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Fragmentology: bits of books and the medieval manuscript

A few years ago, when I bought an early twentieth-century octagonal lampshade, I knew I was buying a fascinating piece of Book History. This household object, made from a painted iron frame that radiates outwards from the central bulb-holder, has a shade comprised of eight cut-up panels excised from a late medieval religious service-book—an antiphonal. Some of the plainsong music—written onto a four-line stave—is from the Feast Day of St Clare of Assisi, who died in 1253. It is taken from an Italian manuscript, and in its reuse it’s like several similar standing lamps still functioning in situ at W. R. Hearst’s private library at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.

Photo by Elaine Treharne, used with permission

The original manuscript from which this lampshade was made would have been a large book, perhaps made up of a whole calf- or sheepskin per folio or per opening: a book that was big enough for an assembled choir of monks, or nuns, or canons to see and sing from. Its present crumbling state is due not simply to the leaves being excised from their host book, but from the damage that happened when the volatile electric light set fire to the lampshade more than a century ago. As the lampshade deteriorates, so, too, fade voices from the past together with the skill and craft that produced the original manuscript. Here, the fragile fragments are perhaps the only remnants of an object that was used in services of worship where the singing lifted hearts and music upwards. It’s a shame that this medieval book was not similarly venerated when the person with a knife possessed and destroyed it.

So many fragments of manuscripts exist that a new term—Fragmentology—has recently been applied to the study of these parts and parcels. Librarians, archivists, and academics are paying more attention to what can be learned about textual culture from a folio cut, say, from a twelfth-century manuscript and later used by a binder to line the oak boards of a fifteenth-century book. Scholars are thinking through ways that single leaves preserved in libraries across the world can be digitally reconstructed into a virtual representation of the (or part of the) original book as it might have been first produced. Indeed, the accessibility of manuscript fragments themselves potentially brings a wide new audience to manuscript studies. Open access to collections that have been digitized like those at the British Library or the Vatican Library or Al-Furqan Digital Library means that anyone with an internet connection can browse the virtual manuscript (interestingly often initially displayed one folio at a time, as if the textual object were fragmented). In the commercial world of bookdealers and auction houses, meanwhile, individual medieval and early modern leaves or parts of leaves are widely available, some of them cut from manuscripts that were very recently sold as whole books. Such fragmentation, whether it is through digital access or physical possession means that viewers and readers frequently see an object that is representative of its host book, its earliest form perhaps, mainly through absence. 

Photo by Elaine Treharne, used with permission

The absence of the host book in its wholeness now—whether it was a large codex or a libellus (a little book)—is rather curiously the opposite of how the book seems to have been perceived in the medieval period. Then, in every sense, the book as an object, as a specific and significant carrier of multiple sets of meaning, was everywhere, even though relatively few people within the general populace might have owned or been able to read books for themselves. It’s possible to get an appreciation of how whole, solid, and tangible the book was conceived to be by looking at images of manuscripts (and scrolls and other text technologies) in illustrations within manuscripts themselves. There, miniature books are seen to be bound, full of leaves, solid objects. Sometimes the miniatures contain writing; at other times, their blankness anticipates the text that will be entered. Similarly, in mosaics like those at Ravenna or in the early churches of Rome, or the wall-paintings of religious institutions, miniature books—whether open or closed—are tactile, weighty things that signify knowledge, salvation, and the opportunity for conversation. Such synergy occurs between the reader and that which is being read; or between the audience and the words that are transmitted by the distant reader. The margins of books represent potential for an attentive user of the book to engage in debate or clarification; the space of the page also offers room for others to take temporary ownership of the book, entering poems or drawings that are unrelated to the central text, but show a desire to be inscribed into this most inhabited of objects. 

What the medieval conception of, and response to, manuscripts demonstrates is that modern viewers of digital images, or purveyors and purchasers of fragments, should be alert to the reality these bits of books represent. Manuscripts from all over the world and in all languages and traditions that have survived to the present day must be protected as works of art and as testimony to the voices and endeavours of past creators and owners. Through this recognition, we really can shine a light on the efforts of peoples’ past.

Featured image by Elaine Treharne, used with permission

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