Students Discover the Oldest Book at the NDSU Library
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 15:10
It all started with a bet, and a mutual fascination with books and history, of course.
There are very few greater treasure hunts than the search for something interesting to read. But as Jack and I randomly perused the shelves in search of one such book, we came up with a game to narrow our options -- to see who could find the oldest book in 10 minutes.
After our brief game turned up a series of volumes from 1783, we became even more curious: How old was the oldest book in the NDSU library system?
We are both competitive people, and as soon as I asked the question, we immediately wagered our guesses. I thought the oldest book would be from between 1650 and 1700, Jack thought from 1750 to 1783. He scribbled an official bet down on paper, and suddenly five whole dollars were on the line. It was time to get serious.
Instead of randomly searching every shelf (a futile act, as we would later discover), we decided that this was a question that would take some inquiry to answer. Jack and I were fortunate to run into Nicole Mason (Agricultural and Biological Sciences Librarian) at the reference desk that day, as her own inquisitive nature was really what got our question answered.
Her curiosity piqued, Mason had us give her our email addresses and said she would email us when she found an answer. After some searching, Mason contacted Jennifer Fairall, Digital Initiatives & Metadata Librarian, who then went about the task.
“Basically, I created a list of books for all of our locations and then sorted those lists by date to find the oldest book,” Fairall said.
Finally, after 10 days of waiting, we got a response: The oldest book was from 1627 -- I had won the bet!
In the email, Mason told us the title of the book: “The Government of Cattell.” Suddenly more questions arose in our minds. What was Cattell? Neither of us had ever heard of a country by such a name. Had we inadvertently uncovered an ancient book on the governing practices of a lost culture?
“I was excited to discover the subject since it fits into one of my subject areas. I now want to take a closer look and read through some -- if not all -- of it someday,” Mason said.
Although our bet was finished, Jack and I knew that our search was not yet over. There were more critical issues than money at stake here: a possibly lost book, a trove of knowledge and our own sanity should we leave the mystery hanging.
We also found out that reviewing every shelf of the library would have left us with an incorrect answer to the “oldest book question” because the book in question was in the library’s storage annex. At the reference desk again, Mason showed us how to request a book from the annex, and before long the text was ours to behold! What wonders would this antiquarian tomb contain?
What seemed like a narrative about a little-known civilization was actually a veterinary handbook concerning the many ailments afflicting farm animals. Cattell is actually an old world spelling of the word “cattle.” Now it all made sense -- of course a former agricultural college would have a book about the afflictions of cattle.
“Since we are the library of a land grant institution, where a very large portion of research and education is in the area of agriculture, I can see why we would retain this item,” Mason said.
Paging through Leonard Mascal’s “The Government of Cattell” made for an intriguing, though difficult, read. Not only was the print like that of old world calligraphy, but each letter “s” was written in its long form style, resembling an “f” without a cross through it.
With hundreds of cases, from “red water of the sheepe” to “scabs of the oxen’s muzzle,” Mascal’s handbook offered treatments for a myriad of livestock ailments. Besides these countless afflictions and cures making for an interesting read, the marks left by previous owners also added a characteristic flair to the ancient handbook.
One of the first pages is evidence of just that: “James came across this the 18 of August.” Whoever James was or may have been we will never know, but his trace has been left in the book for all time.
Another man, Thomas Herbert, wrote that he bought Mascal’s handbook on Mar. 14, 1649. Several pencil drawings have also been made on the same page as Herbert’s message. Having seen five centuries, NDSU’s copy of “The Government of Cattell” has no doubt had countless other owners over the past 385 years.
Besides who once owned the book, the identity of the author is also intriguing. Leonard Mascal was an expert in the field of husbandry. He penned several books on various subjects concerning animals and farm labor before his death in 1589, which continued to be printed for decades afterwards. Some of his works continue to be printed today.
A fine example of 17th Century literature, Mascal’s “The Government of Cattell” was not what we expected to find at the end of our hunt for NDSU’s oldest library book. Though an exciting and somewhat whimsical read, it is not as useful as it once was due to veterinary advances in the past centuries.
For now, Mascal’s handbook is just something to page through and wonder about. As to how it got from a London printing press in 1627 to a North Dakota research university, we can only guess.