THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

19 August 2011

White Gloves or Not White Gloves

Whenever a British Library manuscript is featured in the press or on television, we inevitably receive adverse comments about our failure to wear white gloves! The association of glove-wearing with handling old books is in fact a modern phenomenon, and one that has little scientific basis.

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The British Library has published advice on the use of white gloves. Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

This short video demonstrates how not to handle a manuscript wearing white gloves (or, indeed, gloves of any colour).

It's also reassuring to know that it was recognized in the Middle Ages that wearing gloves to handle books was to be frowned upon. There is a story of a certain Lady Zwedera, a new recruit to the congregation of Deventer (in the modern Netherlands), who "happily wore clean white gloves on her hands, as if she liked cleanness, and said that she did so lest she mark the books from which she often and diligently read the holy scripture; but when she heard from one of the fathers that because of such cleanness, which carried before it a certain extravagance, she would suffer purgatory, she at once abandoned them." So now you know the dangers that may confront you if you don the dreaded white gloves!

(We are indebted to our former colleague Nicole Eddy, of the University of Notre Dame, for drawing this anecdote to our attention.)

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