Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tangental, between drafts

This tiny short story is what happens when one spends too much time looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts and reading scholarly exegesis of the same.


The Book of Night

There is a corner of the Cloisters Library, among the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby, where no light shines.


The Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St. Denis, devoted as they were to rooting out heresies, bought manuscripts produced by enemies of the Church in order to study what lies they contained and in order to keep them from the hands of the laity.

Unlike the beautiful gilded manuscripts produced by the Church, most were scrawled by mad ascetics in a crabbed hand with oak gall…except for one. One manuscript, written with minium, illuminated with lead, and smelling of salt and sulfur, was an early alchemical text of unknown authorship titled “The Book of Night.” The masons building the Abbey were greatly distressed when the monks bought this particular codex, for wherever the book was placed, shadow fell and light disappeared, making it impossible for construction to proceed.

The head of the masons’ guild tried to reason with the brothers of the order that this manuscript had no place in God’s house, to no avail. And so the masons took it upon themselves to entomb the book within a false wall and burn the plans that showed where it had been laid. The Benedictines were never again able to find the codex, and this act of rebelliousness sowed the seeds for later discord between Masonic guilds and the Church.


In 1938, the art historian Sumner McKnight Crosby began supervising the excavation of Saint-Denis. Plagued for years by insomnia, he was surprised to find he had less and less trouble sleeping as the work proceeded; and while he had difficulty retaining workers for the delicate work around the crypt, he himself felt oddly at peace, as if this was work he had been born to do.

The world was not at peace, however, and Crosby had to abandon his efforts in the face of the encroaching conflict—but not before he uncovered a hollow wall where light seemed to vanish into velvet blackness. Although he did not speak about what he found, Sumner McKnight Crosby never was troubled by insomnia again.

On those days where the weight of time and scholarship pressed him hard, Professor Crosby would tell his assistants that he wished not to be disturbed.

They’d see the lights dim through the milky glass on his office door, then darken to an inky black. Inside, Crosby would rest for a few endless minutes within a starless, dreamless corner of Night before hiding the instrument of his respite in an old linen sack and returning to the wakeful world.


To this day, if you were to search through the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby at the Cloisters, you would not find all of Professor Crosby's work. There is one archival box too dark to be seen—the box containing “The Book of Night,” its lead illuminations casting an eternal midnight, waiting for another sleepless wanderer.


Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

bless your soul (and read against the black background of your website? alchimie magique.)

Shelly Lowenkopf said...

Ah, some respite brought to my insomniac countenance. Now I have a place to retreat when the world is too much with us late and even later.

Dave said...

This would've made a good qarrtsiluni contribution, methinks.

am said...

"There is one archival box too dark to be seen—the box containing 'The Book of Night, ' . . . "

Wow! There is such generosity in your vivid creative energy. Wonderful to have this story appear as you study illuminated manuscripts. Thanks so much from another who is sleepless at times and who loves stories that witness to places to dark to be seen.

polona said...

i'm glad i discovered this.
a delightful story!