The British Library: A Self-Guided Tour
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
The British Empire built its greatest monuments out of paper. It's with literature that England has made her lasting contribution to history and the arts. These national archives of Britain include more than 12 million books, 180 miles of shelving, and the deepest basement in London.
But everything that matters for your visit is in one delightful room labeled "Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library" and an adjacent room containing the Magna Carta. We'll concentrate on a handful of documents — literary and historical — that changed the course of history. Start with the top stops (described in this tour), then stray according to your interests.
Entering the library courtyard, you'll see a big statue of a naked Isaac Newton bending forward with a compass to measure the universe. The statue symbolizes the library's purpose: to gather all knowledge and promote our endless search for truth.
Stepping inside, you'll see the information desk and café. The cloakroom and WC are down a short staircase to the right. The reading rooms upstairs are not open to the public. The Pearson Gallery, down a few steps to the left, houses temporary exhibits (sometimes requiring an admission charge).
Our tour is in the tiny but exciting area to the left. It's variously labeled "The Sir John Ritblat Gallery," "Treasures of the British Library," or just "The Treasures." This priceless literary and historical collection is held all in one large, carefully designed, dimly lit room.
Navigate the wall of historic maps from left to right. "A Medieval Map of Britain," from 1250, puts medieval man in an unusual position — looking down on his homeland from 50 miles in the air. "Charting the Seas," from c. 1325, shows a well-defined west coast of Europe as European sailors ventured cautiously out of the Mediterranean. Next is a detailed map from a couple of centuries later — it would work well today to plan a trip to Britain. It's followed by "The End of a Tradition" (1688), which has the world well-mapped, except that the United States has a Miami Beach perspective: Florida plus a lot of unexplored interior inhabited by strange beasts.
My favorite excuse for not learning a foreign language is: "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me!" I don't know what that has to do with anything, but obviously Jesus didn't speak English — nor did Moses or Isaiah or Paul or any other Bible authors or characters. As a result, our present-day English Bible is not directly from the mouth and pen of these religious figures, but the fitful product of centuries of evolution and translation.
The Bible is not a single book; it's an anthology of books by many authors from different historical periods writing in different languages (usually Hebrew or Greek). So there are three things that editors must do in compiling the most accurate Bible: 1) decide which books actually belong, 2) find the oldest and most accurate version of each book, and 3) translate it accurately.
The Codex Sinaiticus (c. A.D. 350)
The oldest complete "Bible" in existence (along with one in the Vatican), this is one of the first attempts to collect various books together into one authoritative anthology. It's in Greek, the language in which most of the New Testament was written. The Old Testament portions are Greek translations from the original Hebrew. This particular Bible, and the nearby Codex Alexandrus (A.D. 425), contain some books not included in most modern English Bibles. (Even today Catholic Bibles contain books not found in Protestant Bibles.)
These accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are about as old as any in existence, but some weren't written down until several generations after Jesus' death. Today, Bible scholars pore diligently over every word in the New Testament, trying to separate Jesus' authentic words from those that seem to have been added later.
Early English Bibles — The King James Version (1611)
These Bibles are in the same language you speak, but try reading them. The strange letters and archaic words clearly show how quickly languages evolve.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a form of Hebrew. His words were written down in Greek. Greek manuscripts were translated into Latin, the language of medieval monks and scholars. By 1400, there was still no English version of the Bible, though only a small percentage of the population understood Latin. A few brave reformers risked death to make translations into English and print them using Gutenberg's new invention. Within two centuries, English translations were both legal and popular.
The King James version (done during his reign) has been the most widely used English translation. Fifty scholars worked for four years, borrowing heavily from previous translations, to produce the work. Its impact on the English language was enormous, making Elizabethan English something of the standard, even after all those thees and thous fell out of fashion in everyday speech.
Many of the most recent translations are not only more accurate (based on better scholarship and original manuscripts), but more readable, using modern speech patterns. The late 20th-century debates over God's gender highlight the problems of translating old phrases to fit contemporary viewpoints.
Along the walls are sacred writings from other religious traditions: the Hebrew Torah, Muslim Quran, Buddhist sutras, and Hindu Upanishads.
Lindisfarne Gospels (A.D. 698) and Other Illuminated Manuscripts
Throughout the Middle Ages, Bibles had to be reproduced by hand. This was a painstaking process, usually done by monks for a rich patron. This beautifully illustrated ("illuminated") collection of the four Gospels is the most magnificent of medieval British monk-uscripts. The text is in Latin, the language of scholars ever since the Roman Empire, but the illustrations — with elaborate tracery and interwoven decoration — mix Irish, classical, and even Byzantine forms. (Read an electronic copy using the "Turning the Pages" computer.)
