THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

27 November 2014

Worn Around the Edges: More on the Phillipps Lectionary

The Phillipps Lectionary must once have been – and to some extent still is – a very beautiful manuscript. As Tuesday’s post detailed, it is full of richly decorated headpieces, glimmering gold headings, and ornate zoomorphic initials. The manuscript’s condition reveals, however, a story of centuries of use, misuse and neglect that seem at odds with the precious contents. 

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Leaf containing a decorated headpiece and titles written in gold, which displays severe cockling, multiple tears and losses at the leaf edge and upper corner, and the smudging and loss of text, from the Phillipps Lectionary,
Add MS 82957, f. 137r 

Christopher de Hamel’s recent Panizzi lectures showed inordinately expensive and elaborately ornamented giant bibles being used amid the smoke, grease and grime of the monastic refectory. We should therefore avoid the assumption that medieval people treated their books – even luxury ones – with the same care as modern-day curators. In the Phillipps Lectionary, there is damage literally at every turn; no corner of the manuscript has been unaffected by the way the manuscript has been handled and mishandled, stored and ignored, and – most recently – salvaged and painstakingly repaired. 

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A mutilated leaf; the black backdrop highlights how the moisture damage has made the edges fragile and liable to tear and flake away,
Add MS 82957, f. 119r 

The physical condition of this manuscript presents many problems to the curator: how best to balance the need to conserve and protect it with the needs of readers to view and study it; and how to manage the digitisation process. Every manuscript that we plan to digitise is first examined, assessed, and, if necessary, treated by one of our in-house conservators (an earlier post by Ann Tomalak describes this process in more detail). The manuscript you see today on Digitised Manuscripts has been the subject of hours of work and many careful interventions in order to make it fit for digitisation. These repairs will be the subject of a future blog post. Here, our focus will be upon the damage the manuscript has sustained. 

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The fore-edge of the manuscript, illustrating the areas damaged by rodents,
Add MS 82957 

Most obviously, the manuscript has suffered from rodent damage. The edges of the manuscript, in particular the upper left-hand corner, have been nibbled. Prior to conservation, these thin, shredded strips of parchment would fall off every time the manuscript was opened. Worse still, the discolouration of the parchment in these locations may have been caused in part by the rodents’ urine. Rest assured we washed our hands very thoroughly after handling the manuscript! 

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Detail of a leaf showing moisture staining and severe cockling, with part of the text now concealed under a stiff fold in the parchment,
Add MS 82957, f. 252r 

Damp and mould have also taken their toll on the parchment leaves. The moisture has caused the leaves to swell and cockle. This must have taken place while the manuscript was closed. Adjoining leaves have crinkled together and, though they can be separated, continue to ‘lock’ together when the pages are turned. The mould has eaten away at the parchment, weakening it and making it more likely to split and tear. Rodents also seem to prefer damp and mouldy parchment, because it is softer (and perhaps partially pre-digested!). 

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Detail of text that has lifted off and transferred onto the facing leaf,
Add MS 82957, ff. 126v and 127r 

It is fortunate that, in most instances, the margins are so wide that the damp has not reached the text block and caused the ink to bleed. Here, however, the ink has lifted off and transferred onto the facing leaf, damage most likely caused by a combination of moisture damage and friction between the two leaves. 

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The upper edge of the manuscript, illustrating the swelling caused by moisture damage,
Add MS 82957 

The water/urine damage has affected the shape of the book by making one corner into an uneven wedge shape. 

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Detail of wax droplets,
Add MS 82957, f. 152v 

Humans too have left their mark. In several locations, small red dots are found on the parchment: this is candle wax, which you can feel as a slightly raised spot on the surface. You can see that as the wax has cooled and contracted, it has pulled on the parchment, causing small radiating wrinkles to appear. 

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Detail of a small hole burned into the parchment,
Add MS 82957, f. 197v 

Elsewhere, the damage is more serious, with falling cinders from a candle having burnt small holes into the parchment. In this instance, the cinder burnt a hole through one of the adjoining leaves. 

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Detail of an initial ‘Θ (theta) that has been torn out and the corresponding off-print, Add MS 82957, ff. 2v and 3r
 

The manuscript has also been mutilated, with several initials roughly torn out. All that remains of these are ghostly off-prints on facing pages. 

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Neo-Gothic-influenced blind-tooled binding, probably 19th century,
Add MS 82957, front binding 

The manuscript was rebound, probably in the nineteenth century. The binding features recessed boards, most likely to help to protect the edges from further damage. The blind tooling is unusual – showing neo-Gothic influences that perhaps echoes William Morris bindings from Kelmscott – as is the covering. 

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Detail of the binding, shot under raking light, revealing the wild boar follicle pattern,
Add MS 82957, front binding 

Close inspection has revealed that the manuscript is bound in wild boar skin. The above image was taken under raking light, a technique where light is shone at an angle from the side, making surface texture more clearly visible. One can see the triangular follicle pattern typical of common pig skin, which was widely used for this purpose. However, the presence of additional bristles – amounting in the live animal to an extra layer of hair – confirms the source as a wild rather than domesticated swine. The circumstances in which the skin was acquired – perhaps a genteel hunting-party? – remains a mystery. 

Stay tuned for the next instalment on the Phillipps Lectionary, when we will describe the conservation and digitisation process in more detail. 

- James Freeman

Comments

I sincerely hope you are also using masks when you handle mouldy books and papers. You can get some pretty nasty coughs and other diseases from close contact with moulds - and who knows WHAT moulds you are handling from medieval times?

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