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Getting into the Manuscript Room

Buses and Kindness

Since I spent my day yesterday enjoying the pleasures of Audley End, I wasn't able to walk about and figure out the streets and buses. I'm actually declaring today a major pathfinder victory as I managed to make my 9:30 appointment in the admissions office at the Cambridge University Library in order to get my reader's ticket to the Manuscript Room.

Navigating an old medieval walled city is not as simple as it sounds. The roads and the buses all lead back towards the old part of the town like spokes going towards the middle of a wagon wheel. Since I started the day about 3 miles out along the wagon wheel's rim, I had to find a way in.

Now, of course, I read all the maps, and googled all the bus routes. But the truth is, each bus company, no matter where they are on the planet, feels they must reinvent the wheel. Each of them has their own idiosyncratic way of describing their routes. So in the end, one must simply throw caution to the winds, find a bus stop and just get in. I've never been able to figure out a bus schedule without standing inside the front of a bus, holding on to a pole, and asking timid, polite questions of the bus driver.

Bus drivers, of course, know everything. Even in Cambridge, where the city itself is a bit like a rabbit warren. Full of dead end streets and odd twists and turns that lead to locked gates guarding medieval churches and gardens. Having gotten on not-quite the right bus, I had to try to follow the bus driver's directions to go left then right, then left, right, left, and right in order to walk across the city center to the "backs" of Cambridge. I assume this originally meant the back of beyond, but in recent years, that's where they are putting new buildings. The library is located just beyond the backs because it is relatively new—the university itself dates back to 1209, so being new isn't that hard.

I became hopelessly lost and had to just keep stopping people to ask, "Do you know where the University Library is?" Which most did not know. But when I changed to, "Which direction is the river?" I did much better trading on the kindness of strangers. So I darted through the beautiful old city snapping a few pics as I ran past Kings College church and over one of the bridges on the River Cam. (Pretty pics below).

There are Gates and then there are Gates

Having arrived puffing a bit, but with ten minutes to spare, I sat pulling out my materials to prove myself worthy of being allowed in the Manuscript Room. Alas, I'd forgotten my letters of introduction, but thankfully, Shannon had emailed me a copy of it, so I could at least feebly offer that up to the gatekeeper. Actually, England has always struck me as a bit more flexible about such things than the States. And indeed, he just let me forward him the email. I'd gone in this morning in a suit, looking as respectable as possible, so that may have helped. On the other hand, he may regularly bend rules that in the States would be impermeable barriers.

Another example that springs to mind is that there is no such thing as jay-walking here. It's just expected that you will watch for your chance when you're on foot and just dart out there between traffic as best you can. Of course, that laissez faire attitude is completely missing when it comes to things like elevator doors—which move cautiously and slowly, all the while announcing, "Doors are closing. Doors are closing." Daring street traffic is one thing, but daring elevator doors, entirely different! How absurd of me to compare the two.

The Holy Grail

The Manuscript Room is on the third floor, and of course, nothing is allowed inside but laptops, pencils, and paper. I presented my newly minted card and was admitted. Within a few minutes I had been handed the Findern MS and was placing it on one of the cushions they provide for old books. I spent the day leafing through it from the beginning and just "looking" at the pages one by one. So many people talk about this book, but it often seems like they don't really look at the book. They look at the texts instead. But the book has a lot to say.

For instance the edges of the pages of Hoccleve's "Letter to Cupid" are just filthy. They've been handled and turned and not always with clean hands. There are dark round spots in it that look like drops of wine, or perhaps wax that dirt has adhered to over the years. I imagine the person reading it aloud to his friends chortling wine and little drops hitting the page, or perhaps being so intent on the merry words of the god of Love, that he forgets to trim the candle wick until hot wax splashes onto the page. (The poem is a letter from the god of Love dressing down men who behave badly in love. It's written in the court language of a King issuing a decree, so really, it's pretty amusing. It was written by Christine de Pizan in French originally, but I suppose that it was such a fifteenth-century hit that Thomas Hoccleve (London clerk and Chaucer Fan-Boy) translated it into English.) The copy in the Findern MS has apparently just been loved to death, as the back few pages are missing.

All Grails have their Mysteries

A few pages in the manuscript are slightly translucent, so that you can see the text on the other side of the paper a bit. It's almost as if the paper has been soaked in oil or something. But the writing isn't blurred, and inevitably one side of the paper is darker and translucent, but the other side is fine. Although sometimes the back side has a rectangle of cleaner paper, but the edges are darker like the translucent side. If I did not know that it was paper, I might almost say that it looks like the difference between the flesh and skin side of vellum. I'm stumped. I've no idea what might cause that. It tends to be on the outsides of quires, so I'm pretty sure someone has set it down in something, or perhaps the collective skin oils of centuries of people have coated it. (The Derbyshire gentry that copied these works just folded paper and copied stuff. The loose pages floated around together for a very long time before anyone bound them into a book.) In particular I find it puzzling that the other side is cleaner in a rectangle pattern. I suppose it must be that there was a smaller piece of paper next to it that kept it clean. But why? What would that look like?

And All British Meals have their Mysteries as Well

In the Tea Room in the Library, I had bangers, bacon and beans for a late breakfast that served me as lunch. Bacon is what we might call ham, or perhaps pork loin fixed as ham. It's fabulous. Bangers-- well, they look like sausage, but they taste more like bread. They are a mystery. I was offered "Brown Sauce" in a packet to go with it. I declined at the Tea Room, but at the grocery store this evening, there it was again— Brown Sauce. So I picked some up to have with dinner. For something so blandly named, it's really kind of a spicey, vinegary, not-quite ketchupy thing.

Tomorrow I leaf through the rest of the manuscript and make arrangements to see certain pages under ultra-violet light.

Walking Past
Walking Past
Kings College Church
The River Cam
The River Cam
Of course, I'm on one bridge looking across at another. On the left are the King and Queen's "Backs." To the right is the fen that has been reclaimed to provide more land.
University Library
University Library
Each of the colleges has their own library, but this is the mother of them all.
I'm in!
I'm in!
This is just after I sat down in the manuscript room. I scored a seat in front of a window. Natural light is SO helpful when looking at old manuscripts. (Don't I look respectable?)
Brown Sauce
Brown Sauce
Not an overly descriptive name. Let's face it— that could mean anything. Gravy, jelly, terriyaki—anything.
The garden outside my window. It's just not really getting dark here till 9:30 or 10.