Tag Archives: damage

Dirty Old Books

Most of us have said “I love this book!” at one point or another. However, what we mean by it may differ a great deal. If you are like me, this statement has little to do with how enjoyable a given read is. Instead, it is literally: what a great object I’m holding! The other day I was in Leiden University Library, my stomping grounds, looking at a ninth-century manuscript containing various school texts. I thumbed through its leaves and saw different individuals writing down different texts. I saw readers mumbling over worn pages, interacting with texts, crossing out lines and writing down notes in the margins. And I saw how even later readers had added their own pages with additions. And that is when I heard myself whisper: “I love this book.” To me, this quirky, millennium-old object, with its dirty and heavily used pages, was simply paradise. But what makes these worn manuscripts so attractive – and useful – for the historian of the medieval book?

Reading the Reader
Some medieval books look like they were made yesterday. The pristine page still breaths medieval air, as if its maker has just left the room. It’s not difficult to like this type of manuscript: the excitement when you open it is like entering your brand new car for the first time. Or rather, your brand new vintage car, as most medieval manuscripts are pretty worn. These are used books – and they have often been so for five hundred to a thousand years. Importantly, their wear and tear has a story to tell: medieval users were pragmatic and the traces they left behind tell us a lot about how they used a manuscript.

Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): string-bookmark – Photo EK

For example, a reader may sew a tiny piece of string in the corner of the page (Fig. 1). In fact, this particular manuscript contains many of these make-shift bookmarks, as if the reader was sitting behind the book with needle and thread ready at hand. Bookmarks are great little devices, smart even, as this earlier post shows. Interestingly, they are also quite telling about the popularity of a specific book and in particular which pages were most important – since that is why a reader would like quick access to them.

Dirt is another indicator of frequent use and, in a sense, of a book’s popularity. The same manuscript as in Fig. 1 has a lot of dirt build-up in the folds. There are even leaves from trees encountered from time to time (Fig. 2). It is possible that these acted as environmentally-friendly bookmarks, ultimately helping us to gauge a reader’s interest.

Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): dirt and leaf in fold – Photo EK

A particularly engaging mark of use are instances where a medieval individual introduces himself to you. “Hello my name is Peter,” the inscription Petrus at the bottom of a twelfth-century page seems to express (Fig. 3). The name, written in a hesitant and uneasy fashion, has the look of having been written by a person learning to write, a child perhaps. Given that this book was produced in a monastic environment, we may well be dealing with a novice (a young member of the community) who had just mastered pen and ink. “I can write,” this inscription says. “I am Peter and I can write!”

Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 21 (12th century): marginal inscription – Photo EK

Wear and tear is another way in which the manuscript shows that it was used a lot – that it had been popular among a group of medieval readers. It is not uncommon to see pronounced discolouration at the lower left corner of the page. The dark patches that can sometimes be observed there result from generations of fingers turning the page. Pages with such dirty lower corners usually also turn quite easily, as if the structure of the parchment is loosened up by the repeated turning of pages. Occasionally one encounters a page like the one seen in Fig. 4, which is dirty all over its surface. One wonders how clean the readers’ hands were – also after consulting such a dirty book.

Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, VLF 94 (9th century): dirty page – Photo EK

Use or abuse?
The previous examples have drawn attention to an interesting truism: the more a manuscript was used, the dirtier it became. It appears, interestingly, that medieval readers had a very different attitude towards how one ought to interact with books. I don’t think many readers today would be willing to stab one of their books and insert a string, as seen in Fig. 1. And who would write his or her name on the page in such joyful, large script as the unknown Peter did in Fig. 4? Judging from the high frequency with which medieval readers jotted down notes in the margins, it becomes clear that books were seen as utilitarian objects, which could be treated in any way the reader saw fit. If the clarity of a text increased from having marginal notes written next to it, then the benefit of having those notes there would override any feelings of hesitation produced by having to write in your book.

