Golden literature of the British Library

Golden literature of the British Library



Average reading time — 3 minutes


There can be few people who have ever seen a medieval Bible and not looked in awe at the rich decorations inside and out. Is there a special meaning in this luxury or is it just a demonstration of the wealth of the owners and the talent of jewelers? The answer to the question could be found by the visitors of the exhibition Gold at the British Library.


Unique art objects

The exhibition was held in London from May to October 2022. The organizers were able to gather a large collection of publications and manuscripts from around the world to demonstrate the wide range of uses of gold. This a material from which not just jewelry was made. This status metal was a sign of power and authority. For example, during the reign of the last emperor of the Latin Empire, Baldwin II, the traditional royal wax seal was replaced by the gold one. This was supposed to demonstrate the inviolability of the power of the monarch.

In addition to the seal, the exposition presented a variety of artifacts made of the royal metal: a long (comparable in volume to a book) “letter” to King Richard II, editions of the Gospel and Koran (Qur'an or Quran), diplomatic documents, manuscripts, ritual writing, gold plates with Buddhist chants (V-VI century) and much more.

Visitors of the exhibition could be convinced that each of the world’s cultures appreciated the noble metal and used it to create important documents.


Guess what it is

Among the most unusual objects of the exposition was a two-meter gold scroll (XVII century). The scroll, twisted like a clock spring, is made of a two-meter sheet of gold, which records a treaty concluded between the ruler of Kozhikode (a state located in the south of modern India) and the Dutch East India company. It is surprising that such an artifact has survived to this day, as it was easy to melt it down and reuse the metal.


In the photo: a treaty which was written on a two-meter sheet.


In the photo: gold plates with Buddhist chants of the 5th-6th centuries.


Expensive pleasure

The Harley Golden Gospels, written in the early ninth century, possibly at the court of Charlemagne, or the Quran of Sultan Baybars, written in gold ink, are magnificent examples of religious books, decorated extremely luxuriously. The use of the precious metal in their design may seem wasteful to a modern person: at the time when most of the books presented in the exhibition were created, gold was literally the metal of kings. Why wasting it on a book then?

There is a simple explanation. In the Middle Ages, the cost of producing any illustrated book was prohibitively high. The edition, the pages of which were made of parchment, specially treated leather, was written and designed entirely by hand, lavishly decorated with precious stones and ivory, miniatures (illuminated manuscripts), painted capital initials and marginalia (drawings and marks made in the margins of a book or a document). Craftsmen needed a lot of time — years and even decades — to create unique works of art.

Against this background, adding gold — in the form of ink or decorations of the riza — did not really increase the cost of books and was considered the norm. The medieval book was a value, the possession of which was available only to monarchs, especially wealthy nobility and the highest clergy. For a king or sultan, a book was as important and status item as a sword or crown.


In the photo: The Koran of the XIV century, which belonged to Sultan Baybars, is written in gold ink.


Yesterday and today

However, let’s get back to modern days. Books with a “gold” edge or “gold” binding are available in bookstores. But real gold is more often used in computers and consumer electronics as an important part of the chip. A whole industry for the extraction of precious metals from obsolete technology has emerged. Computers are modern tools that, like books, contain information. Perhaps in the future there will be an exhibition dedicated to new artifacts, namely computers, and the precious metal inside them.

At all times, gold remains a noble metal that faithfully serves humanity in various fields and therefore enjoys great respect and universal recognition. Its reliability has been tested by time, and its bewitching splendor does not fade away even after centuries and millennia.


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