Tag Archives: parchment

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.

What is the Oldest Book in the World?

The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.

What you do when you are kept up at night with such an existentialistic query is to consult Google. However, what Google returns does not make me a happy camper. In fact, I am provided with a very broad range of possible answers. First of all, let’s remove the weed, answers that are the result of flawed reasoning. A lot of websites, for example, confuse “book” with “text”. Wiki Answers reports: “the oldest book in the world is the Bible” (here). And Ask.com: “The oldest book in the world is entitled ‘The Instructions of Shurupak'”, which dates from 3000 BCE (here). A book and a text are, of course, very different things: like a hamburger in a bun or your legs in a pair of pants, a book contains a text, but it is not its equivalent. Equally incorrect are websites whose claims are based on the premise that a book is a printed object. Thus the oldest book in the world must surely be the Gutenberg Bible (oldest printed book in the West, from c. 1455) or Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra (oldest printed book in the East, from c. 868), as in this Huffington Post article. No, it’s not.

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed 11 May 868
1. Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China, 11 May 868.
More carefully phrased answers can be equally confusing, even when provided by reputable institutions. When the British Library purchased the St Cuthbert Gospel, the seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1104, newspapers claimed the library was in possession of “Europe’s oldest book” (see for example here and here). In its press release the British Library qualified its purchase as “the oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which is to say that it survived in its original binding (here). While this nuance is welcome, the claim feels forced – and not just because the press release atypically calls an English book “European”, no doubt to increase the impact of the purchase. The thing is, many medieval books were designed and used without a binding, which raises the question of whether the binding should even be made part and parcel of the concept “book”. Notably, if bindings are taken out of play there are other books older than the St Cuthbert Gospel, such as the sixth-century herbary right here in Leiden (Pic 2).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600)
2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600).
The issue of what precisely constitutes a “book” also lies at the heart of another prominent hit in my Google search. Stop the press, the oldest book in the world is an object that consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold written in a lost Etruscan language around 600 BC (check out the BBC news item here)! The sheets are “believed to be the oldest comprehensive work involving multiple pages”, according to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, where it is kept (Pic 3). Significant is the following assessment of the museum: similar sheets are scattered throughout the world, but those are not linked together, and therefore do not represent a book. A book, the underlying premise suggests, is an object that consists of multiple leaves bound together. So far so good – we have started our initial descent towards our answer.
Old Etruscan "book", made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
3. Old Etruscan “book”, made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
Unfortunately, the shiny Etruscan object cannot be called “the oldest book in the world”. The reason is that it consists of unfolded single sheets (golden plates, actually), which are held together by two rings (as seen in Pic 3). However, the codex (the book before print and therefore the oldest type of real book in the world) is not an object that merely consists of a bunch of leaves. It is, by contrast and definition, built from double leaves: sheets that are folded into quires. Looking for the oldest book, then, we should look among objects made from bendy, foldable writing material: papyrus (made from the plant), parchment (animal skin) and paper. Of these three writing supports papyrus is the oldest. It was roughly used for four kinds of objects: i) Unfolded sheets, used for notes and documentary purposes (example); ii) Rolls, i.e. unfolded sheets that were attached at their short side (example); iii) Book-like objects made up from group of unfolded single sheets (‘singletons’) bound together; iv) Real books made from quires (“codices”).Bingo!The oldest book must be made of papyrus. Which one could it be, however? Our search is made easy by the fact that very few papyrus books of old age survive. There are some from the seventh or eight century AD (see this one, for example, or this one). The really old specimens, however, are fragments from once complete sheets (Pic 4).
Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)
4. Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)

It is their fragmentary nature that constitutes the last – killer – hurdle on our way to the finish line. From a surviving papyrus fragment we can, unfortunately, not deduce – at least as far as I can tell – if it originally belonged to an unfolded (single) leaf or a folded (double) sheet. While catalogues often tell you that a papyrus fragment was part of a codex, in other words, that it belonged to a book made from quires (here is an example), we can, in fact, not know for sure if this was the case. Unless it sports a sharp fold, the oldest book in the world will therefore remain hidden in its vault, old but deprived of its prize.

Post-scriptum (30 Dec 2013): a recent British Library blog shows what the bindings of papyrus codices looked like. Read it here.

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