Monday News Tidbit – The Secret Libraries of History
The Secret Libraries of History “After news emerged about an underground reading room in Damascus, Fiona Macdonald discovers the places where writing has been hidden for centuries.”
Some of these are secret libraries while another is more a private one with limited access. Two, however, are rewriting what we know of life in the middle East and medieval Europe.
A little over 100 years ago, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts were found in a series of caves at the edge of the Gobi desert in China. An effort is now being made to digitalize many of them but the reason the cave was originally sealed remains a mystery. The Vatican Secret Archives hold, among other things, Henry VIII’s request to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, the transcript of the trial against Galileo and a request for payment from Michelangelo for payment for work on the Sistine Chapel.
Almost 280,000 Jewish manuscript fragments were hidden in a wall of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo.
For 1000 years, the Jewish community in Fustat deposited their texts in the sacred store. And the Cairo Genizah was left untouched. “Medieval Jews hardly wrote anything at all – whether personal letters or shopping lists – without referring to God,” says The New Yorker. As a result, “we have a frozen postbox of some two hundred and fifty thousand fragments composing an unparalleled archive of life in Egypt from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries… No other record as long or as full exists.”
In 2013, students of the Dutch Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel discovered a library hidden in a library – fragments of everyday notes, letters and receipts that were used in the binding of books and remained hidden until now.
“Messages like these bring us as close to real medieval society as you can get,” writes Kwakkel. “They are the medieval voices we normally don’t hear, that tell the story of what happened ‘on the ground’.”