When Medieval Manuscripts Were Recycled & Used to Make the First Printed Books

“Old paint on a can­vas, as it ages, some­times becomes trans­par­ent,” play­wright Lil­lian Hell­man observed in Pen­ti­men­to, the sec­ond vol­ume of her mem­oirs. “When that hap­pens it is pos­si­ble, in some pic­tures, to see the orig­i­nal lines: a tree will show through a wom­an’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea.”

Sev­en years ago, some­thing sim­i­lar start­ed hap­pen­ing with thou­sands of old books, dat­ing from the 15th to 19th cen­tu­ry.

Age, how­ev­er, did­n’t force these vol­umes to spill their secrets…at least not direct­ly.

That hon­or goes to macro X‑ray flu­o­res­cence spec­trom­e­try (MA-XRF) and Erik Kwakkel, a book his­to­ri­an who the­o­rized that this tech­nol­o­gy might reveal medieval man­u­script frag­ments hid­den in the bind­ings of new­er texts, much as it had ear­li­er revealed hid­den lay­ers of paint on Old Mas­ter can­vas­es.

How did this strange “hid­den library” come to be?

Books were high­ly prized objects when man­u­scripts were copied by hand, but as Kwakkel notes on his medieval­books blog, “thou­sands and thou­sands of medieval man­u­scripts were torn apart, ripped to pieces, boiled, burned, and stripped for parts” upon the advent of the print­ing press.

Their pages were pressed into ser­vice as toi­let paper, bukram-like cloth­ing stiff­en­ers, book­marks, and, most tan­ta­liz­ing to a medieval book spe­cial­ist, bind­ing sup­port for print­ed books.

This prac­tice was so com­mon that the bind­ings of near­ly 150 ear­ly print­ed books in the Yale Law Library are known to con­tain pieces of medieval man­u­scripts.

These mate­ri­als may have been down­grad­ed in the lit­er­ary sense, but to Kwakkel they are “trav­el­ers in time, stow­aways in leather cas­es 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. More­over, while ancient and medieval texts sur­vive in many hand­some books from before the age of print, quite often the old­est wit­ness­es are frag­ments. At the very least a frag­ment tells you that a cer­tain text was avail­able at a cer­tain loca­tion at a cer­tain time. Step­ping out of their leather time cap­sules after cen­turies of dark­ness, frag­ments are “blips” on the map of Europe, express­ing “I exist­ed, I was used by a read­er in tenth-cen­tu­ry Italy!”

A few lines of a muti­lat­ed text can often be suf­fi­cient to iden­ti­fy it, as well as the loca­tion and gen­er­al tim­ing of its cre­ation:

That said, it is not easy to make sense of the remains. Binders seem to have par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed slic­ing text columns in half, as if they knew how to frus­trate future researchers best. Iden­ti­fy­ing what works these unful­fill­ing quotes come from can be a night­mare. Dat­ing and local­iz­ing the remains can cause insom­nia.

Pri­or to Kwakkel’s high tech exper­i­ments at Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty, mod­ern researchers had to con­fine them­selves to acci­dents, as when, say, an old book’s spine cracks, reveal­ing the con­tents with­in.

Macro X‑ray flu­o­res­cence spec­trom­e­try turns out to be well equipped to detect the iron, cop­per and zinc of medieval inks beneath a lay­er of paper or parch­ment.

But it does so at a pace that might not knock a medieval scribe’s socks off.

Pro­duc­ing a leg­i­ble scan of what lurks beneath a sin­gle vol­ume’s spine can require as much as 24 hours, and expen­sive and time con­sum­ing propo­si­tion.

With thou­sands of these bind­ings hid­ing so close to the sur­face in col­lec­tions as mas­sive as the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian, be pre­pared to remain on your ten­ter­hooks for the fore­see­able future.

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via Messy Nessy 

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Medieval Book That Opens Six Dif­fer­ent Ways, Reveal­ing Six Dif­fer­ent Books in One

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Cats in Medieval Man­u­scripts & Paint­ings

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Join her in New York City on Novem­ber 11 to cre­ate a col­lab­o­ra­tive Kurt Von­negut Cen­ten­ni­al fanzine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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