Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Greatest Physical Book I Once Had in My Possession

Continuing my ode to the physical book, I can't stop before I talk about the most fun any master's degree student ever had!

I was in England, writing my thesis for my medieval studies degree, which was on the Cantigas de Santa María (c. 1252 - c. 1280). So of course I wanted to consult the facsimile — a copy that imitates the colors, size, and binding of the original book — of the Escorial T.I.1 codex, the famous Códice rico. All four surviving manuscripts of the Cantigas are deluxe, royal books, if you will, but the Códice rico is the most lavishly illustrated, complete with gold leaf and rare musical annotation.

Each song is accompanied by at least one full page of illustrations with six frames and, usually, captions, intended to be read in much the same way we use comics or graphic novels today. My primary concern was the way the pictures interact with and play off the text, and what that can tell us about the attitudes of the poets, the artists, and the compilers (as the nearest representatives of King Alfonso X's wishes).

They only printed a few thousand copies of this expensive facsimile in the mid-1980's, and the going price at the the time I used it was $5,000. When I requested it from the British Library depository at Boston Spa (very close to Leeds, where I studied), I expected them to ship it to my university library and then  to have to hoof it over there any time I wanted to consult it, for the length of the loan.

By what I can only assume was a lucky oversight or fluke, the interlibrary loan staffer handed the volume to me to take back home...!!!


It was raining lightly that day in May, and you can see that it's pretty hefty. If I had to guess, I'd say it weighed somewhere between 25 and 50 pounds. I wrapped my prize in my oversized coat to take the brunt of the water damage on me because I can dry off much more easily than this beautiful thing. Then I walked as fast as I could, over hill and dale, about a mile and half, back to my flat, with it clasped closely to me.

I can't believe I looked that young at any time during this millennium, but here's photographic evidence! Can you see the love in my eyes? I actually used this photo on a dating site, because I don't think another photo has ever been taken that better represents what I'm all about. The picture was taken at my flat some time in late May, June, or early July 2000, the happy two months when the facsimile resided with me.

The facsimile cover is overlaid with suede, so you can imagine the tactile delights! They simulated the gold leaf in the pictures, so I was more or less to required to stare at every page from every angle to see how it best caught the light. This book embodies everything that's beautiful about the Middle Ages: colors, architecture, graphic emotions, and of course, King Alfonso. It lived on my desk — and took up nearly all of its area — and I had the songs and the pictures practically memorized before long. Being that it's an exact facsimile, there are places where it looks torn or has holes, and that simulation was so delightful, I dare not think how I would feel in the presence of the original document.

When it was time to take it back, I waited until the very last day, and had my strong-armed English paramour (what a life!) carry it back to the library. I stopped at the color photocopier and laid that book right against the glass, then turned it in to interlibrary loan, where I think I remember a few looks of dismay. I doubt that book was ever loaned out again.

What could top this? Tune in on Monday for the grand finale of this bibliophilia series!