Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.


Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

Trip report: Discarded History

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey, former country house of Lord Fairhaven, is one of those places near Cambridge that I’ve never been to because it’s not easy to get to on public transport. But with my wife’s family visiting, we thought it’d be nice to have a look at the house, take a stroll around the grounds, etc.

I don’t know why, but I have never been much of a stately-homes guy, despite the fact that places like Anglesey Abbey have lots of the stuff that I like about historic material culture.


Medieval things being reused as later things!


Desk envy!




Library envy!


Henry IV!


And the ever-popular thief-proof door.

Well-informed staff were on hand to answer questions and the house wasn’t too skewed in favour of imagining the luxurious life of Lord Fairhaven. The recommended tour also takes you through the kitchens and so on (where people were making cake according to period recipes) and the little imagine yourself notes on the room guides exhort you to imagine yourself not only as the people who lived in the house but as their staff, although there wasn’t a note that said Imagine yourself as … the labouring poor, suffering through the bleak depths of the Great Depression while Lord Fairhaven and his idle brood lived in swinish luxury or anything.

I think my favourite thing was this:


Ah, the last days of prewar elegance, when Britain’s elite would gather in the library, chatting about the hunt, sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back, with their minds on their money and their money on their minds.

Anyway, there are also gardens, and I understand that people like them, but I have never yet been too excited about plants in a place. There is also a second-hand bookshop, which has always been more my thing, and where I got some, er, second-hand books.

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey

Trip report: Colour

Today we headed over to the Fitzwilliam Musem for Colour, its exhibit of illuminated manuscripts with special reference to, er, colour. It was good!

Like other Fitz exhibits we’ve been to lately (especially Death on the Nile), it included a lot of focus on the technology and materiality of manuscript illuminations, rather than just considering them aesthetically. That’s always something I’m interested in, so good there, although I would have liked to have seen something on their social role. I mean, obviously they were high-status gifts, but how were they used, how displayed?

There were also some good mentions of the afterlives of these items, being passed around, cut up, copied, forged, sold to art collectors, vandalised to get the previous metals and so on. All very interesting.

I think my favourite piece was the alchemical scroll of George Ripley. I had seen images from it (or from others like it), but they don’t give you the impression of how huge it is. You really have to see it.


There was also a very cool image of the Battle of Clavijo on a Spanish patent of nobility that looked like something out of a Warhammer book (I know, I know, other way around), and a lovely image of a melancholic man. Anyway, if you’re in the area, you should go and see it; it’s informative, it’s not too large and it’s free.

Trip report: Colour

More things that are what they are

The eponymous St Edmund’s Abbey in Bury St Edmunds was once one of the largest Benedictine houses in England. It got destroyed during and after the Dissolution, as these places do, and most of it is now gone, although various picturesque ruins still stud the park that now stands in its place. But not all of it is gone. Some of it was reused in a charming and practical way.


This used to be the west front of the absolutely frickin’ massive abbey church — much larger, if I read my map right, than the present-day cathedral. And then someone came along and turned bits of it into houses. Why waste a good wall? Hell, why even bother knocking down the ruiny bits? It is what it is.

There’s something about the ruins of the abbey that looks organic, like the tufa towers you get at Mono Lake.


Anyway, these days we see medieval buildings as priceless historical treasures, but right up until they were priceless historical treasures they were old eyesores that had to be turned into something practical. I like that.

More things that are what they are

I liked some towers

So we were in King’s Lynn the other day, walking around, looking at historical things, breathing in the fresh sea air, all that sort of thing. I was particularly pleased by some towers I saw.

The one on the right is the objectively better one.

This is Saint Margaret’s church, also just called King’s Lynn Minster, and it’s pretty cool. My favourite part of the facade is, of course, that right-hand tower. See how the towers don’t match at all? The lower level of the one on your right is original, dating (I believe) to the very late 11th or very early 12th century. The foundation itself is 1095, but you know how these things go. I don’t know why the complete asymmetry of the towers appeals to me so much, but it does; I love it when things are the way they are rather than the way they “ought” to be.

I also like the still-standing tower of the former Franciscan friary.


I like that they knocked the whole thing down except for the bell-tower, apparently because it was a handy landmark for sailors. That’s using your noggin. I also like the little side-turret thing there on the right, which I believe contains a staircase — a very cramped staircase to judge by the size of it.

Anyway, I saw some towers. It was nice.

I liked some towers

Trip report: Royal College of Physicians

There was no post on Friday because I was away from home, so here’s a post about where I went to make up for it. I was in London, and among other things I visited Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians. It’s not open on weekends, so I had to take advantage of the school holiday to get down there.


Anyway, John Dee had a famously extensive library, and while he was away in Europe it got “borrowed” by various friends and colleagues. Part of it wound up in the collection of Henry Pierrepont, which then found its way into the collection of the Royal College of Physicians; some of those volumes are now on display, including books by Dee and works with annotations in his hand. There are some very cool examples of Renaissance scientific and mathematical books, including a lovely Trithemius Polygraphie with a rotating paper wheel or volvelle.

It’s not a huge exhibit, and if you’re an expert on Dee (which I am not) you probably won’t find anything you don’t already know, but it’s definitely cool to see Dee’s marginal notations and the little faces he drew. I also learned that those little pointy hands in Renaissance and medieval documents are called manicules (I think), which I either did not know or forgot.

So if you’re interested in the history of Renaissance science and occultism, and you happen to be around the Great Portland Street area on a weekday this spring or summer, check out the Dee exhibit. It’s fascinating and probably won’t take you more than about 45 minutes or so.

Trip report: Royal College of Physicians

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

I was feeling sorry for myself about how I didn’t have anything to write about today. “Gee,” I thought, “I wish I’d just done a single post on the Kibbo Kift Kindred and save the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibit for a second post.” And then I remembered that that’s what I did. Nice.

Anyway, on Saturday I had some time to kill because my wife was buying some new skates for roller derby. The skate shop is near St Pancras station, so I popped over to the British Library and checked out the Alice exhibit. It isn’t very big — it’s not in the big exhibit space, but the little one up on the mezzanine level thingy.

So, it’s the British Library, which means it’s got all kinds of cool stuff like the manuscript and the rare first edition with crappy printing. It’s not in a very big space, and since I was visiting at lunchtime on a Saturday, it was very crowded. I only skimmed the later arty stuff, but even if I had done the whole thing I don’t think I would have taken more than about twenty minutes or so.

Alice-in-Wonderland-009.jpg I think the thing that was the most interesting to me was the extent to which Alice was a brand, with Carroll heavily involved in the merchandising, right down to the official Alice in Wonderland stamp albums and stuff like that. I’m not up on the history of children’s literature, but was it the first such brand? I genuinely don’t know.

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland