Monday, 8 February 2016

The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 1

In the first of four posts, Jeff Berry, one of our Minster volunteers, considers the insights into the past that early recycling gives us.

It was common practice in the early days of print for bookbinders to use parts of earlier manuscripts as strengtheners in their bindings. To modern sensibilities, the idea that these unique manuscripts were destroyed simply for their physical properties is an appalling one. It is worth considering, however, that such use represents in many cases both an instinct for efficiency and economy - after all, why use fresh vellum when used vellum will do just as well? - and a growing sense of the primacy of the text itself. In some cases, once a manuscript was in type, the manuscript itself was considered redundant, and reusing it in bindings was simply common sense.

These fragments may still be found in various books, and provide a tantalizing glimpse of information which is now lost forever. All manuscripts are on some level a puzzle. As unique, handcrafted objects, questions about their origin, purpose, and use naturally arise; this is equally true of luxury books and of seemingly more straightforward documents. How much more puzzling are the fragments, then, with much of their context lost or scattered? The manuscripts are in many cases works of art, and the bits used in the bindings are fragments of greater works. Often when viewing these fragments, I am reminded of visiting ruined medieval buildings where only the foundations or a few lengths of wall remain. It is enough to fire the imagination, but the vast majority of the data, of the history if you will, is gone.

That is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from the fragments. Quite apart from their aesthetic value, they can provide information about how early printers did business, can help to localize early books to their point of origin, can be used to track fashions and taste in literature, and doubtless can provide information in many other ways related either to the manuscripts themselves or their use as raw material.

The York Minster Library has one of the finest collections of early printed books in the country, and has a correspondingly rich collection of manuscript fragments in the bindings of those books. In this, and future posts, I would like to show you a few of the fragments which are of particular interest.

Image from a book published in Louvain, Belgium in 1562 (Minster Library V/3.N.2). The binding contains fragments of both Middle English prose and legal documents in Latin.

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