Christopher Columbus may have explored oceans, but his illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, explored the mind. In the 16th century, he amassed somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 books, part of a pie-in-the-sky effort to collect “all books, in all languages and on all subjects, that can be found both within Christendom and without.” As part of this ambitious endeavor, he commissioned an entire staff of scholars to read the books and write short summaries for a 16-volume, cross-referenced index. Called the Libro de los Epítomes, it served as a primitive sort of search engine. Now, researchers have found one of those lost volumes, a precious key to many books lost to history.
After Colón’s death in 1539, his massive collection ultimately ended up in the Seville Cathedral, where neglect, sticky-fingered bibliophiles, and the occasional flood reduced the library to just 4,000 volumes over the centuries. Luckily, 14 of the volumes of the Libro de los Epítomes index survived, and are now held at the Biblioteca Colombina in Seville, an institution that manages the collection.
Thousands of miles away from Seville, though, one of the lost copies survived, tucked away at the Arnamagnæan Institute at the University of Copenhagan, which houses the vast library of Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon. Professor Guy Lazure of the University of Windsor in Canada was there when he realized the foot-thick, 2,000-page tome he was looking at may have been one of the lost volumes.
Most of the Arnamagnæan Collection houses manuscripts in Icelandic and Scandinavian languages, with only 22 volumes in Spanish or by Spanish authors. That’s why the massive volume was likely overlooked for centuries until Lazure spotted it. Experts later confirmed that it was, indeed, part of Colón’s project.
Edward Wilson-Lee of Cambridge University, whose biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, was recently released, calls the find nothing less than extraordinary in an interview with Alison Flood of The Guardian. "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 says.
Unlike other book-obsessed collectors from the time period, Colón wasn’t just interested in volumes from classical authors or other well-trodden texts. Fortunately for present-day scholars, he bought everything he could find in print, including political pamphlets, guidebooks and posters from taverns.
“This was someone who was, in a way, changing the model of what knowledge is. Instead of saying ‘knowledge is august, authoritative things by some venerable old Roman and Greek people’, he’s doing it inductively: taking everything that everyone knows and distilling it upwards from there,” Wilson-Lee says. “It’s much more resonant with today, with big data and Wikipedia and crowdsourced information. This is a model of knowledge that says, ‘We’re going to take the breadth of print – ballads and pornography and newsletters – and not exclude that from the world of information.’”
How the index came into Magnússon’s collection is unclear. According to the press release, it’s possible that it was part of a group of manuscripts brought to Denmark from Spain via Cornelius Lerche, an envoy to the Spanish court, though for now that’s just speculation.
For now, Wilson-Lee says that he and fellow scholar Pérez Fernández are currently working on a comprehensive work about Colón's entire library and plan to collaborate with the Arnamagnæan Institute to digitize the newly discovered volume.