Arts Week 2016: Rediscovered!

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2016 event on Wednesday 18 May titled, “Rediscovered! The Story of Birkbeck’s Manuscript and Rare Medieval Book Collection”

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost

How does half a millennium of possession and loss write itself into the history of a book? How can time eat itself into the very pages of a mislaid book? And what happens to a book when no one remembers it?

Rediscovered! at Birkbeck Arts Week invited us to consider these questions through the story of four medieval books found late last year in Birkbeck Library. Uncatalogued and locked away for safe keeping, these books had slipped from memory sometime in the last century – almost certainly not for the first time in their history.

A tale of finding something that once was lost

Telling the story of the books’ rediscovery were Birkbeck’s Anthony Bale and Isabel Davis, but their fascinating talk was more than a tale of finding something that once was lost. It was a talk that swept through 600 years of European history; following the books’ journey between libraries and collections, surviving the Reformation, Napoleonic and world wars, until finally reaching Malet Street sometime in the twentieth century.

Here and there it was possible to catch glimpses of the forgotten books, swapping owners and countries, but mostly their past is silence; as is history on the fate and identities of those who once read and left their marks within these pages. Yet these are organic books, and traces of the lives that made, owned and touched them do survive.

The pages are palimpsests, layered with centuries of the European book trade. From these medieval manuscripts and incunabula the hands of scribes, illuminators, vellum makers, printers, and book binders emerge; leaving behind the fingerprints of culture and commerce, and belief and behaviour. In the beautiful book of hours, from early fifteenth century Paris or Rouen, the face of an enigmatic bear-bird-man watches the reader contemplate the crucifixion.

And so in this strange figure we find just the tiniest glimpse of a domestic lay culture where fantastical creatures could adorn a scene from the passion – reminding us with a jolt that these books are more than objects. These books were made, read and used with purpose. The books belonged to people who wrote in them, drew in them and with them marked the passing of time, until all that survived was the book.

The road to Birkbeck

Fast forward several centuries and we find a Victorian bibliomaniac on the continent, perhaps adding to his 146,000 book collection from the detritus of libraries broken up during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Forward another century and a Birkbeck mathematician, whose studies were broken by the Great War, adds his personal mark of ownership – an image of a fox in a library. Somewhere along the way woodworm creeps in, a book is re-bound, another is bought at auction, one is catalogued and then lost from the system that makes sense of its numbering. Somehow through trade, acquisition and donation the books reach Malet Street, London and then despite being perfectly safe are lost again. Until 2015.

So, what next? Have these books stopped travelling? Well, yes and no. The books will remain at Birkbeck, but a new journey is beginning for them too. These fragile books will be catalogued anew, and securely stored. Yet, through digitisation and plans for online access the books will take new form. From manuscript to early printed book to online edition a new chapter in the rediscovered Birkbeck medieval collection is about to begin.

Read Professor Anthony Bales recent blog: Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

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