Medieval Writing
Handling Manuscripts (2)
One of the sad things that has happened in the past, and continues to happen unfortunately, is that perfectly good books, or substantial fragments of books, are broken up to supply leaves to collectors of modest means, like me. The problem is, it is not always possible to tell whether a leaf has been orphaned because of long past vandalism or accident, or has come from a book recently dismembered by a dealer. It is always disappointing to discover that a single leaf you have acquired suddenly appears to have sisters and brothers in current online sales catalogues. The worst crime, quite common in the past, is the cutting out of miniatures or decorative initials, because all context for the image is lost. I would think it would be bleedin' obvious to say do not go near your manuscript pages, or anybody else's, with scissors, but these things have happened.
Historiated initial depicting Alexander III, presumably before he became pope as he is not wearing the paraphernalia of office, rudely hacked from a manuscript which is probably Italian and may be 14th or 15th century. From a private collection.
You can see that the cut has gone right through the middle of a marginal annotation, so we will never know what it said.
Further damage to these fragments has sometimes occurred because of they way that they have been treated.
Decorative initial H cut from a liturgical book from Italy, probably of the 15th century, from a private collection.
This very beautiful initial is one of two which had been cut at some time from a liturgical book, probably a large antiphoner or gradual, as the other side of the page contains very large lettering and musical notation, or at least fragments thereof. However, the vellum cuttings had been glued to cardboard matting at some stage, and the mat had turned a suspicious shade of brown. This at least suggested that it had not been done recently. Some delicate work with a small sharp knife revealed the following.
A few letters and a fragment of musical notation are visible on the back. The fluffy white effect is from fine fragments of paper still adhering to the parchment. So far so good. The aim was to remove the parchment intact from the paper. Some serious contemplation will be required as to whether to attempt to carefully scrape off some of the paper fluff. However, something else was revealed.
The matting from which the manuscript parchment was removed has a reversed impression of the lettering and musical notes from the parchment eaten into the cardboard itself. Iron gall ink is acid and corrosive, and some of it has leached away into the backing, no doubt with the assistance of the moisture in the glue. Now I have some other examples of this phenomenon, but they are from bits of parchment recovered from old bookbindings which have been glued together for centuries. You can find them in other parts of this website. This is modern industrially produced cardboard, so the process has happened quite rapidly. The moral of this story is that glue is bad for your manuscripts. Do not use it.
With all the possible hazards, it is a wonder that any old manuscripts have survived at all. But they have, in their hundreds of thousands. They are actually remarkably robust. Probably the greatest agent of destruction over the centuries has been deliberate human action, as manuscript material has been deemed at various times to be outdated, incorrect, heretical or otherwise excess to requirements and destroyed. Sometimes little tantalising fragments of these appear in odd places. One century's junk is another century's treasure.
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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 3/2/2012.