However, the line between use and abuse is thin. You had to be careful when writing new text in the margins of an existing book, because while the ink was still wet it could easily produce smudges. The reader who annotated the manuscript with Ovid in Fig. 6, wiped out his thought (phrased in Dutch vernacular) by mistake. Peter-Who-Could-Write in Fig. 3 made the same mistake, because his name is also smudged. Peter’s finger must have been really dirty, because the parchment surrounding his name shows a lot of inky stains.

Fig. 5 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 163 (13th century): Dutch note, smudged- Photo EK

There are many examples of medieval manuscripts being a victim of their readers’ abuse. Fortunately for us, some abuses provide clues as to how the book was used. A good example of this is the manuscript page seen in Fig. 6, which shows a law manuscript with candle wax dripped all over the text – note the big yellow blob. It is not difficult to see a medieval student at work, late at night, perhaps studying for his exam the next day. It is dark and the only light is artificial: a candle. However, using a candle is risky, especially when you are trying to read a tiny note that is written in the between the lines: drip.

Fig. 6 – Liverpool, Sydney Jones Library, MS 4.20 (13th century): candle wax – Photo EK

Dirt and other undesired elements on the page are very frequently encountered and the examples here show how they can be evidence of how the reader interacted with the manuscript. From time to time, however, rather than showing negligence or carelessness, human interaction with medieval books shows something else, for example how liberal or prudish a reader was. Check out what the user of the fencing manual in Fig. 7 did to cover up the private parts of the two opponents: big fat drops of red wax (of the type used for making seals) were splashed on the page to bring the scenes in line with the standards of the prudish reader. No problem to behold two stabbing figures in a battle for survival, but we don’t want to see them do it naked. What a dirty book.

Fig. 7 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Var. 7 (16th century): obscured nudity – Source


Postscriptum: Kate Rudy (St Andrews) has done substantial work on dirt in medieval books and has even found a way to quantify dirt with the help of a densitometer (read about it here).

“To conserve or not to conserve, that is the question”

From time to time this blog shows damaged manuscripts. One may be inclined to think that books are better off in pristine condition. However, Karin Scheper, conservator at the University Library Leiden, explains why it is sometimes better to leave a book be. Here is an intriguing guest post about useful disrepair and the upsides of damage. Enjoy! Erik Kwakkel

Custodians and owners of old books will sometimes have to make tough decisions. They want their books to be used – why else would they have them? – yet they also want them to be preserved for the future as well. In the case of manuscripts and early printed books, the materials themselves are old and often fragile, and part of the textblock or binding may have come apart. While in most cases it would technically be possible to repair the damage, this is not always the best option for the book or the user. Instead, a conservation specialist may advise to simply box a book and not treat it at all, or propose minor treatment and consolidation only of the fragile state. Is that a result of sparse conservation budgets, or can there be other reasons?

A conservator evaluates the severity of the damage. Not all deterioration processes are progressive, and some damage may have occurred centuries ago without causing problems. Other conditions, such as deformations or splits in flexing materials may cause severe threats and further loss of material. The book’s current use, its historical value, and its relation to a collection are of course factors of importance when making conservation decisions.

The book as a physical object contains much more information than its contents alone; this blog demonstrates that in every posting. In spite of the fact that an increasing number of manuscripts and old prints are available online, the material object remains valuable – and may even become more valuable. One of the unique values of the physical book is that it contains historical evidence that is not accessible in a digital format. With a damaged object this information may be more easily accessible than in a well-preserved or restored book. The damage itself may reveal historical circumstances or shed light on former use, and in addition, damage may provide access to the interior of the structure. This can teach us what materials were used and what decisions the original bookbinder made, and it may connect the book to a certain region or time frame. Damage can be beneficial for book historians, and repairing damage may deprive them of valuable information. One way to safeguard such evidence is extensive documentation of the object prior to conservation treatment. However, if the condition of the book allows it, minimal intervention is an attractive option that respects the book’s integrity, and sometimes doing nothing may even be the best decision for the moment.

Three cases from the Leiden university collections illustrate such preservation issues and address the question whether the benefit of a conservation treatment outweighs the benefit of not treating a book.

