St. George’s Day

The King’s plunder: magical manuscripts and the earliest printing…

14C leather-bound vellum ms

14C leather-bound vellum ms

My recent short holiday in Barcelona was inspired by a brief visit that I made to the city in October 2011, when I facilitated a two-day international librarians’ advisory group hosted by the University of Barcelona. Not only did this previous occasion help to delay having to grapple with the onset of winter for a few more days (in the last week of October, the temperature in the city was around 24 degrees celsius, just a little higher than it was last week towards the end of April), but it provided me with an opportunity to see the library of an ancient university from the inside, because the advisory group meeting concluded with our being shown some of the library’s most prized possessions.

In the 1830s, this library was given a unique privilege by the then King of Spain. He wanted to loosen the grip of the church on the country; he also saw that most of the nation’s ancient manuscripts, incunabula and early printed texts were being held in convents and monasteries. This meant that not only were they inaccessible to scholars and students unless they were also inmates of these foundations, but also, in many cases, the books were not being adequately curated. Gradually, these priceless texts were being destroyed by insects, vermin, damp and, sometimes, acts of vandalism (in the sense that those who coveted particular illustrations might remove them from the work concerned). He therefore ordered that all of these rare manuscripts and books should be given to the University of Barcelona. I imagine that there were some grim ecclesiastical mutterings at the time and I strongly suspect that not every last text was relinquished. Nevertheless, the king’s dictat has resulted in a treasure trove that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great library collections of the world. For the university, it has been a joyful trouble: the work of preservation and curation goes on to this day. The books are kept in rooms where the temperature is constant and the university has a continuous restoration programme.

14C illuminated vellum

14C illuminated vellum


Having heard about these wonderful works of art, my husband wanted to see them too, so I contacted Carmen Cambrodi, the acquisitions librarian at the university, and asked her if it would be possible for us to make a short visit during our stay. She very kindly arranged for one of her colleagues to show us some of the collection and we spent an enthralling hour in her company. She was very knowledgeable about all of the books in her care. Appropriately, we made the visit on St George’s Day, when the streets outside were full of books of modern provenance.
14C illuminated page

14C illuminated page


The first book she showed us was an illuminated manuscript dating from the fourteenth century. I have included a photograph of it here. As you will see, all the letters are impeccably formed; it is so perfect that it looks typeset. It was written on vellum, which has stood up to the test of time remarkably well. I’d like to know how many hours it took to complete. It is certainly the result of many months’ work. I wonder if the monk who crafted it with such professional care was pleased or sad when his work was done? The illustrations take your breath away.
15C incunable

15C incunable


The second book is an incunable, or a book printed before the year 1501. It is strikingly similar to the manuscript: it demonstrates clearly that the earliest printed books tried to emulate their handwritten forbears in every detail. Interesting are the gaps left for illustrated letters, which were never completed, and the stamps of the religious institution from which the book came. Finally, there was a sixteenth-century example of a botanical encyclopaedia. This book was remarkable, not only for its accurate and beautiful illustrations (the vegetable dyes used to colour them have hardly dimmed with the passage of almost five hundred years), but also because it concludes with portraits of the three men who, respectively, wrote the text, painted the illustrations and cut the engravings for the printing press. Apparently such celebration of the author and other contributors – and especially inclusion of their pictures – was very rare at this date. You can see that these aren’t stereotyped portraits, either, but real likenesses: you feel as if you would be happy to meet these characters in a tavern and listen to them discoursing sagely on the problems of printing and book illustration, or perhaps the political issues of their day. They look as if they could be fun, too.
16C makers of the book

16C makers of the book


16C chillis

16C chillis


The librarian, Mrs Neus Verger, told us that the paper that was produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for early printed books was of much better quality than that which followed in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the result that priority for conservation work often has to be given to ‘younger’ books. She made her point by showing us some holes created by insects in some of the pages of the botanical book. The insects had bored through the paper completely, but these small pinprick holes constituted the only damage: the surrounding paper was completely untouched. The insect depredations had caused no further decay.

My husband and I will treasure memories of this visit and hope that one day we shall be allowed to return in order to glimpse again these jewels from bygone ages. I’d like to record here our heartfelt thanks to Carmen Cambrodi and Mrs Neus Verger, a wonderfully erudite but very modest colleague, and to pay tribute more generally to the University of Barcelona, an oasis of calm and of serious learning set in the centre of a bustling and vibrant city.

14C illuminated page

14C illuminated page


[Text and photographs © Christina James 2013]

The book and the rose…

My St. George's Day roses

My St. George’s Day roses

Happily my visit to Barcelona coincided with the celebration of St. George’s Day (on Tuesday 23rd April); ‘Sant Jordi’ is big in this city, which honours him with a much higher profile than we extend to him as our national patron saint. It was, of course, also World Book Day. I’m not sure whether it was owing to Spanish influence that the UK and the USA have chosen this date for their annual bookfest, but I am certain that the people of Catalonia got there first. In Barcelona, it is an ancient tradition to celebrate St George’s role as the patron saint of books. Booksellers bring book stalls out on to the pavements and everyone enters into the spirit of celebrating the book. Sales throughout the day are brisk; almost everyone I saw travelling on the Metro in the evening was carrying a bag of books. There is a carnival atmosphere. St George is remembered by a rose and an ear of corn, symbolising the damsel that he rescued and himself as her rescuer. Traditionally, the Spanish man of honour presented his lady with a rose accompanied by a corn stalk, to which she responded by giving him a book. Christina James, I am proud to say, received her rose (well, three, in fact!) and, for pleasure’s sake, not duty’s, gave her man a book. (For the romantics amongst you – and to the smiles of Catalan onlookers – kisses were exchanged…)

St. George's Day crime

To walk the streets, roses in hand, amid the throng of local people intent on having a good time, was to share in a general joie-de-vivre and to have a precious opportunity to talk to enthusiastic lovers of books. Beautiful displays of roses and red and yellow striped ribbons and flags adorned street corners and pavements everywhere. Music filled the air and the sun shone.

On a more business-like level, I feel that there may be something for us to learn from this. It did strike me at the time that Catalan booksellers are fortunate in being able to place such confidence in the weather; I could imagine a similar event in London or Leeds being suddenly dampened (in every sense of the word) by a sharp shower. And World Book Day is a remarkable achievement, a miracle of co-operation and generosity between all the elements of the book industry and a huge army of volunteers. Nevertheless, no-one was being given anything in Barcelona: roses came at €3 each; books were sold at full price. In a sense, it was all about celebrating the skills of booksellers themselves and the pleasures that they bring… and showing that they are worth paying for. We in the UK should honour our booksellers more and they should learn to expect and accept our homage gracefully and with attitude.

St. George's Day bookstall

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