Touching the past

‘Oh, you haven’t heard,’ said the librarian in the Duke Humphrey Library, the oldest and most beautiful part of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, with its carrels of deeply polished oak and panelled ceiling. ‘The new Bodleian is being refurbished – will take five years – ninety percent of western manuscripts are now in the Radcliffe Science Library.’ I stand with my jaw open. It’s a bit like saying the Crown Jewels are temporarily on show at Madame Tussauds. Naturally the book I wanted to see was part of the ninety percent.

I went to the Radcliffe Science Library. It hums and purrs with strip lighting and scanners and is boiling with undergraduates from all over the world, perhaps all over the universe. You wouldn’t turn a hair to see a rubbery beastie from another planet pass by on its way to periodicals. I went downstairs to the wing of the reading room now barricaded with electronic doors and designated ‘Special Collections’. My book was waiting for me.

I tried to settle at the desk on the typing chair with the angle-poise personal strip light to read by. The abundantly bearded man next to me had a hissy fit at two undergrads who were daring to speak to each other. The absolute rule of silence remains in Special Collections, even if the lights do whirr and the air-conditioning fizzes, and the reading room, from which we are separated only by open bookshelves, doesn’t have that rule. The burbling of young chemists, physicists and rocket scientists pours in like dry ice. There is something very wrong about housing humanities with science. I don’t wish to be a snob, but… That man, there, transcribing early music from an ancient manuscript should be seated on oak, not plastic.

I open my book. It is early twelfth century, a copy of Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah. Alas I cannot read the words – I’m only looking at the pictures – but the words are beautifully written on vellum. Anglo-Carolingian in style, apparently. The vellum was a calf in the early twelfth century. Forty years after Domesday, a herd of cows on land once owned by Anglo Saxons but no longer is slaughtered for meat and hide. The tanner went over and over these skins, stretched on a frame, with his knife. It would take the whole herd to make a book this size. I run my fingers down the skin – no one has asked me to wear white gloves – and feel the animal and the tanner and the scribe. There are pinpricks in the margins – I wonder if the scribe had a stick with nails poking through which he could press on each page, or is that kind of thinking the product of the industrial age? Perhaps it was part of his discipline to measure the lines on each page and do individual pin pricks to mark them. I sense the silence of the scriptorium – it would have been in Exeter cathedral, I think, and perhaps we can hear seagulls outside, and the wind from the sea playing round the cloisters.

Capital letters in red, green and blue, are populated by monsters from bestiaries, hairy apes and lion-eared dragons, serpents entwined disgorging green leaves and red flames; knotwork – lacertine ornaments in arabesque initials.

St Jerome made a commentary on Isaiah. Some Anglo-Norman scribes made a copy of it, and others came later to read the words and make corrections and glosses. Much later still, a scholar of this great library spent his days making bibliographies on filing cards – there are about fifty of them citing every mention of this manuscript in academic studies and journals. Another scholar devoted himself to writing out a list of catalogue numbers, all by hand, all now printed in facsimile. Stooped forms over wooden desks attempting the labours of Hercules. One man in the eighteenth century gave this manuscript a number; another in the nineteenth gave it another. One in the twentieth produced a book translating both series one into the other.

This book is consulted how often? Once a year? Meanwhile it dreams its dreams, wafting in the scent of some preserving fluid they’ve used on the vellum. One torn page has been beautifully stitched in green embroidery thread, so that the stitches look like leaves on the stem of the tear – now that was a repair our scribe would have appreciated.

And if he were with me, here, now, in this subterranean warren of laptop science, what would he think? I suspect that to him we would all be rubbery beasties from Planet Zog and he would dive under the desk with his hands clamped over his ears and his eyes tight shut while he called on the saints in Latin.

Superba scripsit, mmx

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