Exploring the stories hidden within the pages of incredibly ancient and rare books at Leeds' Brotherton Library
To Rosie Shepley, senior conservation technician at the University of Leeds, it's these fragments left behind - with worn pages or a tel ltale thumbprint - that can be just as fascinating as the literary treasures themselves.
"You never know, at some point, what might be significant," she said.
The exhibition celebrates six manuscripts and a rare Caxton book allocated to the university in lieu of inheritance tax, under a scheme by Arts Council England.
The oldest is a Greek gospel book from Byzantium, c. 950-1050, which is also now the oldest manuscript in the University’s collection. It bears evidence of heavy use, with text worn away and rewritten, and even a drawing of St Matthew by a 15th century reader.
Then Thomas Hoccleve's ‘The Regiment of Princes’, so rare there are fewer than 50 copies known to be in existence. Historic damage shows it was not always as highly prized as it is today - illuminated letters and sometimes whole pages have been roughly hacked from the beautiful volume, possibly during a craze for découpage that began in the 17th century.
Another mediaeval rarity is Watson’s ‘Brut Chronicle’, one of 13 surviving examples of this version of the popular history of England. Then a Renaissance travel compilation, Gaius Julius Solinus’ third-century ‘Polyhistor’, and finally, a 1917 manuscript by the calligrapher and illuminator Alberto Sangorski, which was likely new when it was purchased.
First step for any new acquisition to the library is quarantine, said Ms Shepley. There is a special room for this, before it is accessioned and cleaned. A book conservator might be brought in to treat any that need a little extra care, or binding, but this is very much preservation over restoration.
"We can really see, in the first pages of one, where it's been handled more," said Ms Shepley. "We wouldn't want to change that, it shows the history of how people used it.
"It's interesting as well that some older manuscripts stand the test of time a little better."
Wealthy industrialist Sir Thomas Edward Watson is the man who brought them together, while amassing an impressive library that included a Shakespeare First Folio.
The noted archaeologist and bibliophile Denys Spittle later acquired a number of his volumes, with the seven items consigned to Leeds to settle some £298,894 of tax.
The exhibition runs until April. Admission is free and open to all, with no booking necessary.