The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 4

In the final post in his Fragments series, Jeff Berry explains how appearances can be deceiving...


Oddities are not unique to binding fragments, but the lack of a larger context and the incidental damage inflicted by the binding process can make them seem particularly mysterious. Here is an example of such an oddity. Mirror writing, where the script is written backwards as if in a mirror, is a practice that shows up now and again in medieval works. The most famous example is that of Da Vinci, who used it from time to time. Even in his case, however, no one seems to be clear on what the point of the exercise was.

Sometimes with fragments there will be bits of ink that have been transferred from the manuscript to some other page or cover; this can resemble mirror writing, but it is usually fairly obvious what has happened in these cases. In the first fragment below, the paint from the coloured initials has stuck to the wooden board serving as a cover. Some paint remains on the original leaf as well, and side-by-side it is clear what happened.

From the Stainton Parish Library collection,
York Minster Library, printed in Basel 1563
This next fragment is more difficult to assess. It has several layers, and a small roughly triangular shape is from a different manuscript than the more decorated one below it. It is that lower fragment which appears to be mirror writing.

York Minster Library, printed in Basel 1558
The clear, clean lines argue against a gluey, sticky transfer like that in the above case, as does the appearance of not only the red and blue, but the black as well. However, the effort required to perform the complex mis-en-page and the blue initial with the red pen-flourishing would suggest that this, too, is a case of ink transfer. Further detailed conservation work would be needed to be absolutely certain, but while mirror writing is a possibility, the mundane explanation of glue and moisture seems more likely. Whatever the case, the difficult and complex task of reading the backwards writing is now as simple as few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, as the digitally reversed image renders the mysterious text clear:


All photography by Paul Shields.

The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 1
The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 2
The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 3

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