Looking for Sean McLachlan? He mostly hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog these days, but feel free to nose around this blog for some fun older posts!

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Friday, 23 October 2009

The oldest book I ever held

I just got back from five weeks of research in Missouri, where I was working on a couple of articles and my next Civil War book. I also did some research for Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons, a book I'm doing for for Osprey Publishing. In the process of doing that I delved into the rare books owned by the University of Missouri library, including some reproductions of 15th century Swiss chronicles with drawings of early handgonners.

A librarian at the Rare Book room asked if I had looked at the Nuremburg Chronicle, published in 1493 and a masterpiece of early printing filled with woodcuts.

"That's OK," I said. "I don't think there are any images of guns in there."

A slow smile crept across the librarian's face.

"We have an original, not a facsimile edition," she said.

"Oh, in that case I'll look at it!" I said.

One bibliophile can sense another.

So she brings out a heavy tome and I open it up, and am immediately caught up by the detailed illustrations of saints, cities, and historic episodes. The book is a seven-part history from Creation to Armageddon, with a history of the world in between. My Latin is pretty rusty and the Gothic script was hard to read but I struggled through a couple of pages just for the thrill of it. Many of the pages had marginal notes and even doodles written by a few different hands.

Getting to hold a 500 year-old book was an amazing experience. It is almost a century older than the second oldest book I've ever held, The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, published in 1589. To read passages that had been read by people in the Renaissance gave a real connection with the past and a sense of how different their thinking could be. I liked how the author left a few pages blank between the end of history and the description of Armageddon, allowing later writers to fill in the details. He only left eight pages so I guess he didn't think the world had much time left!
A couple of hours later I was even rewarded with something practical--what is perhaps the earliest example of someone shooting at a target. I could have easily missed it, a tiny little figure on the lower right hand corner of a vast cityscape. There isn't much detail, but it's clear he's firing an arquebus, the first gun to resemble a modern rifle, although still at a primitive stage of development. The target is seven of his body lengths away, so perhaps 35 feet, not a bad range for such an early gun. A lucky and perhaps important find from an unlikely source. It was the only image of a gun in the whole chronicle, and I wouldn't have found it if it wasn't for a fellow book lover. You'll see the image in my book once it gets published late next year.

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