Wearable Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Manuscripts & Turned Them into Clothes

I like old news­pa­per, smooth­ing it out to read about what was hap­pen­ing on the day an old­er rel­a­tive packed away the good crys­tal or some oth­er frag­ile tchotchke.

Trav­el­ing in India, I dug how the snacks I pur­chased to eat on the train came wrapped in old book pages. When my trav­el­ing com­pan­ion real­ized he had lost his jour­nal, there was com­fort in know­ing that it would be rein­car­nat­ed as cones to hold deli­cious chana jor garam.

Tak­ing a thrift store frame apart, I was thrilled to dis­cov­er that behind the pre­vi­ous own­ers kit­tens in a bas­ket print lurked a home­made Moth­er’s Day card from the 40’s and a cal­en­dar page that not­ed the date some­one named David quit drink­ing. (I sent it along to Found Mag­a­zine.)

What I would­n’t give to stum­ble upon a dress lined with a 13th-cen­tu­ry man­u­script. Or a bishop’s miter stiff­ened with racy 13th-cen­tu­ry Norse love poet­ry!

Appar­ent­ly, it’s a rich tra­di­tion, putting old pages to good use, once they start feel­ing like they’ve out­lived their intend­ed pur­pose. The bish­op like­ly did­n’t know the specifics on the mate­r­i­al that made his hat stand up. I’ll bet the  sis­ters of the Ger­man Cis­ter­cian con­vent where the dress above orig­i­nat­ed were more con­cerned with the out­ward appear­ance of the gar­ments they were stitch­ing for their wood­en stat­ues than the not-for-dis­play lin­ing.

As Dutch art his­to­ri­an Erik Kwakkel explains on his medieval­frag­ments blog, the inven­tion of the Guten­berg press demot­ed scads of hand­writ­ten text to more pro­le­tar­i­an pur­pose. Ulti­mate­ly, it’s not as grim as it sounds:

the dis­mem­bered books were to have a sec­ond life: they became trav­el­ers in time, stow­aways… with great and impor­tant sto­ries to tell. Indeed, sto­ries that may oth­er­wise not have sur­vived, giv­en that clas­si­cal and medieval texts fre­quent­ly only come down to us in frag­men­tary form. The ear­ly his­to­ry of the Bible as a book could not be writ­ten if we were to throw out frag­ment evi­dence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

Dutch Book From 1692 Doc­u­ments Every Col­or Under the Sun: A Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­ors

Archive of Hand­writ­ten Recipes (1600 – 1960) Will Teach You How to Stew a Calf’s Head and More

The British Library Puts Online 1,200 Lit­er­ary Trea­sures From Great Roman­tic & Vic­to­ri­an Writ­ers

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er and the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of The East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (4)
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  • Kevin Westerman says:

    Best avoid The Ragged Trousered Phil­an­thropist, should the trend return

  • Astrid Beckers says:

    The dress is for a statue,they were often dressed dur­ing feasts.

  • hildagarde von bingo says:

    There IS a lit­er­a­cy quo­tient

  • Bergamot says:

    I used to have a dec­o­ra­tive Japan­ese doll sim­i­lar to one of the silk-faced lady dolls pop­u­lar in the 70s (prob­a­bly made around the same era, too). She was frag­ile and fell apart at last, which is when I dis­cov­ered her limbs were all made from old Japan­ese news­pa­pers wrapped around a wire frame. While I could­n’t read the con­tents, they were dat­ed from 1945. I’ve nev­er been able to stop won­der­ing what kind of his­to­ry might have been writ­ten on those pages, and how they came to be part of a doll.

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