Rolduc_Abbey_Library_Fragment_2

Destroying Medieval Books – And Why That’s Useful

Old furniture, broken cups, worn-out shoes and stinky mattresses: we don’t think twice about throwing things out that we don’t need anymore. And books? Here things are a bit different. Apart from the fact that you may find it morally abject to throw out a book, that noble carrier of ideas, the object retains its economic value much longer than many other man-made things. Old and worn books will usually have a second – third, fourth or fifth – life in them, for example on the shelves of the secondhand bookstore. Indeed, old age may even increase their value dramatically, as visitors of book auctions will know.

The final curtain call of any book, including medieval ones, is when its content is no longer deemed correct, valid, or useful. Between the end of the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century thousands and thousands of medieval manuscripts were torn apart, ripped to pieces, boiled, burned, and stripped for parts. While these atrocities were undertaken to various ends, the ultimate explanation for this literary genocide is the same: the old-fashioned parchment book had run its course. It was forced to bow and leave the stage, where the printed book was now stealing the show. This post sheds light on a dark chapter of wilful destruction – which came with surprising benefits for the culprits.

Culprit 1: The Bookbinder

15th-century fragment inside bookbinding (Rolduc Abbey library) - Photo EK
Fig. 1 – 15th-century fragment inside bookbinding (Rolduc Abbey library) – Photo EK

If you have followed my blogs – both here and on Tumblr – you known I have a soft spot for so-called manuscript “fragments”. Ranging from small snippets no larger than your pinky to full leaves, they were the product of the knives of bookbinders. When Gutenberg invented moving type, handwritten books became old-fashioned overnight. All over Europe they subsequently became the victims of recycling at the hands of binders, who cut them into pieces and pasted them inside bookbindings, where they often still remain. And so we encounter a little strip from a medieval Dutch Bible glued to the inside of a sixteenth-century binding (Fig. 1); and snippets from a medieval Hebrew text peeping out of a damaged binding (pic at the top). These examples show how medieval books were mutilated and stripped for parts, like cars at a scrap yard. Thousands of them disappeared this way – though fortunately not without a trace.

Culprit 2: The Tailor

Copenhagen, Den Arnamagnæanske Samling AM 666 b 4to (13th century)
Fig. 2 – Copenhagen, Arnamagnæanske Samling AM 666 b 4to (13th century)

The strength and durability of parchment made medieval pages ideal for supporting bookbindings. Tailors loved to recycle the material for the same reason. The pages in Fig. 2 form the lining of a bishop’s mitre, to which a layer of cloth was subsequently pasted. The practice is observed in other mitres as well (two examples are mentioned in the comments at the bottom of this blog). What’s really remarkable about the lining seen above is not so much that the poor bishop had a bunch of hidden medieval pages on his head, but that they were cut from a Norwegian translation of Old French love poetry (so-called lais). Lovers were chasing each other through dark corridors, maidens were frolicking in the fields, knights were butchering each other over nothing. All the while the oblivious bishop was performing the rites of the Holy Mass.

Dress made in Cistercian abbey of Wienhausen, Germany
Fig. 3 – Dress made in Cistercian abbey of Wienhausen, Germany – Source

There are other examples where tailors (I’m putting mitre makers under this label for convenience) used leaves from medieval manuscripts to “stiffen” the cloth. Dr. Lähnemann, chair of German Studies at Newcastle University, has identified several such cloth items with hidden content in her work. An unusual case is seen in Fig. 3: a dress made in the late fifteenth century by Cistercian nuns in Wienhausen, Germany. It was not meant to be worn by people, however, but to be draped around a statue in the convent. It’s not unlike doll’s clothes you pick up in the toy store today, except that the remains of a Latin text are hidden inside.

Culprit 3: The Scribe
And then there were the scribes. Surrounded by used books and with a pen knife in their hand, makers of medieval books were bound to do some damage. There are several ways in which old pages could be put to good use in the monastic scriptorium or library. You can make bookmarks out of them, as I have shown in a recent post (here). A more hidden way of recycling concerns the so-called palimpsest, where the words were scraped off a page after which a new text was copied down on it. In the early Middle Ages entire books were palimpsested. There was a definite upside to this practice from the scribe’s point of view. It gave him, without effort, a pile of parchment to fill with something new: it allowed him to cut corners without having to cut corners, so to speak (Fig. 4).

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 64 Weiss. (9th century)
Fig. 4 – Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 64 Weiss. (9th century) – Source

There was a downside as well. As seen in Fig. 4, the scraped away lower text never fully disappeared from sight: it tended to pop up unexpectedly throughout the new book. While the text at the forefront (the upper text) of this spectacular manuscript dates from the eight century, what’s hidden underneath it is much older. To produce this manuscript a fifth-century copy of Paul to the Romans was palimpsested, as well as parts of a sixth-century Gospel Book in Greek uncial letters (the blue text that is shining through).

The last words: the joys of destruction
While it is a thrill to look for bits and pieces of medieval text inside a bookbinding or below the surface of a page, destroying books – especially medieval ones – is bad. However, the cases of recycling shown here also point out how very useful the second life of the manuscript could be. To medieval scribes and post-medieval binders and tailors it must have been a joy to have piles of recyclable parchment books at their disposal. Moreover, to speak as an optimist, their slicing and dicing is proving most useful. Thanks to the destructive practices in the past we at least have some pages or strips left from given manuscripts – which would otherwise have completely disappeared. Seeing a few lines is often enough to identify a text and determine when and where it was copied. In this way fragments become blips on the radar: they add, often significantly, to the study of medieval literary and scholarly culture. While destroying medieval books is bad, it is most useful to have their sorry remains.

Note – More about fragments in bookbindings in this and this post. Take a closer look at a palimpsest here. More on using manuscripts in textiles here.

22 thoughts on “Destroying Medieval Books – And Why That’s Useful”

  1. Didn’t know about using parchment as interfacing but I can see that it would work really well.
    Destroying books still slightly shocking even with mass-production – I used to do a children’s activity which involved tearing a book apart and was always amused by their frisson of horror at a grown-up doing such a thing 🙂 (Should say: I used pretty nasty books.)

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  2. I would bet that mitre-maker knew what he was doing when he lined the Bishop’s hat with that particular fragment. Even today bookbinders often leave tells inside a book (a signature or message under a paste down, etc.). I love finding manuscript fragments when books come to the conservation lab. Finding these evidences of thrift connects me to the binders of a few hundred years ago and makes me realize that there are some things that haven’t changed over the centuries.

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  3. Your blog is always fascinating and a joy to read!
    I love the thought of the Bishop performing his duties with tales of passion and romance wrapped around his head! Do you think the tailor was fully aware of the joke?

    Many thanks for this and all your posts Lucy

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  4. Really interesting post-It sent me scurrying to look at some of my art journals -yep I have incorporated pages and snippets into previous art work. Sometimes you have to destroy to create! I love how your blogs/ posts are helping me ‘re-find’ so much . Thank you

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