INTRODUCTION

1. The following important early biography (written to preface Smith’s Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Cottonianae cui praemittuntur illustris viri, D. Roberti Cottoni, equitis aurati & baronetti, vita: et Bibliothecae Cottonianae historia & synopsis, printed at Oxford in 1696), is very similar in style and structure to his earlier Viri Clarissimi Gulielmi Camdeni Vita. Like that work, it is an exercise in hagiography that aspires to the grand manner, that has no room to admit any blemishes its subject may have had (in Cotton’s case, most conspicuously his inexplicable attempt to tamper with evidence in connection with the Overbury murder case, mentioned at §72), and, since he specifically being glamorized for a Restoration readership, any indications of political or religious disaffection are passed over in silence (with the sole exception of his role in the first Parliament after Charles’ accession at §58, where its import is minimized). NOTE 1 And this is exclusively a biography of Cotton the public man; very little is said about his private life. Then too, Smith is guilty of one serious blunder. Not bothering to research his facts properly, at §4 he writes:

Sub quibus autem praeceptoribus, aut ubi, an domi aut schola publica, ubi aemulatio inter pares ingenia et industriam acuere solet, literarum tyrocinia posuerit, anxie disquirere, ut nimium difficile, ita omnino superfluum videbitur.

[“But it seems both difficult and also wholly irrelevant diligently to inquire under the hands of what teachers, or where he had his first learning (either at home or in a public school, where rivalry between boys of the same age is wont to sharpen wits and industry).”]

The circumstances of Cotton’s schooling are anything but irrelevant, for he attended the Westminster School, where the Second Master was the great antiquarian William Camden. Smith therefore got the relationship between these two men entirely wrong. As he tells the story (§8), as a young man Cotton independently developed an interest in antiquarianism and collecting, and only met Camden after moving to London and joining the College of Antiquaries (§14). The effect is, very likely, to credit Cotton with a more independent intellect than he actually possessed, whereas in fact Camden did much to shape his young mind and inspire the vision which guided him in his mature years.
2. If Smith’s biography has failings, it also has strengths. Above all, Smith grasped his subject’s historical importance. At §10 he sets forth the basic principle that guided Cotton: Non enim aliunde quam ex actis publicis authenticisque instrumentis certam perfectamque, anteactorum saeculorum cognitionem haurire licebit [“It is not possible to gain a sure and perfect understanding of previous ages from any other source than public records and authentic documents.”] To gain an accurate understanding of English history, it is necessary to search out and gain thorough familiarity with contemporary source-documents. Cotton was scarcely the first man to place a high value on such evidence (the enthusiasm for early records goes back at least as far as the historian Polydore Vergil [d. 1555], who published an edition of the early Medieval historian Gildas], but, in view of the the failure of attempts to persuade Henry VIII and Mary to shelter such material in the royal library (§12), and of a scheme to charter the College of Antiquarians and establish a common library (§17), it was necessary to create a library for the preservation and study of English antiquities. Cotton alone had the leisure and money to do this. And he had a proper recognition that the advancement of knowledge is a cooperative process, so that he was, in a sense, the custodian rather than the owner of his library’s contents. Therefore (§64), Ad Cottoni aedes, tanquam ad communem reconditioris doctrinae apothecam, sive ad novam academiam, quotquot animo paulo erectiori Musis et Gratiis litaverunt, sese recepere, nullam a viro humanissimo repulsam passuri [“All men who had more than a passing devotion to the Muses and the Graces resorted to Cotton’s house as to a common storehouse of abstruse doctrine, or to a new academy, and they encountered no rebuff by that right kind gentlemen.”] In the course of his biography Smith lists at least some of the beneficiaries of Cotton’s generosity, ranging from leading lights including Camden, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Bacon down to such lesser figures as John Speed and the humble Benedictines of Douai. In his will Cotton did not bequeath his collection to the nation or to one of Universities. Rather, made it clear that he wished his library to remain the possession of this family (§78), he evidently expected that its maintenance would at most be a kind of hereditary family stewardship. But he was nevertheless creating an effective instrument for the service of respublica literarum.
3. Another important part of Cotton’s vision is expressed aphoristically at §7, Alii denique historiis et antiquitatibus Angliae et antiquorum saeculorum monimentis e spissis tenebris in publicam lucem eruendis (quod maximimi usus in rebus civilibus administrandis foret) operam quam maxime laudabilem impenderunt [“Yet others devoted very praiseworthy effort to English history and antiquities and to rescuing the remains of bygone ages from the thick darkness, and illuminating them as a great help to the management of civic affairs.”] A detailed and accurate understanding of English history, in other words, is not merely an academic exercise pursued for pure intellectual pleasure, but is a useful tool for good government. Cotton himself (who differed from his teacher-friend Camden in being an active man of affairs) illustrated this principle by using his historical knowledge to carve out a unique niche for himself in contemporary political life. Writing of the members of the Privy Council (although the words apply with equal force to the king himself), Smith observed (§26) Saepe ab iisdem, si quid dubium ex intimo antiquitatis penu explorandum occurisset, tanquam oraculum consulebatur [“Often, if some arcane point arose regarding antiquity, they would consult him, as if he were an oracle.”] Smith’s biography serves to provide a large number of illustrations of this principle in action.
4. The central portion of this biography (§26 - §73) follows a formula acknowledged by its author at §45:

In eiusmodi libris enumerandis describendisque virorum ingenio, sapientia, et eruditione illustrium, qui nullis magistratibus officiisve publicis addicti, nobile privatae vitae satis ex amplis patrimoniis a maioribus relictis beatae, nec alienarum accessionum indigae, atque importunis amibitionis et invidiae agitationibus liberae, otium bonis literis ad patriae et posteritatis emolumentum consecrant, historia maxime constituenda est. Nec quicquam aliud a biographo iure exigendum est, nisi ut res suo argumento congruas, cum dispar vitae ratio longe diversum tractandi modum postulet, debitoque, praesertim si copia suppetat, ordine dispositas fideliter tradat…

[“For when dealing with men illustrious for their intellect, wisdom and learning, but who have not aspired to public offices, and have devoted the noble leisure of a private life sufficiently well-endowed by ample inheritances and requiring no increase from other sources, free of the stirs of ambition and envy, to belles lettres for the profit of their nation and posterity, history mainly consists of enumerating and describing their books. Nor can anything else rightly be expected of their biographer than that he set forth, faithfully and in their chronological order, the circumstances related to the contents of these books, since different manners of life require their own particular handling…”]

Accordingly, Smith details the episodes that led to the production of each of Cotton’s significant writings (or, in a couple of cases, of works wrongly ascribed to Cotton), setting them forth in at least approximately their chronological order. It will be understood that the reason that in his life of Cotton Smith says nothing about the contents or organization of the Cottonian Library is that this was the purpose of the volume the biography was written to preface.
5. The Rev. Thomas Smith’s Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Cottonianae cui praemittuntur illustris viri, D. Roberti Cottoni, equitis aurati & baronetti, vita: et Bibliothecae Cottonianae historia & synopsis was printed in 1696 at Oxford e theatro Sheldoniano, and is available in the Early English Books 1641-1700 microfilm series [reel 548:17].
6. I take this opportunity to thank my Irvine colleagues Stephen Barney and Linda Georgianna for their help and advice in tracing down a couple of Smith’s references.

Notes

NOTE 1 See Stuart Handley’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with references to modern scholarship at end.