A slotted spine

Fig. 1 – De historica facultate disputatio by Fra. Robortellus, Florence 1544 (Leiden, University Library, 690 F 16) – Photo KS

In the early sixteenth century a novel method of binding books in parchment was developed in Italy. Books with raised bands always seemed to function more naturally in leather than in parchment; the three-dimensional shape of the spine with its raised sewing supports and the stiffness of the parchment were not a winning combination. Italian bookbinders solved the problem by cutting slots in the parchment at the positions of the raised bands, and they use white tawed leather at these positions instead (Fig. 1). This technique was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and appears to be confined to Italy. (See here for more details about how such bindings were made.)

Both parchment and leather discolour over time, after which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two materials. In addition, the ‘slotted spine’ as a technique is relatively unknown, and it is usually not easy to discern something one is not familiar with. With this particular technique, the characteristics may become more indistinct when the damaged spine of such a book is treated, and as a result an untrained eye may just be under the impression that the repaired binding is meddled with, instead of recognising the distinctive slotted method and thus the provenance. By contrast, the damaged spine of the binding in Fig. 1 invites the user to examine the different materials that are visible. Its construction is sound enough to support the textblock and allows careful use in the reading room; a box protects the binding in the stacks.

Broken but not unstable
In some cases the damage may appear quite severe when in fact the structure is sound and the covering material is not at risk of further loss. The parchment-bound books in fig. 2 are an example of that. The damage is typical of bindings that suffered from too much UV-light on the spine, which caused the material to deteriorate rapidly while the similar materials in the joint and over the front and back covers were not affected.

Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, 513 E 19, 523 D 17, 615 F 18 and F 19, 663 E 16: The turn-ins (the part of the cover folded over the edge onto the inner surface of the board) of the parchment spines are still in place. These turn-ins did not suffer from the same amount of light and pollution as the spines themselves did – Photo KS

From a book-historical point of view, a new spine would not add anything: it is clear that the original binding was a laced-on full parchment cover. Instead, a new spine would cover up all the information now visible on the spine of the bookblock. Zooming in, we can see the sewing structure and the different materials that are used as spine-linings. For the book on the left, parchment fragments with musical notation were used. For the one next to it, strips of block-printed textile were applied between each sewing support to strengthen the structure. The two volumes on its right side also show the use of block-printed cloth. However, in this case the bookbinder economised – these books are only small, after all – and applied only one lining strip to each volume.

What we can also see in Fig. 2 is that the binder pasted these strips, apparently arbitrarily, between the first and second sewing support in one instance, and between the second and third in the other. This is all the more interesting because the book on the far right displays a very intentional application of materials. Here we see two kinds of materials, cloth and paper. The blue striped cloth is used at head and tail, where strength of material is important to support the endband sewing, and in the middle. The paper strips with their reddish blockstamped decoration are used above and below the central cloth strip, where strength is a little less important. Thus, the structure is well balanced, not unimportant for a book of this size and weight.

This case shows how it is sometimes better to do nothing, or to simply consolidate the condition (e.g. stabilising the damage, making sure that it cannot become worse) without actually repairing the damage. In the case of these parchment bindings, leaving the damage benefits the user and the book itself. Without the rather rigid parchment spine of the binding the book opens more easily and thus its readability improves. This means that the user will not have to put any pressure on the joints when reading, and therefore the book’s structure will hold. A new spine would change the balance and might cause damage to the weaker areas such as the joints, which are currently unbroken. As a by-product of the decision to do nothing, the conservator saves time, which can be invested in those books that are at risk of progressive damage, or are damaged in such a way that their broken structures currently do not allow for use.

