Sunday, October 05, 2008

Book Review: "The Raven King"

Matthias Corvinus isn't a name that conjures up much of an association for me; in fact, before I picked up Marcus Tanner's The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of his Lost Library (Yale, 2008) I confess I'd never heard of the man. But as king of Hungary from 1458-1490, Matthias accumulated the second-greatest collection of books in Renaissance Europe (the Vatican library claimed the top spot), a collection of such importance that it is included in UNESCO's "Memory of the World" list of important libraries and archives. Just 216 volumes known to be from the Corvinian Library exist today (of what is estimated to have been a collection of c. 2,000 volumes), mostly in Hungarian, Italian and Austrian institutions. Marcus Tanner's book tells Matthias' story, and with it the tale of his library and its contents across the centuries.

Much of this book is a straight-up biography of Matthias, focusing on his political, military, social and intellectual lives. Tanner recreates the tumultuousness of renaissance Hungary with its ethnic, religious and cultural tensions, caught as it was between western Europe, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. While the library gets an occasional mention during the main body of the text, the books play second fiddle to Matthias until the king's death, when - in the final chapters - Tanner returns to the library. Only then do we learn in any detail about the major subjects covered by the books, where they were created and how, and where they found themselves after Matthias' death. It is this story which was why I picked up the book, and I wish Tanner had told it in more detail.

What Tanner does give us about the library is fascinating, as is his brief tour of other fifteenth century collections. And he cannot be blamed for delving so deeply into Matthias' biography, because it is quite interesting in its own right. Political and military historians will read this book for those details, and enjoy it. I read it wanting to know about the books, and came away feeling mostly, but not entirely, satisfied.

An appendix lists the known Corvinian titles and their current whereabouts, and the notes and bibliography are quite nice.

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