March 10, 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014 - 2 comments

'Bibliomania': Gustave Flaubert; Don Vincente, Catalan monk and Barcelona bookseller; Murder and Planas' Argument with a Legend

by A.M.C. Knutsson

In early 1837 a young promising writer published a novella called ‘Bibliomania’ in the French literary magazine Le Colibri. [1]  The young writer’s name was Gustave Flaubert and his novella was inspired by a news article that the 16-year-old had read only a few months earlier.

In October 1836 an article had appeared in La Gazette des Tribunaux accounting for the wondrous tale of Don Vincente a Catalan monk who after the dissolution of his monastery, Poblet, had become a bookseller in Barcelona. Whilst it was unknown whether Don Vincente could read, he was never seen reading a book, his passion for books was indisputable. It was described that he was very unwilling to part with all but the cheapest of his stock and once a valuable book entered his collection it would most likely never emerge again. Evil gossip circulated about the book dealer and people hinted at a dubious origin for his impressive stock. People suggested that the poor monk might have helped himself to the monastery library contents at the dissolution of Poblet.

At a book auction in the middle of 1836 a very rare book came up for sale.  The book was Furs e Orinacions, printed in 1482 in Valencia by Lamberto Palmar – the first Spanish printer, and it immediately caused a stir. No other copy of this edition was known and any book collector worthy of the name would have made ample sacrifices to be able to add this treasure to their collection. Don Vincente was no different, he is said to have bid furiously at the auction but was in the end beaten by Agustin Patxot, a fellow book dealer.

However, not even a week after the sale the residents of Barcelona woke up to find Patxot’s shop devoured by flames. When the fire had finally been tamed the body of the bookseller was recovered under the debris of burnt books. It was concluded that he had fallen asleep whilst smoking. During this time several other bodies were also found around Barcelona, they bore no trace of robbing as gold and jewels had been left on the bodies. The nine people that were found had no seeming connection apart from their love of learning and their passion for books.

An investigation was commenced and by chance a police officer noticed Furs e Orinacions, on one of Don Vincente’s shelves. Remembering the title from all the buzz around the auction, he confronted Don Vincente. The former monk claimed that the book had been sold to him but other dealers insisted that this claim was most unlikely. Further investigations of Don Vincente’s stock revealed books that had belonged to several of the dead men and Vincente was arrested. After first denying his guilt, the article tells us that he finally admitted to the murders on the understanding that his library would remain intact.

Under questioning the prosecutor asked why Vincente had left Patxot’s money behind when he had taken the Furs e Orinacons. Vincente is said to have answered, “Take money? Me? Am I a thief?" Commenting on why he committed these monstrosities, he answered calmly “Men are mortal. Sooner or later, God calls them back to him. But good books need to be conserved.” Don Vincente was condemned to death.[2]
  
Gustave Flaubert’s account of Don Vincente’s destiny would not reappear at the printing presses again until 1910 in Oeuvres de Jeunesse Inédites, Vol. 1. However, many other writers would also lace their pens with ink to cover this marvelous story.  To these count:
·     Le Voleur, no. 60 (Paris, 31 Oct 1836)
·     The Literary Gazette; and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences &c., for the year                1837, (1837)
·     Serapeum (Leipzig), no. 22 (20 Nov 1843)
·     Jules Janin, Le Livre (Paris, 1870), pp. 120-27.
·     P. Blanchemain, Miscellanees Bibliographiques, II (1879)
·     Lang, Andrew, The Library, (1881)
·     Halkett, Lord, ‘Don Vincente, the Assassin Bookseller’, in The Book-Lover, Vol IV,              Oct 1903.
·     Jackson, Holbrook, The Story of Don Vincente, (1939)
·     Sander, Max, Bibliomania, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951),                Vol. 34, No 3, (1943)
·     Roland, Charles G., ‘Bibliomania’, JAMA, Vol 212, (1970)
·  Basbanes, Nicholas A., A Gentle Madness- Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, (1995)
·     Hoover Bartlett, Allison, The man who loved books too much, (2009)
The story reached far and H.C. Watson even wrote about the case in his Statistics of Phrenology (1836).

However, already in 1928 a book had appeared in Spain written by bibliophile and author Ramon Miquel I Planas (1874-1950). The name of the book was El Llibreter assassí de Barcelona, and in it Planas sought to rectify the story of Don Vincente, arguing that the anonymous article in La Gazette des Tribunaux, which had informed the world about the existence of Don Vincente, had been fictional. Indeed, Planas argued that the article had been written by French author and librarian Charles Nodier, (1780-1844), most known for his influence on the French Romantics. Planas argued that Don Vincente’s crime does not appear in any local newspapers of the time, that there was no monk by the name of Fra Vincentes at Poblet at the time of its closure, and that the local ‘colour’ does not ring true. [3] Despite the fact that little research has been conducted into the case of Don Vincente since Planas, most scholars hold his version for true despite a disagreement about the identity of the original author. If Nodier was indeed the original author, it is interesting to note that it was rumoured that Nodier had killed a man for outbidding him at auction during one of his trips to Spain. [4]

Only 14 years short of the centenary of Plana’s book it is high time to introduce his theories also into the English accounts of book thieves and to add a scrap of skepticism into the accounts of this famous library-assassin. 

[1] Richmond Ellis, Robert, ‘The legend of Fra Vicents in European and Catalan Culture’, in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, Vol. 56, Issue 3, (2002), p. 129-131
[2] Anonymous, Gazette des Tribunaux, (23 Oct 1836)
[3] Private correspondence with Barry Taylor at the British Library, 17-18 September 2013  & Richmond Ellis, Robert, ‘The legend of Fra Vicents in European and Catalan Culture’, in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures,  Vol 56, Issue 3, (2002)

[4] Loving, Matthew, ‘Charles Nodier: The Romantic Librarian’, Libraries & Culture, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring, 2003)

2 comments:

Great article!

Would you mind if I use it as a preface to an epub version of the short story? I was researching the story to write a preface myself, but after reading this I realised I couldn't do it any better myself. I'll add a source with a link to this page and everything.

P.S. The story has also been printed in "A Passion for Books: A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring For, and Appreciating Books" (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56412.A_Passion_for_Books)

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