Fig.3 – Leiden, University Library, 663 E 16: Parchment binding without a cover spine but with board attachment intact. When the book is opened, the opposite motions of bookblock spine and binding spine are visible. If the book was opened further, a lot of tension would stress the parchment spine (now missing, though the turn-ins are still there) and joints – Photo KS

Too thick to function well
Different binding types have different characteristics, and the materials and techniques used to construct the book influence the objects’ physical properties and its ‘mechanism’. A leather covering, for example, pasted onto the spine of a manuscript, supports the textblock spine when the book is used. A parchment binding that is laced on to the textblock with the binding supports, but is not actually connected to the spine itself, moves away from the textblock spine when the book is opened (visible in Fig. 3) When, in addition, the spine of the binding is stiff and the textblock spine is flexible, a tension occurs which strains the joints. The Greek manuscript in Figs. 4-6 is an example of such an unfortunate combination. One of the joints gave way: the book’s solution to the problem. A conservation treatment aiming to restore the broken joint would only inflict further tension on the other joint and eventually lead to more damage and a repeated intervention. It was therefore decided to leave the damage as it is. The manuscript is accessible and safe to handle, though its uncommon condition may raise some questions at first encounter.

Leiden, University Library, BPG 50 (early modern), Commentaries by Procopius of Gaza.
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BPG 50 (early modern), Commentaries by Procopius of Gaza – Photo KS
Fig. 5 -Same as Fig. 4, open  – Photo KS
Fig. 6 - Same as Fig. 4, view on the spine
Fig. 6 – Same as Fig. 4, view on the spine – Photo KS

These examples show that damage is not always a problem that needs to be solved. They do not, of course, represent all conservation issues, or every reason for choosing not to treat damage. However, if they inspire the reader to think about physical characteristics and the sensitive condition of an old volume, these objects already serve a purpose that a completely restored volume would not.

Dirty Medieval Books

When you use something for a thousand years, it is bound to get dirty. Medieval books often show stains and marks on their pages, usually from readers who did not always take very good care of the objects. Medieval books also collected a lot of loose dirt, which sometimes falls out when you thumb through their pages as a modern-day book historian – naturally with clean hands, though preferably without white gloves (here is why). While this dirt is often simply junk, the bits and pieces – twigs, pieces of leaves, dried flowers, pins – may also have had a function. A dried leaf from a tree may for example have been stuck between the pages to serve as a bookmark. In that sense junk can be seen as as a cultural artefact that adds to our understanding of medieval books and their users. Here are some examples of useful dirt.

1. Fingerprints
Considering that every medieval books was handwritten and that their makers will have had inky fingers, you’d expect a lot of ink stains on the page.  Surprisingly, medieval pages are almost always free from such stains, perhaps because scribes were careful where they put their dirty hands. Every now and then, however, you encounter an ink stain (Fig. 1).

Leiden, University Library, BPL MS 191 A (13th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL MS 191 A (13th century) – Photo EK

The one seen in Fig. 1 is special because it accompanies an inky fingerprint. This encounter is thrilling. When you place your own finger on top of it, you are suddenly closely connected to a person that lived hundreds of years ago. More importantly, the stain in Fig. 1 adds to our understanding of the book in which it features. Crucial in this respect is the observation that the stain is produced by printers’ ink, which is much blacker and “silvery” than what medieval scribes used. The individual who was attached to the finger was therefore likely a printer. This set of observations prompts an intriguing question: why did a printer in the midst of printing a text feel the need to consult this manuscript? While speculative, the answer may well be that he was actually printing the text on these medieval pages (a work by Bonaventure), meaning that he may have used the handwritten copy to set his type from. This useful information flows directly from dirt that was inadvertently left behind on the page.

2. Leaves and twigs
If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have been introduced to elaborate medieval bookmarks, such as carefully designed parchment disks, glued-on tabs marking the start of a new text or section, or strings of parchment that could be “draped” between pages to identify key passages (see this post). However, medieval readers also produced makeshift bookmarks, made from essentially anything that they found lying on their desk or on the ground, as we still do today. So, we sometimes encounter twigs or pieces of straw, which no doubt ended up in the book to mark a certain page (Fig. 2).

Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185 (15th c)
Fig. 2 – Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185 (15th c) with twig bookmark – Source

Perhaps an even more natural choice for a bookmark would be a leaf from a tree. I found a particularly nice one tucked away in the back of a volume placed in the chained library in Zutphen, the Netherlands (Fig. 3). The leaf has become hard and may well be as old as the sixteenth century, the date of the book in which it is found. In fact, it feels and looks like a piece of plastic in the shape of a leaf. It may have been put in the back of the book so as to make it easier to find a ready bookmark when it was needed.

Zutphen, Librije, leaf bookmark in early print - Photo EK
Fig. 3 – Zutphen, Librije, leaf bookmark in early print – Photo EK

3. Sand
Not so commonly found in medieval books, yet often seen in their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts is sand; sometimes lots of it. In fact, when I looked at an account book from 1717 in the Leiden archives not so long ago, a little mountain of sand had piled up when I wanted to close the book (Fig. 4). This is because the sand was used to dry the ink. Text would be added to such account books even after the pages had been folded and bound into an actual book. When a new entry was made (on a blank page), sand was sprinkled on top to as to prevent an offset on the facing page. As with the fingerprint, it is thrilling to touch this sand, knowing that the last person running it through his fingers was an eighteenth-century scribe.

Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) - Photo EK
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) – Photo EK

4. Pins
The same account book in Leiden contains many receipts: actual proof of payment made by the municipal government to people working in the town hall (their wages), schools (for the purchase of books) and guards. These receipts (small strips, just a bit bigger than what you get in stores today) were kept in bundles for convenience. There is no easier way to do this than pushing a pin through them (Fig. 5). Pins were also use in both early-modern and medieval books to mark a page. They would not necessarily have to stick out from between the pages: the “bulkiness” of the pin would sometimes be sufficient to guide the reader to a specific page (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (inside)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) –  Photo EK
Maastricht, Regional Archives, Collection 18.A Box 834
Fig. 5 – Maastricht, Regional Archives, Collection 18.A Box 834 (16th century) – Photo EK

5. Paint
The prettiest “dirt” I encountered – and the only time I found it – is seen in Figs. 6-7. The page in question contains a decorated initial (out of view). After the scribe had copied the page, the decorator would add these with a brush and paint. As he was moving his hand towards to location where he needed to add decoration, in a particularly attractive shade of blue, a drop fell from the brush he was holding. It produced a perfect circle in the lower margin. Interestingly, while such blobs can be removed quite easily when they have dried (with a gentle flick of a knife), this one remained. Not only during the production process of the book, but also throughout the object’s centuries of use. I like to think that the previous users of the book shared my feeling that this blue blob is just the prettiest thing ever.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (13th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (13th century) – Photo EK
Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (detail)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (detail) – Photo EK

6. Cat paws
Every so often one encounters dirt that is perhaps not particularly insightful as to how a medieval book was used or produced, but it does provide surprising information about the owner, namely that he had a cat (Fig. 8). While this final example brings a “tongue in cheek” conclusion to an otherwise serious post, it does show that books apparently lay open on a desk unattended by the owner. Curiously, it is not the only example of a cat having free access to an open manuscript. Less well known than this inky-cat-paws manuscript (which went viral after my tweet back in 2013; more here) is another book “touched” by a cat, currently kept in Balliol College Oxford (Fig. 9). Here, too, we find evidence of a cat walking over an open book, although this time the paws were dirty, not inky.

Dubrovnic, State Archives (15th century). Pic: Emir O. Filipović
Fig. 8 – Dubrovnic, State Archives (15th century). Pic: Emir O. Filipović – Source
Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192 (15th century)
Fig. 9 – Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192 (15th century), with cat paws – Source

While we are perhaps inclined to regard dirt as an unwanted addition to the medieval book – which is an object that should be spotless, after all – the bits and pieces shown here act as historical clues that shed light on how a book was produced or used. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn with the concept of “damage”. This, too, is often seen as a flaw when encountered in a precious medieval book, while, in fact, it may offer crucial information about how the object was used (see this post). Dirt is an intrinsic part of the historical artefact that is the medieval book and deserves to be studied as such.

The Skinny on Bad Parchment

My favourite activity is to touch, smell, and listen to the crackling sound of cows and sheep that have been dead for a thousand years. That’s right, I am talking about medieval parchment, the standard material for books made between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. Animal skin replaced papyrus (standard up to the fifth century) and would ultimately be challenged by paper, which competed for dominance during the later medieval period. Parchment was resilient, however, and it was even used by early printers, including Gutenberg himself – showing the use of animal skin did not die with the medieval manuscript.

There is a lot you can tell from medieval skin. Like a physician today, the book historian can make a diagnosis by observing it carefully. The best quality, for example, feels just like velvet. It usually has an even, off-white colour, and it makes no sound when you turn the page. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colours. Unlike what you may have thought, looking at imperfect skin is far more interesting than studying its perfect counterpart. This is because a defect tells a powerful story, shedding light on the book’s production and providing clues about its use and storage post-production. Here’s the skinny on bad medieval parchment.


Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century)
Fig. 1 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century) – Source

Scribes were usually not the ones to blame for a manuscript’s bad skin. A fair part of that honor goes to the parchment maker. Preparing parchment was a delicate business. In order to clear the skin of flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame, tight like a drum. If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear. As a result the reader is given an unexpected sneak peek onto the next page – where a dragon may just be introduced into the story (Fig. 1). We encounter such holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were not too bothered by them. Many scribes will have shared this sentiment, because they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them, as if to prevent the reader from falling in.

The jabs of parchment makers – and the resulting holes – were sometimes stitched together. Fig. 2 shows a former rip (a long one) snaking across the page: the scribe has stitched it up like a patient in post-op. Repairing holes was sometimes done more eloquently, as seen in Fig. 3, as well as in the image at the top of this post (Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16). In both cases the holes are not made to disappear, as with the stitching in Fig. 2, but they are highlighted by coloured threads. In some monastic communities this must have been common practice, given that they repaired a lot of books with such “embroidery” (some examples in this Tumblr post). The practice turned defect into art: good-looking bad skin.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century)
Fig. 2 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century) – Photo EK
Uppsala, University Library, MS C 317 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Uppsala, University Library, MS C 371 (14th century) – Source

Another skin problem encountered by scribes during a book’s production was the animal’s hair follicle – the skin organ that produces hair. These follicles show as pronounced black dots on the white page. Often parchment makers or scribes were able to sand them away, producing the desired smooth and cream-colored surface. However, if the follicles had been too deep in a calf or sheep, no dermatologist could have removed the imperfection, let alone the blunt instruments of the scribe. The only thing to do was to write around the patch (Fig. 4). The follicles are helpful because they allow us to determine – from the distance between them – whether the animal was a calf, a sheep or a goat. This, in turn, may shed light on where the manuscript was produced: the use of goat, for example, often points to Italy.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century) – Photo EK

Bad skin may also tell us something about the individuals who owned, read and stored manuscripts. The presence of holes and rips may for example indicate the cost of the materials. Studies suggest that parchment was sold in four different grades, which implies that sheets with and without visible deficiencies may have been sold at different rates. If this was indeed the case, an abundance of elongates holes in a manuscript may just point at an attempt to economise on the cost of the writing support. In other words, bad skin may have come at a good price.

Parchment provides other information about readers as well, for example that he or she stored a book in an unsuitable location. Damp places, for one, would leave a mark on the manuscript’s skin, as is clearly seen in a manuscript I sometimes call the “Mouldy Psalter” – for mouldy it is (Fig. 5). On nearly every page the top corner shows a purple rash from the mould that once attacked the skin. It is currently safe and the mould is gone, but the purple stains show just how dangerously close the book came to destruction – some corners have actually been eaten away. Similarly, if a book was stored without the proper pressure produced by a closed binding, for example because the clasp was missing (as explained here), the parchment would buckle and produce endearing “waves” on the page (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century) – Photo EK
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century) – Photo EK

Apart from such attacks by mother nature, a manuscript could also be scarred for life by the hand of men – those evil users of books. Well known are cases where scribes and readers erased text with a knife, either because the reading was wrong or because they disagreed with it. However, in the wrong hands a knife could easily have a more severe impact on the book’s skin. All those shiny letters on the medieval page were too much for some beholders. The individual that gazed at the golden letters in the manuscript shown in Fig. 7 used his knife to remove some of them. Appropriately, it concerns a copy of Seneca’s Tragedies.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century) – Photo EK

While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (“Must cut out golden letters!”). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.

