When Medieval Manuscripts were Recycled & Used to Make the First Printed Books
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When Medieval Manuscripts were Recycled & Used to Make the First Printed Books

“Old paint on canvas, with age, sometimes becomes transparent,” playwright Lillian Hellman observes in Pentimento, the second volume of her memoir. “When that happens, it’s possible, in some pictures, to see the original line: a tree will be seen through a woman’s clothes, a child gives way to a dog, a large boat is no longer on the high seas.”

Seven years ago, something similar began to happen with thousands of old books, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Age, however, doesn’t force this volume to divulge their secrets…at least not directly.

The honor goes to macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF) and Erik Kwakkel, a book historian who theorizes that this technology could reveal fragments of medieval manuscripts hidden in the bundles of newer texts, just as previously had revealed layers of paint that had been hidden in the past. hidden. on Old Master’s canvas.

How did this strange “hidden library” come to be?

Books were extremely valuable objects when manuscripts were copied by hand, but as Kwakkel notes in his medieval blog, “thousands and thousands of medieval manuscripts were torn apart, torn to shreds, boiled, burned, and stripped for parts” after the advent of printer.

Their pages were printed for use as toilet paper, cloth-like binders, bookmarks, and, most tempting to medieval book specialists, backing binding for printed books.

This practice is so common that the binding of nearly 150 early printed books at the Yale Law Library is known to contain fragments of medieval manuscripts.

When Medieval Manuscripts were Recycled & Used to Make the First Printed Books

These materials may have been demeaned in a literary sense, but for Kwakkel they are “travelers in time, stowaways in leather boxes with great and important stories to tell:”

Indeed, those stories may not survive, given that classical and medieval texts often only come to us in fragmentary forms. The early history of the Bible as a book cannot be written if we discard some of the evidence. Moreover, while ancient and medieval texts survive in many fine books from before the time of printing, often the oldest witnesses are fragments. At least a fragment tells you that certain text is available in a certain location at a certain time. Stepping out of their skin’s time capsule after centuries of darkness, the fragment is a “blink” on a map of Europe, stating “I exist, I am used by readers in tenth century Italy!”

A few lines of mutilated text are often enough to identify them, as well as their general location and time of creation:

That said, it is not easy to understand the remains. Binder seems to really enjoy slicing a column of text in half, as if they knew the best way to thwart future researchers. Identifying what works from these unsatisfactory quotes can be a nightmare. Dating and localization of remnants can cause insomnia.

Prior to Kwakkel’s high-tech experiments at Leiden University, modern researchers had to limit themselves to accidents, such as when, say, the spine of an old book cracked, revealing its contents.

Macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry turned out to be well-equipped for detecting iron, copper, and zinc from medieval inks under layers of paper or parchment.

But he did so at a pace that probably didn’t throw the medieval scribe out of control.

Generating a readable scan of what’s lurking under the spine of a single volume can take up to 24 hours, and is an expensive and time-consuming proposition.

With thousands of these bindings lurking so close to the surface in collections as large as the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian, be prepared to remain restless for the foreseeable future.

through Messy Nessy

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Swing Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of Inky East Village zines and authors, latest, from Creative, Unknown: The Little Potato Manifesto. Join him in New York City on November 11th until create a collaborative Kurt Vonnegut Centennial fanzine. Follow him @AyunHalliday.

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