Today I got back a short paper I wrote for my history class comparing the 1964 film “Becket” (based on the tragic friendship of Henry II and Thomas Becket) with the historical sources (though I also slipped in a few of my own memories by way of offhanded critique, i.e. ‘I don’t think x would have happened this way’). The professor called it “insightful.”
Then it was off to the library to do some research for a medieval art history paper, which I’d been putting off until today. When I got to the library, I discovered that the special collections were holding an open house!
First I turned (ever so delicately) through the pages of a 1632 edition of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogues, which was pretty awesome, but the real treat for me was bound in an unassuming modern leather binding decorated with acorns tooled into the leather.
It turned out to be a 15th century Book of Hours. I thumbed through the pages, some written in a different hand, the capital letters ornately accented with gold and vermilion. Then the librarian on staff pointed out that they had placed bookmarks where the illuminated illustrations were. For such a small book, they were so delicately detailed and lovingly finished.
I almost cried as I held it. The feeling of the vellum between my fingers, the faint smell of an age-old manuscript, the traces of pencil lines and each stroke of the quill so well-preserved… it brought up such a feeling in me, a profound sense of nostalgia that left my head swimming for some hours afterward. I felt literally lightheaded, depersonalized, dazed, stunned. The sense that I knew the world this little book came from was powerful and difficult to ignore.
I feel I’ve returned to normal somewhat, but I still don’t feel altogether the same. I still feel some strange emotions after handling this book. It just wasn’t the same as seeing an old medieval book behind glass or a digital scan; it was like holding a piece of a lost world that part of me still remembers and in all honesty, still loves, for good or ill.