Note – A few days after publishing this post I found a great image in which a scribe used three holes in the page to produce the face of a laughing man – turning the flaws into art. More here. Also, since posting this I made a brief YouTube film with the Khan Academy, which shows what good and bad parchment looks like – and sounds (!). Here is the link.

The Beauty of the Injured Book

While our eyes are naturally drawn to pages filled with color and gold, those without decoration can be equally appealing. Indeed, even damaged goods – mutilated bindings, torn pages, parchment with cuts and holes – can be highly attractive, as I hope to show in this post. The visual power of damage may be generated by close-up photography, with camera and book at just the right angle, catching just the right amount of light. The following images celebrate the beauty of the injured book, the art of devastation.

1. Post-operation

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

This is what I call a Frankenstein page. It is composite in that the top part is from a different sheet, perhaps even from a different animal, than the lower half. The sheet used by the scribe was short on one side, but he still wanted to use it. In came the patch that is now the top half of the page. Where the two pieces of skin meet the scribe-surgeon punched holes through which he pulled a thin cord, joining them together. The operation was successful, the insert was not rejected, and so the page could be filled with text. Miraculously, the low-quality book was never thrown out. Instead, it limped, for centuries, to the finish line of our present day – to the safety of the Leiden University Library.

2. Bad back

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century). Pic: the author.

This poor-looking manuscript from the fifteenth century looks worn and beaten. It is so happy to be retired that you can almost hear a groan of disappointment when you take it out of its box. The manuscript is filled with school texts and it was heavily used over a long period of time. At some point the binding gave in and began to arch, like an old man with a painful back. It could do so because the book was fitted with a cheap, so-called “limp binding”. This type lacked the wooden boards of regular bindings – as well as the firm support these boards provided. Such bad backs are reflective of how popular the books once were.

3. Sliced

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1 (c. 1100). Pic: the author.

This page needs a shave. From time to time you encounter a hole in the page, but this one is special. An important stage in the preparation of parchment was removing the hair from the skin. When the parchment-maker pushed too hard with his knife, a cut like this would appear. Not unlike a distracted hairdresser, the individual who prepared the parchment overlooked a few tiny – white – hairs, which still inhabit the hole. It makes for a pretty picture with the light from behind, which also highlights the text on the other side of the page.

4. Scar tissue

3. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92 (c. 1000). Pic: the author.

This parchment sheet came from an animal with skin problems. It appears that the cow had been in a fight and was kicked. As your butcher will tell you, such kicks result in scar tissue, which he will remove. Judging from how infrequent we encounter such patches in medieval books, we may assume that skin with such damage was not processed into parchment. However, this particular book was made from off-cuts: strips of bad parchment that were cut away and thrown out. Remarkably, someone fished them out of the bin and produced a book from it (more details can be found in this YouTube movie I made). Thus this “garbage manuscript” exposes an urge for cheap materials as well as a dispute between two medieval cows.

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

5. Mouldy skin

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

And so it happened that a certain medieval reader did not pay attention and placed his book in a moist environment. And so it happened that he forgot all about the book. That is the story behind the mould on the pages of this eleventh-century Psalter. The fungi turned purple over time, producing a neat contrast between the high quality white parchment sheets and their damaged corners. It’s the beautiful despair of a book under duress.

All images were taken with a Canon Eos 600D camera and a Sigma DC 18-250 mm lens (at aperture value 6.3).

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