Fragmentology: pieces of books and medieval manuscript

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A few years ago, when I bought an early 20th century octagonal lampshade, I knew I was buying a fascinating piece of book history. This household object, made of a painted iron frame that radiates outward from the central bulb holder, has a shade made up of eight cut-out panels taken from a late medieval religious service book , an antiphon. Part of the plainsong music, written on a four-line staff, comes from the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi, who died in 1253. It is taken from an Italian manuscript and, in its reuse, it looks like several similar street lights that still work. in situ at WR 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, possibly composed of an entire calfskin or sheepskin per folio or per opening: a book that was large enough for an assembled choir of monks, nuns or canons. to see and sing. Its current state of crumbling is not just due to the leaves being taken out of their welcome book, but also the damage that occurred when the volatile electric light set the shade on fire. over a century ago. As the shade deteriorates, so too does the voices of the past, along with the skill and craftsmanship that produced the original manuscript. Here, the fragile fragments are perhaps the only remnants of an object that was used in worship services where song lifted hearts and music uplifted. It’s a shame that this medieval book wasn’t revered in the same way when the person with the knife possessed and destroyed it.

There are so many manuscript fragments that a new term – fragmentation – has recently been applied to the study of these parts and plots. Librarians, archivists, and academics pay more attention to what can be learned about textual culture from a folio, for example, a 12th century manuscript and later used by a bookbinder to line the oak planks of a 15th century book. Researchers are considering how single sheets held in libraries around the world can be digitally reconstructed into a virtual representation of (or part of) the original book as it might have been produced for the first time. Indeed, the accessibility of the manuscript fragments themselves potentially brings a large new audience to manuscript studies. Free access to collections that have been digitized like those in the British Library or the Vatican Library or the Al-Furqan Digital Library means that anyone with an internet connection can browse the virtual manuscript (it is interesting note that it often initially displayed one folio at a time, as if the text object had been fragmented). In the commercial world of booksellers and auction houses, medieval and modern single sheets or parts of sheets are widely available, some of them cut from manuscripts which have very recently been sold as whole books. Such fragmentation, whether through digital access or physical possession, causes viewers and readers to frequently see an object representative of its host book, its oldest form perhaps, primarily through absence.

Photo by Elaine Treharne, used with permission

The absence of the entire welcome book now, whether it is a large codex or a calumny (a little book) – is oddly enough the opposite of how the book seems to have been viewed in medieval times. So, in every way, the book as an object, as a specific and meaningful carrier of multiple sets of meanings, was everywhere, even if relatively few in the general population would have owned or been able to read books for themselves. It is possible to get a sense of the book’s completeness, strength, and tangibility by examining images of manuscripts (and scrolls and other text technologies) in the illustrations of the manuscripts themselves. There, we see bound miniature books, full of sheets, solid objects. Sometimes the miniatures contain writing; at other times, their white anticipates the text that will be entered. Likewise, in mosaics like those in Ravenna or in the earliest churches of Rome, or in the murals of religious institutions, miniature books – whether open or closed – are tactile and heavy things that signify knowledge, the hi and the occasion of the conversation. Such synergy occurs between the reader and what is read; or between the audience and the words that are transmitted by the remote reader. Book margins represent the potential for a careful user of the book to engage in debate or clarification; the space of the page also offers others the possibility of temporarily appropriating the book, by inscribing therein poems or drawings unrelated to the central text, but which manifest the desire to be inscribed in this object the more inhabited.

What the medieval design of manuscripts demonstrates and the response to which they respond is that modern viewers of digital images, or suppliers and buyers of fragments, should be mindful of the reality of these pieces of books. Manuscripts from around the world and in all languages ​​and traditions that have survived to the present day must be protected as works of art and as a testament to the voices and efforts of past creators and owners. Through this recognition, we can truly bring to light the efforts of peoples’ past.

Image presented by Elaine Treharne, used with permission


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