The oldest book in the KB

When talking about remarkable objects in our collection, the oldest book is definitely worth mentioning. Produced over 1200 years ago, it's certainly old. Easily 5 times as old as the KB itself (currently celebrating its 225th anniversary)! So how did we get this book? What’s in it? And what makes it so remarkable?

In this video, collection specialist Ed van der Vlist talks about what makes this book so special. Video contains English subtitles.

A book dating back to the days of Charlemagne

The oldest book in our collection is a manuscript dating back to the late 8th or early 9th century. It’s from the Lupus collection, which is a collection of books that belonged to Joseph-Désiré de Wolff, also known as Lupus. Lupus was an adventurer from Ypres, with a knack of being in the right place at the right time. In the late 18th century, he managed to add books he acquired from monastery libraries in Northern France and the Southern Netherlands to his possessions, bringing his collection to around 185 books, almost all of which were medieval manuscripts. In 1819, King Willem I took possession of Lupus’ collection and in 1823, the books were moved to the KB. 

At the time, not everyone was proud of this acquisition. More than half of the collection consisted of (and still does) old, tatty, ‘boring’ books, that lacked the beautiful miniature illustrations, gold and embellishment one expects from medieval manuscripts. Luckily, we have different ideas about historical value these days: Lupus’ collection is now seen as a historical-literary treasure trove. And let’s face it, which library wouldn’t want to preserve such a gorgeous, 1200-year-old book?

The contents of the book

The KB’s oldest book is thick (173 parchment pages), but not particularly big: approximately 15.5 x 9.5 cm. It mainly comprises exegetical work: Latin texts explaining parts of the Bible. These texts were written by Benedictine monks in Flavigny, Burgundy, which was then part of the Frankish Kingdom. They were written in and around the year 800, in the days of Charlemagne. The book is particularly unusual because despite being so old, it is still complete. Lupus himself was well aware of the book’s age: he had ‘Manuscriptum perantiquum’ stamped onto the spine. This translates as: ‘A very old manuscript.’

The book gives us an idea of what was going on in the minds of 8th and 9th-century monks. Their main preoccupation was with studying and writing serious, devout texts. But their thoughts sometimes wandered in other directions, which is what makes this book so special. One of the monks filled an empty page with a poem extolling the virtues of excessive drinking. It starts with the words (roughly translated): ‘We think with prayers, we ask that you drink well’. And later: ‘So let’s enjoy drinking, as much as we can take’.

Can you look at the oldest book?

You can’t just read the KB’s oldest book. It’s far too fragile. You will only be permitted to look at the book ‘in real life’ if you have a very good reason. We recently prioritised our efforts to digitise medieval manuscripts so that everyone will eventually be able to access them online, when and wherever they like.

Presentation about the remarkable objects

On Tuesday September 26th and Saturday October 28th, you can attend a presentation about the remarkable objects in the KB. The oldest book will also be on display. Tickets are available through our web shop.

Would you like to know more?

Ed van der Vlist
Conservator of medieval manuscripts