Destruction: The action or process of causing so much damage to something that it no longer exists or cannot be repaired: the destruction of the library in Alexandria.
New Oxford English Dictionary
The history of the book and the history of literature are rarely coterminous, and this is especially true for medieval texts. It is unusual, for example, for a holograph copy of a medieval manuscript to survive, or for any copy to be signed or dated, and later copies attest to the transmission of a work rather than to a literary scene at the moment of authorship. The history of the book often sits uncomfortably astride traditional literary periods, as, for example, in the case of Middle English literature, which, from a stylistic perspective, seems to reach its zenith with Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1390s, transitioning only fitfully to early modern with the advent of print in the 1470s (figured as a gain for the early modern) and the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersion of their books in the 1530s and 1540s (figured as a loss for the medieval).
The little-studied but important figure Richard de Bury (c. 1287–1345) provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship between book history and literary history, and the forms with which we write them. Bury's life as a book collector, and his vivid reflections on the value of letters, make him a site at which English book and literary history collide. As we will see, Bury imagines that collision as a violent one, strewn with bodies and books, and, indeed, it is his portrayal of literary history as a history of destruction that maps the history of letters so meaningfully on to the history of material texts. Only one literary work of his survives, the Latin treatise called the Philobiblon (Love of Books, c. 1345); earlier in his career, he compiled a formulary, the Liber epistolaris, containing about 1,500 letters, which survives in just one manuscript copied in Bury's own hand (datable approximately to 1324). And yet, had things turned out differently, traditional English literary history might have begun with Richard de Bury (as he intended), rather than in the next generation, with Geoffrey Chaucer. Had that been the case, the history of material texts and the history of English letters might have shared a common origin and a very different future.