– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

guest post – manuscript fragments in early printed books

As part of Balliol College’s project to survey the use of manuscript fragments in its early printed book collection, I have had the pleasure of spending many hours systematically inspecting each book in search of these hidden treasures. Currently only a fraction of the way through the collection, we have already found fragments in over 35 early printed books, testifying to the frequency of the practice.

These fragments, found in books ranging from 10cm-40cm in length, appear in many forms. Some are full page flyleaves or pastedowns, many are stubs which give support to the inside covers, others are cut into strips and used to reinforce sewing supports beneath their coverings. One small book of multiplication tables has used a document complete with notary mark and curved edging as its cover, repurposing a serious legal record as something creative and even decorative – from legally binding to mathematical binding!

It’s easy to see why manuscript fragments were favoured for this type of work. In a period where texts were transitioning from parchment to paper, the difference between the two materials in terms of durability must have been marked. Combined with the availability of manuscripts, and the value apparently placed on print (as a new and exciting technology) over commonplace manuscript texts (such as we see in the fragments), recycling parchment in this way was a very practical way of strengthening bindings and protecting the paper pages.[1]

The types of texts being used in the early printed books in the collection are various. The majority so far have been in Latin, with some in English and at least one in French. Most are from the 14th and 15th centuries, but some fragments seem to be as early as 13th century. In terms of content, there are legal documents, personal letters (how our curiosity has been piqued by the sad tale of the man whose wife has left him with 3 children to care for!), ecclesiastical texts, musical notation, and what appears to be a homily emulating the enraged style of the 10th century Archbishop Wulfstan.

One of the aims of the project is to photograph these fragments to make them available online. This poses a number of challenges.  The early printed books themselves date from 15th and 16th centuries and are, as one would expect, fragile. The spines will not lie flat without causing damage which, when one simply wants to read the text, is no problem at all, but when the use of the fragments is to strengthen the very structure of the book, careful thought needs to be given to how to access fragments  tucked away down towards the fragile spine. In a number of instances, photographs have simply not been possible for this reason.

Conversely, the condition of some of the bindings have actually enabled us to see the fragments better, as some have deteriorated to leave fragments exposed. One of the frustrating things for the curious medievalist is the suspicion that leaves of medieval texts have been used in a binding, but having no way to access them.[2] When later binding is found in poor condition, a curious mix of reactions occurs: a clear desire to protect the book, combined with mischievous delight at what might be revealed. In these cases, it is often that a parchment spine has cracked or disintegrated, or that pastedowns are now lifting.

In all cases, the photography of these fragments is tricky. To photograph stubs, the book must be supported on foam blocks and opened at a suitable angle depending on the flexibility of the spine. The parchment itself is not smooth, and the camera can struggle to focus on the right part of the book. In order to take a picture of useable quality, some contortion is generally needed, trying different angles with the camera whilst carefully holding down fragments with a pair of bone holders. Seasoned yoga practitioners and the addition of a third or fourth hand are desirable attributes!

The photographs get labelled and uploaded to Balliol’s Flickr account for interested parties to view. Medievalists can examine the texts and try to identify them; book historians can see further examples of binding techniques from the early modern period; and we can also perhaps use these fragments to tell us something about how the texts that they came from were valued during this time. Whilst many of the texts that we are discovering might be understood to be commonplace (the legal documents, for example, or other texts which appear to be unremarkable in terms of appearance), some were clearly prized at the time of writing. The musical notation of 470d13, for example, is decorative, using red and blue inks for initials, and the script is in a neat gothic hand. Care was obviously taken in the writing of this text, but by the time of binding, the value of the early modern work (Cunningham’s Cosmographie) was deemed to be far greater. Of course, this does not necessarily indicate that Cunningham’s work was intrinsically more important than the medieval one: it could be that the rest of the medieval text had deteriorated beyond reasonable use as a codex, or that some other flaw had been found in it, making this particular version redundant. What these fragments do tell us is what texts were available to the binders at the time and how the material was repurposed.

It would be interesting to survey the use of these fragments, identify them and see what (if any) correlation could be found between the types of text and the individual book binders (this would involve examining a far larger collection than Balliol’s alone), but by increasing the accessibility of these fragments through this project, further research on this interesting topic can contribute to wider understanding of the phenomenon.

 – Annaliese Griffiss, Michaelmas term 2017. Follow Annaliese’s archival adventures on Twitter @aglaecwif!

[1] Whilst the vast majority of the fragments are on parchment, there are also examples of paper manuscripts being used as flyleaves as well.

[2] Though Erik Kwakkel has experimented with the use of x-rays. https://medievalbooks.nl/2015/12/18/x-rays-expose-a-hidden-medieval-library/

Photos of the manuscript fragments discovered so far, with descriptions, are appearing on our Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/sets/72157683085214934/ and descriptions of the fragments with links to their host volumes’ SOLO catalogue entries are also at http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/Ancient%20MSS/msfragments.asp

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