My first impression of the Brut was one of awe and intrigue. It is one of the oldest items to pass across my bench and I revered it for its historic provenance and enduring nature. The condition of the binding reflected its age as evidenced by various damages throughout, including visible signs of water and insect damage. The parchment pages were heavily soiled and the gutters were filled with dirt and debris. Folds of the exterior folios were weak and had losses, and several of the inside text pages had tears and surface degradation. The sewing threads of the first and last quires barely held the fragile pages together, and with each successive viewing this sewing became weaker and more insubstantial. Without proper support, the binding was becoming its own worst enemy, mechanically self-destructing.
I did not get to see the Brut at its dirtiest. Indeed, scholars who are not curators or conservators are generally not afforded such views. By the time we see a manuscript, it has usually been made relatively presentable (otherwise, we are not allowed to see it). We are thereby taught to think of books as static: we do not leave any signs of our reading even as we delight in discovering notes and doodles made by our predecessors. An accidental change in the book is an embarrassing problem (“please don’t break while I’m touching!”). I love how the Brut’s arrival shattered these barriers and prompted us to think of the artifact as our contemporary. In need of care, certainly, but not frozen in time.