A Place for Study

Academics may not pay enough attention to physical space. The crucial question is whether one has a space that is conducive to rigorous intellectual labor. Humanist pedagogues, ever eager to seize the least scrap of productivity, were keenly interested in this topic. Here are some recommendations from Heinrich Bullinger on the location and furnishing of one’s study space (Ratio Studiorum, ch. 32):

Choose a place well-suited for study, removed from the bustle and noise. It’s true what they say: the Muses rejoice in solitude. I believe this is the reason that in fables the Muses are presented as inhabiting woods, mountains, and grassy meadows. Thus a place for study ought to be charmingly situated, with a good view and a healthy circulation of air.

Now everything inside will be organized and clean; nothing in disarray, nothing disgracefully strewn about. You will put the desk in the middle, high enough off the floor that you can read while standing. Also, you will put the books on the desk in such a way that they are all in view and close at hand. It will be of some help to cover the desk in a dark cloth, for they keep eyesight fresh. Light needs to be kept at the right level, so that brighter than normal light reflecting off the extremely white books and paper does not blunt the sharpness of your vision. For this reason people completely devoted to study do not allow the bright sun to stream through open windows, but content themselves with moderate light. And on the front part of the desk will sit a slant board, raised up a bit so that when you lean on it to write it you can still stay upright. For if your neck is excessively curved, if you’re forced to tilt your head far, you can’t help but disturb your brain and distend the veins of your head with the rushing blood.

Nor indeed in this Museum1 of ours will there be found anything unconnected to literature. Globes and astronomical spheres will hang from the highest part of the wall or the ceiling. The walls of course will be decorated with Ptolemy’s tables or other depictions drawn from good literature or some other noble depiction. For Aristotle thought that many lascivious pictures led to corrupt morals. Just so, Christians should be quicker to eradicate such works than to paint them. There will also be books, sensibly arranged and beautifully bound.

Now you will take care to furnish this library of yours not so much with quantity but with quality. Some people have lots of furniture but never use it; thus their riches are unprofitable. The wise learn first how to make good use of the furniture they already have, second not to buy more than necessary; and those pieces they do buy must be the choicest. And despite their small quantity, yet in every event they use them wisely and favorably. These people should be imitated when we go about building our libraries. For Ausonius aims a clever, well-timed jab at a certain grade-school teacher:

“Because your library is stuffed with bought books

You think yourself a learned philologist, friend of the Muses.

Likewise procure yourself strings and lute and lyre:

Buy them all, and tomorrow you will be a musician.”

1 Bullinger is using the word “Museum” in the classical sense to mean a structure dedicated to the Muses, who would inspire scholarly activity in those within. For instance, the great library of Alexandria was a part of the Museum of Alexandria.