This photograph is an image of some reclaimed history. The knife was put there for dramatic effect when I composed the picture to be a background for my blog…but there is a story behind the manuscript and the book.
Back in the early 1990’s when I has a bookbuyer I got a call from my supervisor who was out in the field looking at someone’s books. He was very excited and said, “quick, find out what you can about 18th century manuscripts with skippets and seals and 16th century breviaries”.
Uhm. This was like, way before the internet would answer those questions in an eyeblink. I sat there at my desk wondering what to look for. I picked up my copies of price guides and a book on auction selling prices. My supervisor returned with the books and manuscripts in a wooden ammunition box. “I have such a story to tell you,” he said.
“This older gentleman was a soldier in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He is now settling his estate and moving to a nursing home. He wanted to sell his books to a dealer in Chicago. In Chicago he says he was treated so badly by the dealers that he picked up his books and came home. Even though I was not able to offer him as much as they did, he said he was happier to let the books go to a booklover than to the snotty antiquarian dealers in Chicago.”
I am so happy the book folks in Chicago are uppity. My boss continued,
“He says he was stationed in, what was in the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia. He was patrolling a manor house with his rifle over his back, ambling through the dark and drafty corridors. He came to inspect the library because he could see an unusual amount of light coming through the doorway. He stood there on the threshhold, shocked. The people inside were systematically grabbing handfuls of books from the shelves and shoveling the contents into the fireplace. He tried to stop them, but they pointed out that they were freezing and had already burned the furniture.
“He quickly grabbed at the next handful about to be tossed into the flames, tugging at the bundle of books. The other person would not let go until the soldier promised to trade him a carton of cigarettes for the books. At that point the soldier handed over his smokes and tucked his treasures inside his coat. He had no idea what he had just saved from the flames. He was not able to stop the folks from grabbing another handful from the shelves. When he got back to base he placed his books in the ammunition box and that is how they made their way back to the US.”
The soldier had saved a breviary from 1516. Two manuscripts, one on vellum and one on paper from 1713 and 1738 both with skippets and seals inside. One is the Prussian eagle. Three other books from the 17th century were also saved, but I was not able to buy those so I do not remember them specifically. But I whipped out my credit card as soon as I saw these and never once regretted the year or two it took me to pay them off.
I can imagine what that library must have looked like. I try to think about starving and freezing people and how little the historical artifacts meant to them when their survival was at stake. I like to remember the old man and how, when he was a young man, saving books was akin to saving people. He never sold these books. He kept them in the ammunition case for 50 years, safe with him. But the books outlived him as they have outlived their owners for 450 years. Now I have them (and the case too). I have his story, which is just as valuable. When I am gone, they will belong to someone else.
I have tried to read the manuscripts. They are in a mixture of Latin and German. I took both languages in high school, but am not proficient in the least. Also, the script itself is difficult. I can tell they are legal documents. One is most probably the record of a loan for 800 rials. The other I cannot make out the specifics, but it is signed by the Burgermeister of Stuttgart. The breviaria has woodblock illustrations and a pasted-in bookplate with a coat of arms as well as red ink printed for certain sections and the calendar of holy days.
It was while trying to read these wonderful treasures that I got the inspiration for The Hermetica. I imagined these books and manuscripts might contain something important that someone wrote down 400 years ago…but I was never going to be able to know what it was. I imagined how I would feel if the books were in another alphabet or in code. The message would be just as lost. These treasures are interesting, but without a translator, they are silent.
This adventure in bookselling is what started the adventures of Nadira the Reader. I am pleased to be bringing these treasures and their story to my book launch December 8. Folks who come can look at and handle the books and feel the soft vellum. Maybe someone there can read Old High German in manuscript and tell me the message that has been silent for 300 years and almost lost to the flames.