When I visited the British Library in London, I was surprised to find it uncrowded. The British Museum is mobbed by people who want a look at the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculptures. But the tour buses seem to bypass the BL with its “Treasure Gallery” containing two of the earliest known Bible manuscripts, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels (!), a Leonardo da Vinci notebook, Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s own hand, and that ultimate treasure, the only manuscript containing Beowulf.
From time to time, I used to run across manuscript pages with large library ownership stamps or inscriptions. How terrible, I thought. Aesthetically speaking, the stamps are often applied in a way that defaces the work. Then I learned that this is done to “spoil” the book for anyone who might want to steal it. Sadly, an army of thieves have walked out of libraries with rare volumes, or razored out the finest illustrations, colored plates, and maps.
32. An Unknown Hero
In a chilly drizzle, Tabitha and Rúairí made their way past the quasi-Gothic, Victorian brick edifice of St. Pancras to the sleek, modern British Library. Both already had reader’s room passes, and they went to the Manuscript Room to put in their order. Tabitha’s heart was throbbing painfully in her chest, and Rúairí kept casting glances at her, his eyes bright. She could tell he was as excited as she.
They installed themselves at a desk with notebooks, pencils, Tabitha’s iPad, and the worn volume, which turned out to be a compilation of short manuscripts and fragments. An eighteenth-century collector had gathered the medieval items and bound them, though the original covers were nearly detached, and the fragile book had to be stored in a box. In order to achieve a consistent page size, the binder had trimmed many of the margins dangerously close to the text. Tabitha winced at the sight of the mutilated leaves.
“Obviously there’s no table of contents, but here’s an old list that was laid in,” said Rúairí, pointing to a pocket on the custom-made box. “Freeman mentioned it in his notes.” She drew out the list and ran her eye down the sheet. It was the sixth item: Turonensis. Narratio Scivii, herois incogniti fortasse Hibernensis. “From Tours. The story of Scivius, an unknown hero, perhaps Irish,” she read. “All right, here we go.” She opened the volume and paged through, carefully noting items one through five as she passed them.
“Oh no. No, this can’t be right,” she finally said, upset but keeping her voice low so as not to annoy the other patrons. “The handwriting doesn’t match.”
“Give it a look,” said Rúairí encouragingly. “What if it’s not the rest of your piece, but a different copy of the same story?” She looked at the page before her, which held blocks of text separated by small boxes ruled in red. Each contained a series of Roman numerals. “This isn’t our narrative. It’s tenth-century, all right, but it’s Boethius’ Institutio Arithmetica, a mathematical work. Check the list again. Did I get it wrong?”
“Institutio Arithmetica is item seven,” he said, frowning. “And the one before it is Isidore of Seville? Eleventh century?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. Her insides shifted uncomfortably and she realized she was sweating. She turned back to the Boethius fragment and opened the volume wider, examining the gutter. There. “Do you see it?” she asked him.
“That I do,” said Rúairí sadly. Her heart sank, and he put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Three entire leaves had been neatly razored out of the book. The narrative of Scivius was gone.
They reported the problem to the woman at the desk, whose security badge identified her as “Portia Gentry, Associate Archivist, Manuscripts.” She examined the book and asked them to wait while she checked the records. She returned with an unhappy look on her face. “We have no record of any modifications to the book on our part. Because of the razoring, item six does appear to have been stolen. But nobody has requested this book since the mid-eighties.”
“When my professor, Freeman Gibson, saw this book in 1970, item six was present,” said Rúairí. “So the thief must have been one of the people who handled the book after that. Do you have their names?”
“Yes,” replied Ms. Gentry, her voice crisp and her manner a shade chillier than before, “but I’m afraid we don’t share that kind of information. You can rest assured that we will look into this. In the meantime, I apologize that you’ve been put to the expense of coming here, only to find it missing.” She gathered up the violated book and replaced it gently in its box, then walked stiffly back to her desk.
“I can’t believe it,” said Tabitha as they stepped into the grey drizzle again. “All for nothing.”
“Not all for nothing,” said Rúairí. “The list of items was contemporary with the compilation. The eighteenth-century owner read the Scivius narrative and thought he was an Irish hero, just as I did. They’re definitely two parts of the same story. When you translate the rest, we’ll know more.”
“Who would want to steal it?” she asked, frustrated. “I’d be shocked if it contained any illuminations. In a piece with an Irish theme, there might be decorated initials, but there’s nothing in the section Galen owns.” Razoring was not unusual, one of the reasons that most libraries now had security systems that used CCTV. But thieves almost always chose to steal decorated leaves: prints, maps, or anything hand-painted.
“I’m sorry, Tabitha. But I’m still glad we came to London. Since there’s the day free now, I think I’ll take in the Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum, and later I’m meeting a mate of mine for a jar or two. Want to come along?”
“No thanks,” she said, still frowning. “I’m going back to my room so I can work on the translation from my iPad photos.” She felt an urgent need to see the script again, and wished she were back in Brooklyn so she could touch the vellum pages, and lean in close to inhale their dry, delicate scent. We’ll be leaving tomorrow, she thought, trying to comfort herself. I’ll see them again soon.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Every so often, someone steals a book out of uncontrollable desire, but usually the motives are much more mundane. Only a couple of months ago, thieves broke through the skylight of a London warehouse and rappelled to the floor in order to defeat the motion-detection alarms. They stole $2.5 million dollars worth of books, including a 1566 copy of Copernicus’ work on the orbit of celestial bodies. I am intrigued by the theory that the thieves were hired by a wealthy collector who targeted certain volumes to add to his vaults…