A very British Library


Being acquainted with things that are really ancient, is an everyday experience for a geologist; fossils and other flotsam of lives past, meteorites as old as the solar system itself. Records of these ancient lives, their successes and failures, of catastrophes, of ancient worlds, are written in every chip of rock, every grain of sand. We marvel at these stories, at their old-ness. My recent visit to the British Library in London was a reminder that our written history is also ancient, but counted in millennia rather than eons.  I’m talking books and parchment, not carved cuneiform tablets. These treasures are housed in a room of the same name, light and humidity controlled, protected from hands that would love to turn the pages. Sensible precautions of course; many of these pieces would probably disintegrate at the slightest touch.  I’d never seen the sole-surviving copy of Beowulf, an original Gutenberg or King James Bible, the Magna Carta, a 3rd Century fragment of a Gospel, a Thomas Tallis liturgical composition. So many documents that record our history and inform our present.

The 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest complete New Testament plus some of the Old Testament books (in Greek), has few of the embellishments that characterize many younger religious manuscripts, but the actual lettering is incredibly uniform, beautifully written; whoever did the job must have spent years at it. There is an ancient copy of the Quran open at a page that tells of Gabriel’s revelations; I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice of verse on the part of the Library organisers. Some younger texts, like the 9th century Harley Golden Gospels from Charlemagne’s court, or the first English translation of the Newe Testament by William Tyndale (1526) show the painstaking effort for uniformity of elaborate, Gothic-like text liberally sprinkled with the kind of artwork, rubrics, and gold ornamentation that seemed popular at the time.  I guess the people who wrote these texts (mostly monks) had plenty of time on their hands because these projects usually took years to complete. How on earth can someone spend that amount of time basically copying someone else’s work; what were they thinking as they scrolled and scribbled. Perhaps they chatted among themselves, local gossip, intrigues (secular and ecclesiastic); maybe something like “I hear Brother Bartholomew was dismembered the other day for suggesting the earth revolved around the sun”.  Telling stuff.

Other than making it up, it is almost impossible to get into the minds of these scribes; each may have had an inconspicuous, renaissance equivalent to an emoji, surreptitiously incorporated into the last page, but these manuscripts, beautiful as they are, were largely impersonal.  Unlike the ecclesiatics, people of letters, like Jane Austin, George Elliot, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill, left a much richer record of who they were, their loves, their foibles.  Anyone can now read almost anything these people wrote, via hardcopy or digital.  Immersing oneself in books – the cellulose kind –  is still an accessible pleasure. We take reading for granted.  But a reading populace is a relatively recent consequence of writing.  The Gutenberg Bible is famous for being the first major document to be printed on a press with moveable type (1455). Invention of the printing press is one of those (commonly) understated paradigm shifts in western society; every person could, potentially, learn to read. This proved to be hugely annoying to the Church, who regarded a literate population as an affront to their, and therefore God’s, authority.  After all, you can’t rule people who read things that enable them to make up their own minds about life and beliefs.

There were very few scientific documents in the collection I visited. I was hoping to see something of Galileo, Einstein, or Darwin, but I’m guessing they were filed away somewhere.

That any of these paper documents has survived, particularly those that are almost 2000 years old, is remarkable. Seeing the collection was a reminder of how precarious the recording of history can be; it could disappear in a moment, through an act of violence, neglect, or wilful denial. It was an affirmation that people throughout history have understood the value of preserving the progress of humanity. I am very grateful that they did.


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