Teachable Features 6: Holes and Damage, MS Laud Misc. 237

Michael Angerer explains different kinds of holes in a single manuscript. Michael is an undergraduate reading English and French at Oriel College, Oxford, with a particular interest in medieval literatures and issues of medieval translation. He is about to start his fourth and final year, having spent his year abroad studying at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

The fragility of medieval manuscripts is a particularly eloquent testament of their materiality. Holes and other flaws remind us that both scribes and readers had to deal with various forms of damage to parchment and text. As signs of how manuscripts changed over time, they offer an excellent opportunity to chart different stages of their production and use. Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 237 is a case in point: one part of this composite manuscript (ff. 17r-167v) is rather heavily damaged, and as a result showcases many of the imperfections we’re likely to encounter elsewhere.

Parchment, which dominated Western book production from the fourth to the fifteenth century, was made from animal skin: this was tanned, dehaired, and stretched to provide an even and receptive writing surface.[1] The resulting material was very durable, but, depending on the quality of the parchment, holes and tears were not unusual. The leaf below, fol. 24r, is a prime example:

Bodl MS Laud Misc. 237, fol 24r. Photo ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Some of the damage we see here was already present during manuscript production. Insect bites and other injuries to the animal skin could result in small holes, which scribes had to write around.[2] Two of these holes interrupt the flow of the text in the lower half of the folio: the scribe carefully split two words in order to accommodate them. There are more significant flaws, but often the parchment was cleverly folded and cut so as to place them at the edge of the leaf.[3]

Some damage, however, clearly happened at a later stage. The hole on the right-hand edge of the leaf eventually led to a tear, which interferes with one of the marginal annotations. But such tears were not always left alone: both scribes and later readers could try to repair the manuscript by sewing tears together. We can find one instance of this repair activity in the bottom left-hand corner of the folio above, where the stitching is plainly visible. There’s more on techniques used to minimize or repair manuscript damage in this post on the Parker Library’s blog.

Bodl MS Laud Misc. 237, fol. 58r. Photo ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

This tear, running down the middle of the lower half of fol. 58, has clearly been stitched at some point after the initial production of the manuscript. The seams even obscure some of the letters and make this text passage harder to read. That said, not all repairs were purely functional: as you can see in this blog post from the University of Notre Dame, there are much more colourful and exciting examples of decorative stitches.

Bodl MS Laud Misc. 237, fol. 85r. Photo ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Once a tear had been stitched, however, that wasn’t necessarily the end of it. As you can see on fol. 85r above, a small tear at the top of the right-hand edge was sewn up at first. Then, at some later point, the thread was removed, leaving several small holes from the stitches. We can even tell that the initial repair probably happened after the leaf had been prepared for writing: had the stitches been there when the parchment was being stretched, the holes would be oval rather than perfectly round.[4] In fact, if we take a closer look at the elongated hole in the middle of the bottom margin of fol. 24, the first image above, we’ll see that there are smaller oval holes around it that suggest it might initially have been sewn shut during the production of the parchment.

Bodl MS Laud Misc. 237, fol. 101r. Photo ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Of course, small holes and tears weren’t all that manuscript owners and readers of manuscripts had to deal with. Here, on fol. 101r, we have a rather drastic example of more substantial damage: the entire lower part of the leaf was torn off, and some of the text was lost as a result. One later reader then endeavoured to restore the lost content in two annotations in the bottom margin.

If there is one thing a look at manuscript damage reveals, it is that medieval manuscripts were anything but static objects. They had to be cared for and often repaired several times throughout their period of use. Research suggests that medieval scribes and readers were acutely aware of such flaws and repairs, to the extent that manuscript holes and damage could even be integrated into the meaning of texts.[5] There is no reason why we should not be aware of them as well.

Michael Angerer, University of Oxford

Bodleian Libraries MS Laud Misc. 237 was digitized as part of Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands: A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project, funded by the Polonsky Foundation. The images in this post are reproduced in accordance with Digital.Bodleian’s user licence. Click on the images to see high resolution versions on the Digital.Bodleian website.

[1] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and Meanings’, in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 73-89 (p. 77).

[2] Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[3] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Materials’, in The Production of Books in England 1350–1500, ed. by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 12-33 (p. 20).

[4] Clemens and Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies, p. 13.

[5] Nancy Vine Durling, ‘Birthmarks and Bookmarks: The Example of a Thirteenth-Century French Anthology’, Exemplaria, 16.1 (2004), 73-94 (p. 77).

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