Books as precious things

I’m sure, as the press developed, some royal ladies bemoaned the loss of their hand painted, velvet-wrapped prayer books. I can hear them complaining that typeset ink just didn’t look and feel the same as the real thing. Fathers moaned that young people would never be as learned without the example of diligent devotion offered by illumination.

The Royal Manuscripts Exhibition  at the British Library is well worth a visit, and another occasion to muse on the future role of the book as object. It’s a biggie, with hundreds of exquisite books large and small. The display includes the psalter used by Henry VIII, with marginal notes in his own handwriting. (Whatever view we have of the divorce from Mother Rome, Henry did not go into the Reformation without thought of kingship and salvation.)  Among the treasures is a mediaeval bestiary. The mournful unicorn gazes at the beloved maiden even as the spears betray her honour.

The illuminations are magnificent, gold leaf still glimmering as on the day it was laid on its gesso bed, brought to stick by the moist breath of the artist. Lapis lazuli, madder, emerald green glow in the subdued lighting. Some of the pages are edged in gold. Bindings are chased with coats of arms, and velvet covers are heavy with metallic embroidery. Seals the size of a baby’s face hang down, attesting to the royal will. Coffers were specially made to keep these documents, decorated with the heraldry of kings. These are emphatically objects meant to impress, even as they illuminate the piety of the christian monarchs.

The contents are precious too. Prayers and psalms certainly. And treaties, wills, contracts. Maps and atlases of newly discovered lands with trade routes, explanations of local customs and the military might of the residents. Genealogies and even a detailed schematic to work out whether a proposed spouse fell outside the forbidden degree of consanguinity.

These books continued to be produced for about a century after the introduction of the printing press. The quality of the work begins to decline in the seventeenth century  The drawing becomes less fine and the paintwork less sumptuous. They become the ultimate coffee table books rather than working texts, prestigious nonetheless.

We are in a revolution as profound as the arrival of the press. Information liberated by digitisation is altering history as did the translation of sacred texts into the vernacular. (I don’t say it’s a peaceful process; ask the women of Egypt and Syria.) Even my experience of these books made some seven centuries ago is different now. The picture above comes from a lovely ebook of the bestiary available from ibooks (via the BL site) for less than £5. Not only do you get to study these pictures in detail, for some of them you get more explanation. Our unicorn above sports a little arrow which, prodded, invites you to read or listen to learn more about it.

Go to the exhibition before it closes on 13 March and if you can’t, at least have a look at the ebooks.


About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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