalogue is what should be the order of knowledge we have so production of future knowledge will be maximized. Historically, this is a difficult question to answer in relation to Cisneros’s Lullism. He has abandoned old organizing principles such as the liberal arts, but new organizing principles such as modern academic disciplines have not fully emerged yet. This gap lets some space for whacky cultural models such as the Art to place themselves as an answer to this momentary vacuum. The presence in the library, the editions, and the manuscripts are material proofs that Ramon Llull did not only occupied a single place in a shelf, but also that he was a part of a discussion on how to deal with the totality of knowledge. Llull offered a model among many of those discussed in early modern Iberian Peninsula (Aristotle was probably the most important among them, others were Marsilio Ficino, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, or Arnau de Vilanova) and certainly was one of the ones that survived through centuries regarded as an oddity but also being a powerful influence (Descartes, Kircher, Leibniz, etc.). The reason for Llull’s influence is its paradoxical place in the library, which is ultimately the reason why Cisneros and Philip II were fascinated with him: one book can contain the Art of a Ramon Llull, but at the same time the Art of Ramon Llull can contain the whole library.

Last Updated 2 years ago


  • Chartier, Roger. “Libraries Without Walls.” Representations 42 (1993): 38-52. Print.
  • “Index omnium librorum bibliotece collegii santi illefonsy oppidi complutensis.” Madrid, Archivo Histórico Nacional, Universidades L. 1090. ff. 33r-54v. Manuscript.
  • Ruiz, Elisa & Helena Carvajal. La casa de Protesilao. Reconstrucción arqueológica del fondo cisneriano de la Biblioteca Histórica “Marqués de Valdecilla.” Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2011. Printed.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « The Ideal Library », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 23, 2014. Full URL for this article

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