Burning Booksellers at the Stake

Posted by Wally O Neill on

Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet.”
“Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves”.
- Étienne Dolet as he was led through a mob to his death

In 1546, French scholar, printer and sometime bookseller Étienne Dolet was arrested for printing 'blasphemous' books which approved of the doctrine of predestination. The French parliament ordered the burning of Dolet's book containing 'damnable, pernicious and heretical doctrines'.

A great fire was made in Place Maubert in the city of Paris. Dolet was hung on gallows and thrown into the fire with his books. Both were burnt to ashes.

On a wet May day, staring out onto a deserted square and contemplating my empty till, I force a thought of Étienne Dolet to cross my addled mind.

You think you have it bad? It could always be worse. You could be sitting on the bonfire with poor old Dolet and three cases of books.”

Inside, Flash and Mosley try to better each other with cutting quips and vague threats, usually involving some mythical boogeymen like the Kinahan cartel or the IRA or the Department of Social Protection.

Thirty years before the execution of Dolet, Pope Leo X expressed concern about book printing, and ordered any books not examined by the Church should be publicly burned, so 'thorns do not grow up with the good seed or poisons become mixed with medicine.’

In the 1530s, book printers and book sellers were burned along with their books in France. Antoine Augereau, a book printer of Luther's false works 'Miroir de l'ame pecheresse' was sent to the stake. In 1535, in the streets of Paris, six heretic book sellers were burned at the stake, together with three large sacks of books in their possession.

Repeat the mantra. “You think you have it bad? It could always be worse. You could be sitting on the bonfire with poor old Dolet and three cases of books.”

The Roman approaches the counter, picking a random book and laying it down in front of me. “I suppose you know what day this is?”

I do now. “Its not the anniversary again is it Roman?”

“Tis. Thirty-three years now boys.” He wipes his running nose in his stained shirt sleeves and shakes his head sadly. “Thirty-three years since I discovered the gates to the underworld.”

When you run a second hand bookshop, you learn that they are magnets for the eccentric and lost. If there are five hundred madmen in a town, you can be guaranteed that all five hundred will find the bookshop without any advertising or directions. It’s a sixth sense. Like the way swallows know to fly south for the Winter.

The Roman is called the Roman because he claims to be a Roman. Of course its an indisputable fact that he was born and reared in the town but, as he always points out, only in this life. Reincarnation is a great winner in arguments.

“Thirty-three years?” Mosley suddenly chips in, coming to life. “Jaysus, where has the time gone at all Roman?”

The Roman nods but his eyes seem far away. Back there, thirty-three years ago, in the secret caverns under the old Wexford hospital. Wandering through dark tunnels, filled with rats and giant spiders, following a coded knights templar map until he found it. The entrance to the underworld.

Total fiction created by a warped brain. Almost beautiful. Maybe he could have been a Tolstoy or Cervantes in another life. But not when you’re on the dole in Wexford.

“Roman, did the County Council ever find the gates to the underworld after?” Mosley asks in a false sincerity that beats any acting academy, winking at me in the process.

“Of course not. Sure how could they and the fecking Templars protecting the place?”

“Oh right, the Knights Templars? God that’s awful, ain’t it Flash?”

“It is,” Flash answers. “Of course I know everything there is to know about the Templars myself. I studied them extensively.”

This seems to subdue the Roman but I know he won’t leave here until he’s told me the whole blasted story again. Always altered slightly, depending on what film he’s just seen on channel 4.

Say it again like you mean it. “You think you have it bad? It could always be worse. You could be sitting on the bonfire with poor old Dolet and three cases of books.”

“Have you any books on performing exorcisms Wally?” The Roman asks.

“No, not much call for them these days.”

Mosley tuts dramatically and throws his hands up to the heavens. “No books on exorcisms! What kind of a bloody bookshop do you call this at all. I tell you one thing Roman, Charlie Byrnes would have books on exorcisms.”

The Roman drops his head down on to my counter and it takes me a moment to realise he’s sobbing gently.

“Jaysus he took that hard,” Mosley whispers. “Would you not try to order one in for the man?”

“I’m haunted boys. Every night when I go to bed, after me cup of tae and the few auld digestive biscuits, the rattling starts. It pure vibrates up the walls of the cottage at home. There’s not a picture left hanging on them sure and the plaster is coming off in places. Then it becomes a drone. A sort of monotonous groan that hums away there, preventing me from getting a bit of sleep. Every time I close me eyes, my head throbs and the groaning hum climbs into my ear and burrows through into me brain like an earwig.”

“Good God,” Mosley cries.

“Rheumatism is it?” Flash asks.

“Its driving me mad.”

Madder I would like to add.

“Its a haunting. No doubt about it. I feel the disembodied presence of me father.”

I realise my one potential paying customer for the day has abandoned a steady pile of books and escaped through the door. Oh the perils of having lunatics free to wander the streets and frequent bookshops. “Should you not try a priest or something for this Roman?”

“I’ve tried. Father Devereux said he can’t perform exorcisms anymore. It’s not politically correct. He said the papers would have a field day if they found out. No, I’m on me own Wally. Would you get me a book on it?”

“Sure I’ll try.”

“Do please. I won’t hold it against you if you can’t get me one but you’ll feel guilty cause I’ll top myself. I’ll go over the bridge boys to escape the ghost of me poor dead father.”

How many jobs can you have where customers threaten suicide if you don’t find a particular product they are looking for?

“You wouldn’t get this in Easons,” Mosley hisses.

No, you wouldn’t. But this is survival and bookselling has become more abstract.

Counselling. Confessional. Matchmaker. Culture curator. Exorcist.

But it’s better than risking the inferno like Dolet.

A bronze statue of Dolet was erected on the Place Maubert in Paris in 1889. It was removed and melted down in 1942 during the German occupation of Paris by another bunch of book burning bastards.