Marks of an Ancient King

I’m sitting at long desk in the MIT reading room, waiting for the librarian to kindly pull my research material. Like libraries, it’s quite – only the padding of muffled footsteps, clicking of laptop keys, and turning of fragile papers disturb the silence. I smile as the woman returns with a large blue box. While it’s just a fraction of the size of a TARDIS, I soon discover that the book inside the box reveals more than its binding can contain.

The front cover has completely fallen off. Leather crumbs stick to my Purelled hands as I help the woman move the tome to the foam supports. She tells me that I’ll want to clean my hands again once I’m finished because this book has red rot. I later learned that red rot is a condition that affects certain leathers when they are exposed to high humidity and temperature for extended periods of time. Chemically, sulfur dioxide from the atmosphere gets converted into sulfurous acid – or the acid was added originally during the tanning process – and that sulfurous acid produces hydrogen peroxide. Tannins in the leather precipitate proteins that the hydrogen peroxide then oxidizes, forming ammonium sulfate and ammonium bisulfate. By breaking down the proteins, red rot essentially leaves the leather crumbling. I hypothesized that at some point in this book’s history, the owner was either unaware of how to properly store it or could not afford to. From further digging into the reception of this book, I gleaned that the general public was very fond of it while scholars considered it of little historical value because it contained many inaccuracies.

On a hunch, I angle on of the blank pages at the very front towards the windows. A strangely shaped watermark meets my eyes! Back before people worried about digital copyright, paper mills immersed molds with unique wire frames into a stewing vat of linen or cotton rags. The resulting paper is thinner in the places where the wires touched the pulp. Researchers today can use watermarks to date manuscripts. Although the few watermark databases I searched did not contain these two, the book revealed information about its publishing in another way.

Carefully turning past a beautiful engraving to the title page, I discover that even its title is bursting with information and would fill a paragraph of its own. Suffice to say, A Chronicle of the Kings of England… was written by Sir Richard Baker and published in 1696. Curious as to which king the chronicle begins with, I page through the tome and first find a paternal pedigree that traces the lineage of the current king (King James II) to King Egbert. Just before the actual chronicle begins, it lists all the kings – the 5th being King Arthur! You know, with the Round Table and all the knights?

Turns out an index is pretty handy. There are actually two accounts of people finding Arthur’s bones – in different places of course! I also found reference to Merlin and Robin Hood.

I also discovered a passage about Malory, a Welshman, writing about Arthur. This book would have been Le Morte d’Arthur, which I’ve read for another class and would actually recommend. Of course, this note actually goes against the now commonly accepted identity of the author of Le Morte as Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel (not a Welshman). Upon further investigation, I learned that John Bale, a 16th century antiquarian, first proposed the Welsh identity and that the Newbold Revel argument did not exist until 1890, which is when H. Oskar Sommer published it. It consequently makes sense that A Chronicle of the Kings of England… would include this supposed inaccuracy.

In any case, through touching, feeling, and studying Sir Richard Baker’s A Chronicle of the Kings of England…, I have joined the ranks of scholars (or more likely laymen) from so many previous generations – and generations yet to come – that have enjoyed the tome. With careful preservation, I’m amazed and thankful that books allow for a once and future reader.

Written by Alexis Drake, MIT Class of 2017, Brain and Cognitive Sciences