I’m fascinated by very old things. I guess that’s part of the reason why I’m studying history. Last week I was very fortunate to be able to spend some time looking at what I think is the oldest book held by the University of Leicester, a sample of which you can see in the image above.
MSS 11A-11B Gilbertus Porretanus. In Psalterium is a book of psalms, in Latin, written in the 12th century and attributed to Gilbertus Porretanus. Gilbertus Porretanus or Gilbert de la Porrée is an interesting in chap in his own right although, it goes without saying, don’t trust Wikipedia on the subject. Interesting as he is though this post is not about him but rather the book he left behind.
There were two motivations for me in looking at the book. The first was that I wanted to have a go at applying my newly acquired Latin skills to something from the time period I will be studying. The second was purely the history geek in me wanting to see it in the flesh so to speak. Actually that is probably the appropriate thing to say given that the pages are made from animal skin. First off let me say what a visceral experience it was. I’ve handled parchment before but I’d forgotten the texture and the sound it makes when you turn a page. Then there is the smell; think of a really old library and a slight odour of stale sweat (I know; I’m really selling this as an experience to you aren’t I?).
Judging by the changes in handwriting there looks to be at least three people involved in it’s drafting who would have spent a considerable amount of time working on the finished article. It was also interesting that the early pages have a single column of text although, later on, this shifts to two columns of text per page. The quality of the parchment changes too with later pages being coarser and having more surface blemishes. The Latin seems to be relatively straightforward with the main obstacle for me being the handwriting. The author(s) have also used abbreviations in many places so I’m going to have to work out exactly what has been abbreviated! I should say that the handwriting here is very clear indeed compared to other samples I’ve seen. In any case I’m going to have to do some work to be able to read this. Finally if you look at the sample above you may notice the names David and Absalom. If, like me, you were compelled to go to a Sunday school from an early age then the names are probably familiar and may present some clues as to the subject matter of the text. It is an easy trap to fall into though and such assumptions can make you translate what you expect rather than what is there. I finish work tomorrow for Christmas and I shall be diving into this inbetween mouthfuls of turkey and Christmas pudding.
I hope you all have a magnificent Christmas and a splendid New Year. When you do come back do go and visit the lovely people in Special Collections. Apparently they’re quite happy for you to go poking around in the cornucopia of stuff they have as long as you book in advance!