(Below, "MS" stands for "manuscript." Not "Microsoft." And "MSS" means "manuscripts.")
Recently for the very first time I read a MS written before the age of printing: a 12th-century MS of Sallust's Cataline Conspiracy and Jugurthian War. Not just looking at a reproduction -- there are many photographs of old MSS on the Internet, and more than a few in the books I've read. Mostly in newer edition of the texts -- and not just looking at a very old book or scroll in a glass case. No, I was allowed to touch this very old book -- very carefully, of course, and every one who examines old MSS such as this is required to wash his or her hands first -- and turn all the pages. The pages were no more than 9 by 6 inches, a large octavio or small quatro, a bit of a surprise. I guess I was used to seeing huge folio volumes in the aforementioned glass cases and in dramatic reenactments of medieval scholarship. I thought perhaps this copy of Sallust might be contained in one of those old backbreakers along with many other texts. But no, the whole book was Sallust. I had also expected the vellum to be much thicker. (It was the first time I had ever touched vellum or parchment.) These pages did not feel thicker than paper. There were 70-some leafs in the volume, and the stack of them was not much thicker than an inch, if that. I don't think the cover was the original one, but that should in no way be confused with an expert opinion. If it's the original cover it's remarkably intact. It's somewhat uneven and lumpy and fashioned from an indeterminate light-colored substance, and along its spine the volume's title is written in a hand resembling that inside.
The handwriting was small, apart from a very ornate and colorful capital o, about an inch in circumference, blue and green and much gold that looked as if it had to be actual gold, beginning Sallust's text. In the margins were many notes in various hands, much too small for me to have been able to read them had I not had a large magnifying glass. Turning the pages, I was reminded that neither the word "bookworm" nor "wormhole" had begun as a figure of speech, that their original meanings were quite literal.
I asked the librarian on duty whether anyone was there who knew a lot about these sorts of MSS. Very soon after starting to examine it I had many questions: Would the condition of this MS be considered good or poor or average compared to that of 12th-century manuscripts generally? Was the amount of marginal notes unusually large? Had this particular MS been used in the making of any editions? The librarian said no, no one expert in that particular field was there at the moment. A little later, however, she very kindly brought to my table a folder of materials, mostly letters, relating to the manuscript; she said I might find some of these items interesting. Oh yes, I did. There was a letter from the 1920's written by the man who owned the MS then, saying that he had received an offer of over $4000 dollars for it, but would rather see it end up in a public collection than in private hands, and was therefore prepared to accept a lower offer from the library. I don't remember the lower figure he suggested, but it was still several thousand dollars. There was a letter from L D Reynolds in Oxford from the 1980's, when he was preparing his edition of Sallust,asking whether the library could send him a microfilm copy of this MS, and a reply from a librarian who didn't flatly refuse the request, but expressed concern that microfilming might damage the MS. I don't know whether anything was eventually worked out so that Reynolds could see the MS or an image of it, but I have a copy of his edition, published in 1991 by Oxford Classical Texts, and I don't recall any mention of it in his preface or notes.
There was one document from the early 20th or late 19th century, describing the MS as 11th-century, and then another disputing this opinion and advancing very strongly the view that it was written in the 12th-century. I know very little about dating MSS. For now I'm accepting more or less on blind faith that scholars know what they're talking about when they assign dates to MSS. However, I have noticed that many of them, from late antiquity to the High Middle Ages -- between the 3rd and 14th centuries, roughly -- are now dated a century or so later than they were a century ago. This MS is typical of those many in that regard. Look at the siglia in editions of ancient Latin texts made before 1920, and then at editions of the same texts made after 1960, I doubt that you'll have to examine many volumes before you see a manuscript dated a century later after 1960 than it was before 1920. I can't recall a single instance of an old manuscript's generally-accepted date being revised as older. [PS, 15 July 2015: Since writing this post I have seen so many examples of manuscripts' dates being revised as older that I can't say any longer that it seems less common to me than dates being revised as more recent. Nota bene, I am still not be confused with an expert.]
Let us assume that this MS of Sallust really was written in the 12th century, and most of the marginal notes very soon after the body of text, as the catalog and the documents in the folder assert. That is what I was assuming as I was examining it. And very quickly I became quite overwhelmed at the thought. The 12th century, I said to myself. When Baldwin I through Baldwin IV and others were the Kings of Jerusalem. When William of Tyre, tutor of the leprous Baldwin IV, wrote his history of the Crusades.When Saladin eventually retook Jerusalem for Islam. I neglected to note where the MS had been written. Probably by a monk. Perhaps in Germany or France, or northern Italy. Surely the deeds accomplished beyond the sea, the great battles of Christian against Moslem in the Holy Land, must have been among the great news and excitement of the day. The monk who copied out Sallust's histories of Cataline's conspiracy and of Rome's war against Jugurtha, who began each sentence with a red letter and who painted that lovely ornate capital o at the beginning of Sallust's reports, with blue and green and gold twisting to look like coils of rope inside the o's circle -- was this monk swept up by the excitement about the Crusades? Or was he skeptical, and disturbed by all the bloodshed and fanaticism? (Or was it not a monk who wrote this? Or not a he? Very likely it was either a monk or a nun, it was what a lot of them did and few others at the time did anything of the sort.) If someone felt inwardly distanced from all this Christian fervor -- outwardly expressed distance would have been very reckless -- what could he do but study old grumpy "pagans" such as Sallust? Or perhaps he, or possibly she, was a fervent supporter of the wars in the east, and saw parallels between them and ancient Rome's struggles against the wicked troublemaker Cataline and against the African king Jugurtha?
What would he think of me writing about his MS on this computor, on this website? Was he scientifically inclined, would he be delighted to see such things, quick to grasp how they function, or would he feel nothing but shock and terror, convinced that we were all demons and witches? Will anyone read Steven Runciman 850 years from now? How much will books and means of writing change between now and then? Will Latin finally really be dead? I certainly hope not. No, certainly not. Recently I had an idea for a dystopian movie screenplay, depicting a near future where the study of history will have virtually died out, and no one will be able to read anything written more than a couple of centuries in the past. And where a Quixotic hero puts himself at some risk by inquiring into such things. Perhaps the study of Latin and Greek would actually be banned by the authorities.
It might be fun to write something like that as a satire of certain stupid present tendencies. I don't think we're headed toward such a dystopia. Not all of us, anyway. But then again, I live near the campus of one of the greatest universities in the world, which may make me overly optimistic.