Friday, 29 January 2016

Old Books are Windows to the Past

My birthday present to myself gives me goosebumps when I touch it. A tatty, vellum-bound copy of 'Cavelarice' or 'The English Horseman', it was published in 1607, half a century before the Great Plague and the Fire of London. Charles I was a boy of 7 and the English Civil War still decades away. Elizabeth I had died just four years earlier; James I of Scotland was on the throne and in the year it was purchased, John Smith landed to establish the first English colony in Virginia. This book is older than America, for heaven's sake.

And yet here it is, advising on cavassons and martingales and how to manage your horses (nobody can say the English aren't consistent). On 4 August 1783, when it was still in use but already nearing 200 years old, an owner inked a reminder on the flyleaf, noting the page for treatment of swelling after blood-letting.

Handling this book conjures wood smoke from inglenook fireplaces, mulled ale and mutton after a day's hunting, the scent of hay and a hint of ammonia from some distant stable. You do not possess books such as this, they possess you, because in their time frame we are but shadows, glimpsed for an instant in the firelight as we pass.