Today, I was helping out an elderly couple around their home, Dr. and Mrs. W. I do this a few times a week; they’re really lovely people with a hundred thousand stories between them. While I was up on a ladder changing a light bulb, I spotted a shelf full of antique books.
I should probably stop here and talk about my love of books. Reading and books are my first love, more than anything else. I have clear memories of sitting, captivated, on my father’s lap at maybe four years old, images of Smaug’s treasure and Bilbo Baggins’ escape dancing in my head as he read The Hobbit out loud. Reading and I have a long and sordid love affair, and I will happily lose myself in a book for hours on end.
Add to that my utter curiosity with historical ephemera – the tiny bits and pieces of life from a day long ago – and you can imagine how my eyes lit up when I saw the shelf.
“Go ahead and take a look!” Magic words to me. And I did; pulling three volumes from the shelves and carefully opening them. Illustrated Shakespeare from 1885. Tennyson from 1887. The last was older still; written in Latin, notes written along the bottom of the title page in faded, faded ink. 1735.
In my hands I held a book that was nearly 300 years old. I carefully turned the pages, unable to read more than just a few semi-recognizable words here and there, but marveling all the same. There were tiny whorls left by fingerprints; hashmarks next to points in the index; passages underlined. Someone had read this book, and read it often.
(Of course, when I handed the book to Dr. W., asking what was so carefully annotated by a previous reader, he took one look and got a little flustered. Turns out those hash marks and underlines? Yeah. Whoever owned it first was researching on how often he should sleep with his wife.)
My sheer delight led to the allowing of inspection of a early 17th century law book from Italy. I was almost scared to breathe turning the pages, and I told Dr. W. that it was the oldest thing I had ever had my hands on, and it was amazing. He got a huge smile on his face and said words I never in a million years though I would get to hear:
“Would you like to see the manuscripts?”
Some time between the 13th and 15th century, these were created for a monastery in Spain. The monastery needed money, so they sold their ancient Book of Kells, page by page. My hands were shaking. Dr. W. is a Humanities professor, so was able to tell me a bit more about them: where they were from, why they were worn in specific patterns, what they said. Morning vespers, prayers for St. Stephen’s Day, and even Gregorian chants.
My hands were shaking the whole time. They were some of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I can’t explain how it feels to hold an ~600 year old piece of parchment in your hands, just thinking about the history contained. About the stories it could tell.
It was absolutely incredible.