Category Archives: Damage

Stamp of Approval: A Paper Snippet and the Spanish Inquisition

This blog entry focuses on a book fragment I encountered in Leiden University Library earlier this week while studying twelfth-century material with my research team. As discussed in an earlier blog, after the invention of printing many handwritten books from the medieval period were cut up to be recycled for use in bookbindings, for example to support the bookblock as seen here. Cutting up printed books was a far more infrequent practice, it seems; rare even. This is in part, of course, because such books were made of paper, a much more fragile material than the parchment sheets from medieval books, and therefore less suitable for holding together a bookbinding. This is the story of such a rare printed fragment. And what a story it is!

According to an accompanying library note, the fragment in question (as well as two other cuttings from the same book) were used to support the binding of a bible printed in Antwerp in 1614. All three of them contain traces of binder’s glue. They are the remains of a Dutch book that clarified the Latin Mass, given such phrases as “When the priest receives the Holy Sacrament, and what it means.”

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254, unnumbered fragments (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

A mere glance at the fragments reveals a most remarkable feature: they were never part of an actual book. If you look carefully, you notice how part of the text can be read as it is shown in the image, while another part can only be read if you turn the page 180 degrees. In other words, the fragments are parts of sheets that were uncut and unfolded. Come again? A printed sheet of paper coming off the press usually consisted of two, four or even eight pages on the one side, and as many on the other. When both sides were printed the sheet was folded into a quire, the building block of the book. That never happened in this case, likely because the sheet was rejected by the printer and thrown in the proverbial bin – after which it was likely sold to a bookbinder and recycled as waste paper. Uncut printed sheets were rare at the time, but even rarer today. Fortune has it that I recently encountered another specimen, kept in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington (check out this blog I wrote about it).

Washington, Folger Library, STC 25004 c. 2
Washington, Folger Library, STC 25004 c. 2 (binding waste): uncut sheet from a 16th-century print shop (Photo: Folger)

The Leiden fragments are also special for another reason – one that sheds light on early-modern book culture in a different way. Note how the smallest snippet contains a brief section printed in a slightly larger typeface (see image below). It reads: “This book may be printed for the greater good of Christians” (“Dit Boecxken magh tot grooter oorboor der Christenen gedruckt worden.”) This intriguing colophon-like message has nothing to do with the contents as such, but reflects the book as an object. In what was likely the last page of the book, it tells the potential buyer that it was safe to purchase this book. Underneath it we read, in a different typeface: “Valtherus vander Stegen Canon. Antverp.” [Walterus vander Stegen, Canon in Antwerp]. What gives?

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254 (fragment 1 of 3).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254, fragment 1 of 3, detail (Photo: Erik Kwakkel).

The name at the bottom forms the key to unlocking the mystery of this message. Walter van der Stegen (d. 1588) was canon at Antwerp cathedral and a member of the Inquisition. In that capacity he checked what printers were printing. He is known, for example, from the correspondence of the Antwerp printing house Plantin Moretus, with whom Van der Stegen was befriended (more about this here, at page 114; and here). As representative of the Inquisitor, Van der Stegen would give his blessing to certain editions, while making sure others did not see the light of day. The words in the Leiden fragment is his stamp of approval, almost literally: it indicates that the production of this particular book was granted by the Inquisition. Such approbations needed to be included in printed books after the Spanish authorities had regained control in the Low Countries. Latin books approved by Van der Stegen carried a Latin variant of the “stamp”. Here is one found in Justus Lipsius’ Collected Works, which bears the heading approbatio (giving approval):

Colophon in Justus Lipsius, Opera omnia (Antwerp: Johannes Moretus, 1600)
Colophon with Vander Stegen’s approval in Justus Lipsius, Opera omnia (Antwerp: Johannes Moretus, 1600)

Thus the tiny fragment and its two siblings bear unexpected evidence of some of the problems encountered by early printers: censorship and the affiliated fuss of seeking and printing Church approval; as well as the complexities of a new medium that involved printing several pages at the same time and on different sides of the paper – producing rejects, from time to time. What I find most astonishing, however, is that one of the three surviving snippets of the lost book should contain the approbation that gave life to the object it was once part of. The Inquisitor would have approved.

I wish to thank Paul Hoftijzer (Leiden) for his input regarding printed approbations.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

A Hidden Medieval Archive Surfaces

On my Tumblr I recently posted two entries devoted to a remarkable discovery made in the Book History class I am co-teaching with Paul Hoftijzer for the Book and Digital Media Studies programme at Leiden University. It concerns 132 notes, letters and receipts from an unidentified court in the Rhine region, jotted on little slips of paper. They were hidden inside the binding of a book printed in 1577, which is part of the Bibliotheca Thysiana, a seventeenth-century library in Leiden, established by Johannes Thysius (d. 1653). The gems were discovered by during our class while students were systematically going through the binding remains in the library. The tiny slips made headlines in Dutch and Belgian printed media and featured in a popular news show on Dutch national radio. Why are they so special?

