Posts tagged ‘crown jewels’

Dec 8, 2021

The Book of Deer . . . my response to Zbigniew Tycienski’s response to it

Firstly, many thanks for commenting on the blog. I did enjoy your own blog response – an excellent rejoinder to my rather glib piece on the Book of Deer.

Allow me to address some of the points made by you.

The question of where the Book of Deer should be housed – at Cambridge University Library in whose collection it has lain for so long or closer to the area whose name it takes and where it is likely it was compiled.

I’m not sure your phrase, “… to consign the Book of Deer to Aberdeen would have been unreasonable” is fair. Aberdeen has for over 500 years been the centre of learning for northeastern and northern Scotland with an excellent reputation across the areas of learning for being innovative and outward-looking. The implication in your response to me that scholars interested in the book would be forced to travel to a remote Scottish city – Aberdeen – to carry out their researches is a bit insulting. For a start Aberdeen is not a remote backwater and if you insist it is remote, then remote from what and where? Many assumptions are carried in the term remote. It may surprise you to learn that even in a remote city there can be found academics who are more than capable of appreciating, understanding and researching the manuscript. That they should be content with a high-quality copy is a strange argument that can be turned on its head. If a facsimile is good enough for Scottish researchers at Aberdeen then it must be equally good enough for researchers south of the Border. As Walter Benjamin might have said – as wonderful as a reproduction of the Book of Deer might be there is something wonderfully evocative being up and close to the original and the sensory experience of working with a manuscript dating from the 10th century enhances the researcher’s experience, albeit separated by touch by a cotton glove.  

Of course the initial importance of the Book of Deer was as a Christian book. But the perception of any item can change with time. Think of a pair of ploughman’s boots. When worn by an early 20th century ploughman they are just work boots but when acquired by a museum they are instantly reinvented as objects of cultural historical significance and so treated with respect, tended and protected and they attain a life story surrounding their initial existence; the boots that during their natural lifetime would have been casually pushed aside take on an artificial life in a museum where they become treasured artefacts displayed behind glass with a card alongside explaining their relevance. And so, too, the Christian Book of Deer that evolved during its own lifetime into more than a gospel book when two centuries later it was used as a notebook in which formal Latin gave way to the vernacular language of the time, Gaelic. While appreciating that for Christians the Book of Deer is as a religious script for me the fascination lies in the insights it provides into the cultural life of Scotland of around the 12th century. The world is filled with religious texts but the Book of Deer is unique in its marginalia and accounts of land deeds. And that, to my mind, is absolutely breathtakingly wonderful. Now I don’t expect anyone in Cambridge to get quite as excited about this aspect of the book as some Scots will. And there is the nub of the matter. Where does the book rightfully belong?

Your flippant dismissal of Scots caring where the Book of Deer is kept as ‘paranoid’ is unworthy. Why must Scots have to travel to England, or elsewhere, to appreciate artefacts that relate to Scotland and/or derive from Scotland – and this one is unique as the earliest surviving document created in Scotland. Surely, surely there is a strong case for it to be given back to Scotland?

Tychy’s argument that Scottish relics displayed outside Scotland can help non-Scots appreciate Scotland is neither here nor there and not a strong argument for having Scotland’s treasures kept in places outside the country. If having Scotland’s artefacts kept in places outside the country where they can be better appreciated and through them greater appreciation of Scotland as a nation then why not apply this to all and everything in Scotland’s museums and galleries? What other country in the world would the argument be – it is better that we spread our cultural treasures here there and everywhere than house them close to the people whose ancestors created them and who are the people they are because of them? Scotland is no different from any other nation in recognising that objects that add to our understanding and appreciation of our own past should be readily available to the people they best represent. Artefacts have greater relevance in or close to their own place of origin. London Bridge dismantled and shipped to Arizona lost its English historical resonance and became just another bridge in its new setting.  

As for the argument that artefacts should be housed where they can be accessed by the greatest numbers then let’s see how popular that is when the British crown jewels are removed from the Tower of London and sent to a museum in Tokyo which has the largest population in the world. And if that is convincing then send every artefact from everywhere to Tokyo for the very same reason.

I don’t advocate Aberdeen refuse to return the book but given the current propensity for returning national cultural assets there is surely a case for Cambridge returning this one.

Tychy’s blog response to mine: