The oldest book I’ve ever cataloged is this:
Here it is, laying in a protective box. It had languished for some time in the “backlog” of items that never had electronic records created when my library moved from a card catalog to a computer catalog. This was a very fairly common issue (and still is, really) because libraries rely on cooperative bibliographic databases for the vast majority of their catalog records. But most libraries have a lot of rare, or even unique, items — like this one — that need original cataloging. (Of course every new publication needs an original record too; it’s just that once it’s made, libraries can all share it!)
<UPDATE! Fully scanned here>
Anyway this is a book that was made in the 15th century, to judge by the handwriting. It has 99 numbered leaves, plus a few leaves pasted into the front and back later with scribbled notes.
The whole thing was, of course, copied by hand by some scribe, and because he had some extra space, he copied more than one work into it. There is a short geographical introduction which identifies some of the places mentioned in the main work. This is the first page of it:
The text is mostly unadorned, apart from some red & blue initials
In addition to the “Brut” chronicle, there is a longish romantic poem called “The destruction of Jerusalem,” and also a popular poem (sometimes attributed to Walter Mapp) called “Cur mundus militat,” which tells of the vanity of the world. The first line is “Why is the world loved Þat is false and vayne…“
The red bar on this page is actually just the laser from the bar-code scanner at my desk. If you’re worried about the fact that I handled this book bare-handed, I should mention that I did wash my hands thoroughly, and gloves are not always worn when handling old materials because the clumsy handling of gloved fingers by librarians, scholars, etc. has been found to be more damaging to brittle pages than leaving traces of skin oils. (Notice too that a book like this was handled by many, many people for decades or even centuries, as it is written in English which means it was meant to be popularly enjoyed; probably read aloud by literate members of the household that owned it.)
Someone else at my library blogged about this book already. The Brut is interesting as it mixes legend with real history. King Arthur is among the kings listed. The first compilation was sometime in the early fifteenth century and stopped around 1415; later authors added “expansions” to keep it up-to-date. There is a book on the development of the work here. I don’t know which version we have; I suppose a more thorough investigation could identify it and narrow down the date. I had a devil of a time finding a modern text version of the chronicle, but did find this. This version is over 600 pages, and includes a lot of “extras” from various versions of the text as well as associated poems and romances. I’ll keep an eye out for a modern English version.