These Gospels are a reminder that Christianity almost didn't make it in Europe. After the fall of Rome (which had established Christianity as the official religion), much of Europe reverted to its pagan ways. This was the time of Beowulf, when people worshiped woodland spirits and terrible Teutonic gods. It took dedicated Irish missionaries 500 years to reestablish the faith on the Continent. Lindisfarne, an obscure monastery of Irish monks on an island off the east coast of England, was one of the few beacons of light after the fall of Rome, tending the embers of civilization through the long night of the Dark Ages.
Browse through more illuminated manuscripts (in the cases behind the Lindisfarne Gospels). This is some of the finest art from what we call the Dark Ages. The little intimate details offer a rare and fascinating peek into medieval life.
Printing was invented by the Chinese (what wasn't?). The Printed Prayer Sheet (c. 618-907) was made seven centuries before the printing press was "invented" in Europe. A bodhisattva (an incarnation of Buddha) rides a lion, surrounded by a prayer in Chinese characters. The faithful gained a blessing by saying the prayer, and so did the printer by reproducing it. Texts such as this were printed using wooden blocks carved with Chinese characters, then dipped into paint or ink.
The Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455)
It looks like just another monk-made Latin manuscript, but it was the first book printed in Europe using movable type. Printing is one of the most revolutionary inventions in history.
Johann Gutenberg (c. 1397-1468), a German silversmith, devised a convenient way to reproduce written materials quickly, neatly and cheaply — by printing with movable type. You scratch each letter onto a separate metal block, then arrange them into words, ink them up, and press them onto paper. When one job was done you could reuse the same letters for a new one.
This simple idea had immediate and revolutionary consequences. Suddenly, the Bible was available for anyone to read, fueling the Protestant Reformation. Knowledge became cheap and accessible to a wide audience, not just the rich. Books became the "mass media" of Europe, linking people by a common set of ideas.
Magna Carta (1215)
Duck into the Magna Carta room to answer this question: How did Britain, a tiny island with a few million people, come to rule a quarter of the world? Not by force, but by law. The Magna Carta was the basis for England's constitutional system of government. Though historians talk about "the" Magna Carta, several different versions of the document exist, and some are kept in this room.
The Articles of the Barons: In 1215, England's barons rose in revolt against the slimy King John. After losing London, John was forced to negotiate. The barons presented him with this list of demands. John, whose rule was worthless without the support of the barons, had no choice but to affix his seal to it.
Magna Carta: A few days after John agreed to this original document, it was rewritten in legal form, and some 35 copies of this final version of the "Great Charter" were distributed around the kingdom.
This was a turning point in the history of government. Before, kings had ruled by God-given authority, above the laws of men. Now, for the first time, there were limits — in writing — on how a king could treat his subjects. More generally, it established the idea of "due process" — the notion that a government can't infringe on citizens' freedom without a legitimate legal reason. This small step became the basis for all constitutional governments, including yours.
So what did this radical piece of paper actually say? Not much, by today's standards. The specific demands had to do with things such as inheritance taxes, the king's duties to widows and orphans, and so on. It wasn't the specific articles that were important, but the simple fact that the king had to abide by them as law. Now return to the main room to find...
Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook
Books also spread secular knowledge. Renaissance men turned their attention away from heaven and toward the nuts and bolts of the material world around them. These pages from Leonardo's notebook show his powerful curiosity, his genius for invention, and his famous backward and inside-out handwriting, which makes sense only if you know Italian and have a mirror. Leonardo's restless mind ranged from how birds fly to mechanics to military fortifications to the "earthshine" reflecting onto the moon to an early helicopter.
One person's research inspired another's, and books allowed knowledge to accumulate. Galileo championed the counter-commonsense notion that the Earth spun around the sun, and Isaac Newton later perfected the mathematics of those moving celestial bodies.
Nearby are many more historical documents. The displays change frequently, but you may see letters by Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas More, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, and others. But for now, let's trace the evolution of...
