Perusing the treasures of the priceless literary collection of the British Library boggles the mind. Titled the The Treasures and epitomised by the foyer’s large naked statue of Isaac Newton leaning over with his compass to measure the universe, this exceptional history of words promotes the gathering of knowledge.
Much of the collection is a celebration of the world's most wide-spread language and the virtual world language with English being a mix of the mother tongues of Britain’s forefathers and invaders - a potpourri of Celtic, Viking, Latin, French Norman and Germanic Anglo-Saxon. Its development over a thousand years is strongly felt with the near indecipherable early English books, developing through the centuries to the language we speak and understand today.
The collection includes the only existing copy of Beowulf (above left). At 1000 years of age and one of the language’s earliest texts, it tells of the slaying of two monsters (or so the explanatory note tells me).
Three or four hundred years later and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (right) are starting to resemble English as we know it, though reading a few lines is painstaking work. The beauty of the handwritten works with its florid leading letters makes the text part artwork and part literary work but hardly light bedtime reading. What would a modern spell-checker do to the first three lines of Chaucer's most famous work?
Ere begynneth the book of tales of Canterburye
compiled by Geffraie Chaucer of Brytayne chef poete
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The blossoming of English can be seen through the ages with original manuscripts (some handwritten) of some of the languages most celebrated writers. Shakespeare is well represented with a copy of his First Folio and a selection of his sonnets (along with his mortgage document). Works from the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde (below) extends to Lewis Carrol’s handwritten Alice in Wonderland (shown right). The handwriting is fascinating, some authors displaying near perfect penmanship while others demonstrate wild disorganised writing which wouldn’t pass muster in a primary school classroom.
Of course, English truly cemented its place when the bible was translated from Greek and Latin making such a key work available to the ordinary people of the day. An early King James Bible has its place in the sacred texts along with Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest Christian Bible (around 350 CE) and a Gutenberg Bible. Remarkably, the book associated with the first printed work with movable type is shown with the Diamond Sutra, a ninth century Chinese-printed Buddhist document – a printed work that predates the Gutenberg Bible by 500 years.
As a sidenote, I overheard an American mother explaining to her two tired looking children how one particular early Bible had been translated from English to help spread the word abroad. While the Latin language Bible almost predated English as a language, I was more concerned that the entire thrust of the displays seemed to betray her. Several startled people looked on, shook their heads but the mild English manners or sheer shock stopped anyone explaining more.
Almost exhausted after the literary collection, the Library also has a Magna Carta (actually they have quite a few), a wall full of ancient maps revealing the developing exploration of the planet, original scores from musical giants such as Mozart, Beethoven and Bach (along with Handel’s Messiah, shown right) through to some handwritten lyrics from The Beatles and a collection of major scientific works including efforts from such luminaries as Galileo, Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Harvey and Darwin.
Viewing all these treasures, I couldn’t help but wonder how the next thousand years will be represented. With almost nothing being handwritten and words being penned by a mix of word processors and spell-checkers, it is difficult to imagine the British Library’s Treasures of the Second Millennium would generate the same awe and wonder as the last - the painstaking work and artistry of the early texts, the remarkable formation of the language from a flurry of foreign tongues and the celebrated texts of famous authors through the ages.
Saying that, the English language continues to expand and enrich while languages only spoken in small pockets of the world are starting to be lost. The journey of the first thousand years is richly covered by the remarkable British Library, the treasures being the smallest fraction (though extensive enough) of the 150 million items (including 14 million books) and 300 kilometres of shelving in its extensive collection. What will the next thousand years bring the language and the library?
What would expect to see over the next thousand years for our language?
Note: All works shown are by courtesy of the British Library. Their extensive website includes an English language literature timeline.