discovered that the world they inhabited had left all sorts of remains,
remains that could be seen in books if not in person--and who knew but
that I might
some day be able to stand in front of a case in the British
Museum and see the Anglo-Saxon treasure that was pictured in books,
or even turn the pages of a manuscript? Age, the distant past, its simultaneous
distance and accessibility fascinated me. To touch something that a
fourteenth-century Englishman had touched, owned, valued seemed an intriguing
and tantalizing possibility. I could see a little holy water flask,
made of lead, that a pilgrim to Canterbury to visit the tomb of St.
Thomas a Beckett had bought and later lost along the banks of the Thames.
Despite the damage it had sustained in the intervening 600 years, I
could see that it was an inexpensive, yet precious souvenir (though,
in calling it a "souvenir," I knew I was speaking from another
other end of the spectrum, I discovered the glory of early Irish
manuscripts, like so many other people, through the Book of Kells, written
in the late eighth century. The so-called "carpet pages,"
so ornately decorated that they look like oriental carpets, and the
magnificent opening pages, like this one to the Gospel of St. Luke,
appealed to me first. Later, simpler pages, just as intriguing in their
details, like this one of Matthew 24:19-24, drew me back to these testaments
to Irish high culture and religious devotion.
Anglo-Saxons, who kept up a "national" chronicle until William
the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 (and beyond), had left precious
remains. A man wrote about the troubles and successes of his own time on
these very parchment leaves. I could look at them, even touch them, and
then turn to a scholarly edition to read them and read about them.
Afterward, I could go and look again and understand better and better
what I was looking
picturing more and more clearly where and when and why and by whom it was
written. It seemed (and seems) important.
people living in about the same
age left behind monumental stone crosses that still stand in churchyards
and inside churches, like this huge one at Monasterboice, outside
Dublin. The carving, which covers all the surfaces of the cross,
presents the Crucifixion at the center. Everything around it serves to
explain and enrich our understanding of that scene of a god dying. These
people were rock-solid in their faith, and that, too, made me want to
understand them better. How strange such an idea is in our world.
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