What would you pay for a secondhand book in a language you couldn't read? It's lost its cover and several pages. There are holes where it's been partly burned and chewed by rodents, scribbles in the margins and stains of various kinds. And if you bid anything less than £1,000,000, you'd be way off the mark.
The book in question is the Exeter Book, written in 970, which makes it the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. That it survived at all is something of a miracle. It was given to the library at Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, but they pretty soon forgot how to read it. It's been used as a cutting board, a press for gold leaf and a stand for a gluepot, and in the Civil War it was turfed out with the whole library and offered for sale in the cathedral yard. If a local physician hadn't hidden the books until it was safe to return them, they would all have been lost.
Now, it is kept in a climate-controlled repository, and brought out once a month for the public to view. It felt like a kind of pilgrimage going to see it; a small homage to the shrine of literacy. And what's inside? A series of poems and some elaborate riddles; a small sample of what people were reading at the time - or, more likely, what they were reciting to each other. Very few were able to read, and those who could read and write usually wrote in Latin. It's likely that the author - whose name we will never know - was a collector of stories, an editor rather than a writer. But that doesn't matter at all. Whether we re-tell old tales or present them as all our own work, we're following a long and honourable tradition. And it may be a challenging time to try for publication, but we don't have to prepare the parchment, make the ink and the pens, write painstakingly by candlelight, and then bind the whole thing in calfskin. It's good to be reminded.