Early English Literature
Four out of every five English words have been borrowed from other languages. The English language, like English culture (and London today), is a mix derived from foreign invaders. Some of the historic ingredients that make this cultural stew:
- The original Celtic tribesmen
- Latin-speaking Romans (A.D. 1–500)
- Germanic tribes called Angles and Saxons (making English a Germanic language and naming the island "Angle-land" — England)
- Vikings from Denmark (A.D. 800)
- French-speaking Normans under William the Conqueror (1066–1250)
Beowulf (c. 1000)
Ponder this first English literary masterpiece. This Anglo-Saxon epic poem, written in Old English (the earliest version of our language), almost makes the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone look easy. The manuscript is from A.D. 1000, although the story itself dates to about 750. In this epic story, the young hero Beowulf defeats two half-human monsters threatening the kingdom. Beowulf symbolizes England's emergence from the chaos and barbarism of the Dark Ages.
The Canterbury Tales (c. 1410)
Six hundred years later, England was Christian but it was hardly the pious, predictable, Sunday-school world we might imagine. Geoffrey Chaucer's bawdy collection of stories, told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, gives us the full range of life's experiences — happy, sad, silly, sexy, and devout. (Late in life, Chaucer wrote an apology for those works of his "that tend toward sin.")
While most serious literature of the time was written in scholarly Latin, the stories in The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English, the language that developed after the French invasion (1066) added a Norman twist to Old English.
William Shakespeare is the greatest author in any language. Period. He expanded and helped define modern English. In one fell swoop, he made the language of everyday people as important as Latin. In the process, he gave us phrases like "one fell swoop" that we quote without knowing it's Shakespeare.
Perhaps as important was his insight into humanity. With his stock of great characters — Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Falstaff, Lear, Romeo, Juliet — he probed the psychology of human beings 300 years before Freud. Even today, his characters strike a familiar chord.
William Shakespeare and Some Contemporaries
Some scholars have wondered if maybe Shakespeare had help on several of his plays. After all, they reasoned, how could a journeyman actor, with little education, have written so many masterpieces? And he was surrounded by other great writers, such as his friend and fellow poet, Ben Jonson. Most modern scholars, though, agree that Shakespeare did indeed write the plays and sonnets attributed to him.
The Shakespeare First Folio (1623)
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not read. He published a few, but as his reputation grew, unauthorized "bootleg" versions began to circulate. Some of these were written by actors who were trying (with faulty memories) to re-create plays they had appeared in years before. Publishers also put out different versions of his plays.
It wasn't until seven years after his death that this complete collection of Shakespeare's plays was published. The editors were friends and fellow actors.
The engraving of Shakespeare on the title page is one of only two portraits done during his lifetime. Is this what he really looked like? No one knows. The best answer probably comes from Ben Jonson, in the introduction on the facing page. Jonson concludes, "Reader, look not on his picture, but his book."
Other Greats in English Literature
The rest of the "Beowulf/Chaucer wall" is a greatest-hits sampling of British literature featuring works that have enlightened and brightened our lives for centuries. The displays rotate frequently, but there's always a tasty selection of famous works from Dickens to Austen to Kipling to Woolf to Joyce. Often on display is the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Carroll (whose real name was Charles L. Dodgson) was a stutterer, which made him uncomfortable around everyone but children. For them he created a fantasy world where grown-up rules and logic were turned upside down.
Future generations will have to judge whether this musical quartet ranks with artists such as Dickens and Keats, but no one can deny their historical significance. The Beatles burst onto the scene in the early 1960s to unheard-of popularity. With their long hair and loud music, they brought counterculture and revolutionary ideas to the middle class, affecting the values of a whole generation. Touring the globe, they served as a link between young people everywhere. Look for photos of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr before and after their fame.
Most interesting are the manuscripts of song lyrics written by Lennon and McCartney, the two guiding lights of the group. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" was the song that launched them to superstardom. "A Hard Day's Night" was the title song of a film capturing their hectic touring schedule. Some call "A Ticket to Ride" the first heavy-metal song. In "Here, There, and Everywhere," notice the changes Paul made searching for just the right rhyme. "Yesterday," by Paul, was recorded with guitar and voice backed by a string quartet — a touch of sophistication by producer George Martin. Also, glance at the rambling, depressed, cynical, but humorous letter by a young John Lennon. Is that a self-portrait at the bottom?
Handel's Messiah (1741) and other Music Manuscripts
Kind of an anticlimax after the Fab Four, I know, but here are manuscripts by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and others. George Frideric Handel's famous oratorio, the Messiah, was written in a flash of inspiration — three hours of music in 24 days. Here are the final bars of its most famous tune. Hallelujah.