The hidden archive and the bookbinding it came from
The hidden archive and the bookbinding it came from

The slips are first of all remarkable simply because such small written objects rarely survive from medieval society. Due to their limited dimensions they tend to fall in between the proverbial cracks of the transmission process. There are few places where such objects can slumber undisturbed for centuries. Their low survival rate is also connected, however, to the fact that they were meant to be thrown out after use. In fact, this is what actually happened, although through the process an early-modern bookbinder unintentionally saved them. When a printed book from 1577 was to be fitted with its binding, the binder grabbed the 132 paper slips from his equivalent of a blue recycling bin and moulded them, likely wet, into cardboard boards. This is when their long journey to our modern period started, as stowaways hitchhiking on sixteenth-century printed matter. Thysius bought the volume second-hand and had likely no idea of the hidden treasures it contained.

Title page of book that contained the archive
Title page of the book that contained the archive

The collection also stands out because of its sheer size. As I briefly explained in an earlier blog, recycling medieval written material was a frequent occurrence in the workshop of early-modern (as well as medieval) binders. However, the very high volume of leaves the binder used is exceptional. What is so striking about the paper slips is that they tell us everyday things that we normally rarely hear about in historical sources. Take the note from 4 December 1461 sent to a chamberlain by a steward, asking “Could you please send me 6 guilders, because we need it?” It concerns internal mail from within the unknown household, likely delivered by a servant: the back reveals a fold and the designation “chamberlain”. We can almost hear him dash through the house, note in hand. A number of slips are receipts from payments: for work done by a carpenter, for the purchase of wheat for the horses of guests, and alike. Messages like these bring us as close to real medieval society as you can get. They are the medieval voices we normally don’t hear, that tell the story of what happened “on the ground”.

Note from stewart to chamberlain (front)
Note from steward to chamberlain (front)
Note from stewart to chamberlain (back)
Note from steward to chamberlain (back)

My favorite slip is a tiny note written by (or on behalf of) Count Philip (d. 1508), who held court near the river Rhine. On 31 May 1486 he sent his servant to Heidelberg with a most charming request. “Could you please get me some wild roses?”, he writes, adding “But make sure to also include some that are not yet flowering.” It is a small miracle that we still have this 527-year-old paper slip, which is the equivalent of our yellow sticky note. (How many post-it notes do you keep after use?) Judging from the back, where we encounter part of a seal and an address, the note was cut from a letter. In other words, the paper used for this request was recycled twice: once in 1486, when the note was written; and once in 1577, when it was made into a board for a bookbinding.

Note from 1461 requesting for wild roses
Note from 1486 requesting for wild roses

That such a twice-recycled object still exists and that it provides such detailed information about real people asking for real things, turns the archive into both a valuable medieval source and an exciting object to work with. Holding the request for wild roses in your hand really makes you think about how the flowers will have been used, who looked at them, and what conversations were held in the room where they were placed. Students will continue to hunt for fragments in Bibliotheca Thysiana and one of them will write his MA thesis on the hidden archive. The voices it contains will hopefully be allowed to speak more and louder.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Hidden Treasure, or How Destruction Creates Beautiful Things

If you have worked with medieval or early-modern books you will likely have encountered them: tiny pieces of medieval parchment sticking out of bindings, and parts of manuscript leaves glued to the inside of boards. This hidden treasure is what makes handling pre-modern books in their original bindings so thrilling and addictive.

Such fragments of medieval manuscripts form a most useful research object for the historian of the book, and, indeed, for the historian of human communication. They are the heavily damaged remains of objects that do not survive because they were cut up to be used as binding support. 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: like cars at a scrap yard, their bodies were mutilated and diminished until nothing was left. It is not easy to cut up parchment quires, but judging from the evidence staring at us through the cracks in the leather today, book binders excelled at it.

Middle Dutch fragment in binding

And bless their hearts for persisting! Rather than disappearing into the pots and pans of glue makers, the dismembered books were to have a second life: they became 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! (But look at me now…)”

The frequent emergence of new fragments and the importance of their contribution to the history of medieval text and book production prompts the exciting question of what else may be out there for us to discover? It is thus important to take these damaged goods seriously and describe the fragments in as much detail as one would with a full manuscript. 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. Nevertheless, they are thrilling experiences, and great tools for getting others, including the public at large, inspired. Next week the department where I teach, Book and Digital Media Studies at the University of Leiden, is taking 15 students to Rolduc Abbey, where dozens of fragments have emerged (including those pictured here). Whatever the outcome of our work on these remains will be, it will surely be a most satisfying experience.

Hebrew fragment peeking through a hole

So while we might feel sorry for all those cows that died in vain, on the whole, the knife of the binder created beautiful things: sources that can add significantly to our understanding of medieval text culture as well as very effective ambassadors for the intriguing object that is the medieval codex. To the fragment we say: “Live long and prosper!”

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.