Category Archives: Damage

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.