March 13, 2020

Very old snack found in even older book


Cambridge UL: unwittingly accepts cookies (Cambridge University Library / CC BY-SA)

A while ago we reported on the various items that had been used as bookmarks and subsequently found by bemused (and often revulsed) librarians. In the past they’d found bacon, broccoli, banana peel, and even a whole doughnut between the pages (also: reading this back, I am still absolutely baffled by the circular saw blade—I mean, wow).

Now comes an exciting new addition to the increasingly dynamic genre of “food between the pages of books.” Except with this one, we don’t entirely know what it is—or perhaps more accurately, was. Atlas Obscura reported on a story this week that Emily Dourish, deputy keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library, was going about her business when she discovered some form of flat, desiccated foodstuff in a copy of Saint Augustine’s complete works. The offending object looks like a mouldy cookie(?) or perhaps flattened muffin(?), but according to the report, “Dourish admits that the treat was well past easy identification.” (It looks to me like a severely picked-over Eccles cake. But then, I’m no expert, and—crucially—it is almost 200 miles from Eccles to Cambridge)

The book dates from the Renaissance period, published in Switzerland between 1528 and 1529, raising the tantalising possibility that the snack in question may have last been handled by a devout Augustinian friar who, halfway through his elevenses, got distracted by a snippet of particularly delightful birdsong and dropped his confection twixt the leaves of his screed. Could the remains even constitute a … holy relic?

Almost definitely not, it seems, as the report says:

Cambridge [University Library], she writes, acquired the book from a local boy’s school that was founded more than 450 years ago. In 1970, the school donated some 800 historic titles to Cambridge, where “environmentally controlled book storage” can keep older materials in better shape. “We are confident,” she writes, “that our reading room staff would not have allowed someone to drop food into the book while consulting it in this library!” She believes it’s likelier that the snack got lodged in the book during its days at the school, where “it’s quite possible that a schoolboy could have had a snack.”

Whatever it was, it has now been removed and discarded, leaving only “[a] slightly greasy mark.” Which just goes to show: anyone can make their mark on history.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.