The Raven King, by Marcus Tanner

Legend in the library
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Knowledge is power, said Francis Bacon. The sumptuous library of King Matthias Corvinus, who ruled Hungary from 1443 to 1490, was one of the greatest in Europe. His realm too was considerable, extending in the north almost to Berlin, including Lusatia, Bohemia, Silesia, and Austria, then running down the Adriatic coast to embrace Belgrade. Hungary was one of the great powers and Matthias a powerful Renaissance monarch.

As to the library, Csaba Csapodi, a 20th-century Hungarian authority on Corviniana, wrote how the king "tried to persuade the noblemen of his court to read books, but he had little success". Nor did the Kingdom of Hungary survive much beyond Matthias's death. It was also the end of the library, the books being dispersed all over Europe, becoming lost objects of nostalgia and pride: an essential part of Hungarian identity, which also is compounded of loss, nostalgia and pride.

Maybe if the nobility had read more books, runs the thought, the library might have survived – but knowledge of the sort contained in Corvinus's library doesn't work quite so directly. Marcus Tanner, in his study of the fate of the Corvinian library, takes Csapodi's estimate of between 2,200-2,500 volumes from Greek and Latin alone as no more than an informed guess, but grants that if the number is anywhere near correct, it constitutes a vast store, comparing it to the great Waynflete library at Magdalen, Oxford, with its 800 or so volumes.

Beside knowledge, the books conferred status. One's court was not simply a rude military HQ but a centre of civilisation. Power was not only might but knowledge. Knowledge was might. It also mattered who you knew. Like all Renaissance rulers, Matthias had to be as much capo di capo as hero on horseback, not hesitating to dispose of those who had once been useful.

Knowing people was useful in 1476 when he married Beatrice, praised as one of the most beautiful women in Europe, and daughter of Frederick I, King of Naples. As Tanner takes pleasure pointing out, if Beatrice ever was a beauty, she did not remain one for long, judging by the depictions of her, but the library certainly grew after the marriage. It took enormous labour to compile. It involved sending scholars into Italy, where the books were, and entrusting them with purchases. The books could then be bound and illuminated closer to home. Italian scholars, writers and artists took up residence at Matthias's court, which became, by general consent, the greatest humanist centre north of the Alps.

The collapse when it came was quick: the library disappeared as it was sold off, given away or simply removed. When the Sultan entered Buda on 21 September 1526, the soldiers, as Tanner tells us, "took everything they could lift and tear off". It is not certain what happened to the books, but some suggested they were taken to Constantinople.

It is there the myths and romances begin. Tanner quotes a passage from the 1817 Biographical Decameron. One figure enquires where the library is now. Another responds: "I will take post-horses ere sun-set, and borrow the wings of the wind when the fleetness of my coursers fails!" Another figure crushes his hopes: The library of Corvinus has CEASED TO EXIST. The response to this is a mere two words: "Oh horrible!" The rest is centuries of chase and loss and nostalgia, and a certain restricted success in cataloguing and collecting the remains: some 216 books being all that have been found.

Tanner, who has written on this region before, has put together a lively but serious piece of scholarship. It contains the usual historical gestures practised by those who cannot know for sure: "It may be that X was thinking... As Y stood in the library at Q he would have been reminded of...". All this is forgivable in a romance. It is the drive to collect and to learn, and then the falling away, that constitutes the romance and dynamic of the book: the loss of books as the falling-away of power. Oh horrible!

George Szirtes 'New and Collected Poems' will be published by Bloodaxe later this year