Friday, October 31, 2014

Spotlight on Special Collections: Repurposed Medieval Manuscripts

Today medieval manuscripts are preserved as valuable historical artifacts. Unfortunately this has not always been the case. For centuries unwanted manuscripts were repurposed as binding material for other works. Because paper and parchment were expensive commodities, it was cheaper to simply re-use old manuscripts rather than purchase new binding material. This practice was widespread and today volumes bound with old manuscripts can be found at a number of libraries and archives around the world, including the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

The first example from Mount Holyoke's Special Collections is this 1791 copy of a comedy written by the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer. This book was bound in a manuscript fragment taken from a medieval song book; the binding was then covered by a sheet of marbled paper, leaving only the spine and corners of the manuscript layer uncovered. Some of the lyrics and original musical notation are still visible and give some clue as to the manuscript's origins.

This 1491 copy of Dante's Divine Comedy is bound in fragments taken from what appears to be a medieval choir book. The words, which are shown together with the original musical notation, are lyrics to various religious songs. There are three different songs on the front cover, namely, Omnes de Saba, Psalm 95:9, and Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi.

Front Cover
Back Cover

The smudging along the outer edges of both the front and back covers was likely caused by the many hands that have opened the book throughout the centuries.

Although the primary purpose for binding a book using old manuscripts was practical, the book binder also seems to have appreciated their decorative potential as well. It appears that he took care to align the manuscript in order to display the colorful, illuminated letters that mark the beginning of each song.

Although it is disappointing that we can no longer read these manuscripts in their entirety, it is fortunate that these documents were preserved at all. If they had not been used as binding material, it is likely that these manuscripts would have been thrown away. Today we can appreciate them for their content and for what they can tell us about how different societies have used and valued them throughout time.

Emily Wells, Class of 2015, is a student assistant in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. 

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