Liquid damage evident in the opening pages of the Exeter Book

What It’s Like to Touch the Past

I know that some folks don’t quite get the attraction. Old, dusty books aren’t everyone’s bag and I get that. Old, dusty books in languages that no one speaks anymore are even worse. That’s why when I tell people that I got to work with Exeter Dean & Chapter MS 3501 last week, I usually make the point of telling them that it would be like working close-up on the Mona Lisa…if the Mona Lisa were 550 years older and only three other works by da Vinci still existed. That kind of information makes clear how remarkable and rare this manuscript is and what it means to our collective cultural heritage.

Most of what I did while I was working on the Exeter Book will be something I write about in the dissertation. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and write something here that would be more useful to me there, so I’m not going to talk about that in this post. Instead, I want to talk briefly about what it’s like to come face-to-face with the object that I have spent the last several years studying, and which contains the exclusive original copy of my favorite work of literature of all time: The Wanderer.

As I sat in the reading room of the Library at Exeter Cathedral, I thought I’d be nervous. It’s a lot like meeting your hero: here’s something you have spent a lot of time thinking about, even though reciprocity is completely impossible, and regardless of what you do, you know you’ll remember your interactions forever. Strangely, though, I was calm. I had done a lot of work to get where I was; I had already provided my reasoning for seeing the manuscript and had been approved, and I had just handed over the letter of introduction from one of my committee members, which had been accepted without question, meaning that I was in. I could do this. There was no reason I would not to be able to see the Exeter Book.

Then the librarian brought in a wooden box, opened it up, and took out a book in a modern binding. He told me that many people who work with the book are surprised; they expected an original binding on the Book, although I knew that binding was long since removed; there was a reason the first pages were marred by liquid damage and cut marks and the back had suffered a burn that penetrated through over a dozen leaves. He reached over, grabbed a pillow filled with loose foam beads, and pressed the two-inch spine of the book into it so that it rested in a valley, giving the sides of the book the angled support they would need.

When he opened the book and turned to the first page of the Exeter Book proper, I’m pretty sure I gasped. The first leaf of the manuscript was a deep and translucent brown. The circular stain that marked where a bowl of glue had long ago overflowed was less a discoloration and more of a raised, three-dimensional warp of the page. The writing was nearly illegible. The score marks were scattered and deep. The leaf was noticeably less flexible than those that came after it, although they, too, displayed a great deal of damage from the liquid seeping through.

It was surreal. On one hand, a large part of me was screaming that this was far too important an artifact to just let anyone like me handle it, willy-nilly like this. How could they possibly be so foolish as to let me in here? To bring the book right to me? On the other hand, I proceeded to work through the manuscript, noting what I needed to see and taking care to always act with the discipline and method that my sponsor had taught me years ago.

I saw the difference between the smooth and the hair sides of the parchment. I saw the prick marks and the ruling, and how such features varied from leaf to leaf, gathering to gathering. I saw how the light shone off of the smooth side, how the hair follicles were visible on the hair side, and how clear, distinct, and sharp each of the letters were. I felt the smooth, unmarked margins of the page and their springy edges as I worked. I was witness to its solidity and presence.

The librarian and I joked about the experience, the manuscript, and the text. He told me that they call it “Fred.” I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg or if they really do talk about the most important surviving book of early English poetry like it’s a middle-aged filing clerk, but I hope it’s the latter.

Then, before I knew it, it was time to put “Fred” away for the day. I needed to look around the Cathedral grounds yet, to put a physical location to the Book‘s existence in my own mind. I quickly performed a scan of the book, showed the staff what I had done, and then headed off with the head librarian for a tour of the Library’s history.

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