More Medieval Rebindings - Hebrew Manuscript Institute

On the heels of a previous post, Dr. Ezra Chwat passed along a photo from a Latin manuscript at an Innsbruck monastery (I am assuming the Wilton Basilica based on the file name). It is a rather pretty Latin text, you can see the column rules really well even from this picture (16th? 17th?). It has been rebound relatively recently in red cloth with some nice looking page repair. But whoever rebound it included the Hebrew folios that I am guessing lined the interior of the boards. You can see how intact and useful they are. In his email, Dr. Chwat made the point that if such folios had not been reclaimed and used as material in re-bindings, then they would have simply been read and handled until no longer viable and then buried according to custom. Such is the great blessing of bookbinding, which often recycles important literary artifacts simply because they were handy at the time.

Thanks for the helpful photo!


Speaking of Virtual Geographies - Manufacturing Rome

Crossley recently blogged about the interesting SBL section on "Reading, Theory and the Bible on Reading, Space and Imagined Geographies." And then Google Earth announces the unveiling of a GE reconstruction of ancient Rome:

"Soaring above a virtual reconstruction of the Forum and the Palatine Hill or zooming into the Colosseum to get a lion’s-eye view of the stands, Google Earth’s 400 million users will be able to explore the ancient capital as easily “as any city can be explored today,” Michael T. Jones, chief technology officer of Google Earth, said Wednesday at a news conference at Rome’s city hall."

Talk about your killer apps. Are they going to resurrect Jerusalem as well? Rebuild the temple? Answer some lingering questions about Galilean urban planning? Despite the potential this tech has for the classroom, what an invigorating collaboration between printed and digital scholarship. It is like a virtual incarnation of all the recent movements in New Testament Studies towards social-scientific reconstructions of early Mediterranean culture. Think of it as Manufacturing Rome.


Jewish Book Materials at Modena

Something similar to the project at Perugia I recently blogged about is occurring at the Hebrew Manuscript Institute with volumes from the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria in Modena. There are some extensive notes at the above link on the contents of these reclaimed folios, as well as a few descriptions of the actual bindings. I emailed Dr. Chwat for links to or attachments of some more helpful images, as it is still tough from the descriptions alone to determine how these folios were used in the rebinding of 16th century volumes. He responded with the link to the photo at the top of the IMHM.

Though I would love a few dozen more, including shots of some heads and tails, corner folds, pastedowns, etc... this shot is actually pretty helpful. In Dr. Chwat's original blog post, he notes a few somewhat difficult to decipher things. If by "plates" he means "boards," the bindings are fairly regular in that they consist of three bifolia - two for each board (interior?), and one used as a cover material. In the photo you can see that at some point labels in Italian were pasted on each spine. The organic pastes undoubtedly used on these labels are easy to remove. Seeing this photos, I can understand the impulse some bookbinder had - that stack of fine Jewish vellum in the corner of the shop would make excellent cover material. He also notes that there has been some text transfer and imprinting due to the proximity of each folio to another. And then:

"All but two (or possibly three) of the original Hebrew manuscripts are unique (that is- the sole remnant of this particular copy). This is highly unusual, as we are used to finding circulation of folios from particular manuscripts among many locations in Northern Italy and beyond."

Which is pretty nifty for Hebrew scholars. Without more images, I can't think of much else to say about this fascinating collection from a binding standpoint.


How to Make a Torah Scroll

An odd resource for codicologists popped up a few years back when Philobiblon started a bookbinding journal called Bonefolder (which refers to one of the most basic bookbinding tools). Every now and then they publish an article that would be of interest to someone involved with the study of early Christian origins, such as an article on The Preservation of Torah Scrolls by Daniel Stuhlman. The big contribution of the article is a plea for more Jewish involvement with the preservation of Jewish book and scroll materials, as most conservation departments don't have someone on hand that is schooled ways to deal with artifacts that are still holy even if they are no longer useful. But leading up to this interesting point are some helpful descriptions of how parchment is made, and a survey of its most important preservation factors. At the very least, having some of this process in mind is helpful when looking at bits of NT parchment fragments. (Those fragments are from de Hamel's collection, recently photographed.)

The process of making parchment hasn't significantly changed since antiquity. There are references to the making of parchment in Pliny and Herodotus, and a slew of different words for the material, but by and large our knowledge of parchment preparation has been handed down to us through some Middle Age references and instructions that had been standardized centuries beforehand. Oddly enough, modern parchment preparation uses chemicals and enzymes that create weaker book materials.

From the article:

"The source for the skin is from kosher animals slaughtered for meat. Animals may not be killed solely to use the hides. The finest leathers and parchment come from fetal calves. The next grade comes from young calves. Older animals have hides with stains from the environment that are a challenge to remove. After skinning the animal, the skin is soaked in water. Lime is used to help removed the hair. The skin can be made into either leather or parchment... In general, the younger the animal at time of slaughter the thinner the hide, the smaller surface area, the smoother and finer the grain structure, and the less likelihood of damage due to disease, injury, or insects."

There was allowance in Jewish law for scrolls to be written on leather, but leather scrolls of any length are far heavier and more cumbersome than the alternative, which is parchment. Parchment is made by soaking the skin in lime for weeks, which softens the epidermis in such a way that hair can then be easily removed. In the Middle Ages, lime was predominantly used for dehairing, but in antiquity fermented organic pastes were used. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, were prepared in a characteristically Jewish way that involved smearing the skins with rotten flour paste and stacking them up for a few days. The old Jewish process made very fine parchments, but as the heat and enzymes built up during this process can quickly destroy skin, they eventually began to use the less volatile lime. (Throughout history, urine has also been used as a dehairing catalyst, which is why curators will ask you not to touch parchment materials directly.) After this, remaining fat and tissue are scraped from the other side. The skin is then carefully stretched, which aligns the skin fibers into a consistent grain, and it is scraped again while drying. By now the skin is pure collagen, and these additional scrapings allow the tanner to determine the final thickness and quality of the parchment. There are many ways to polish stretched parchment. Pumice, or rolls of bread with bits of glass baked into them, make the skins smooth and receptive to ink. Lime, egg whites, and other materials made the skins whiter. This process produces a writing material that is very receptive to ink and other sorts of decoration. It is more durable than paper from the binder's perspective, and very pleasurable to work with as its stiffer properties make it easier to sew and arrange in complex ways. But long term, parchment is more susceptible to poor environmental conditions. It is easy to see this difference in the curling, discoloration, and chemical reactions to various inks that characterize early parchment fragments (see this excellent summary of how leather and parchment decay).

In scholarship on fragments of biblical texts, parchment and vellum are sometimes used as interchangeable terms. Vellum is actually a subcategory of parchment made from the skin of calves, and graded by the age of the calf as noted above from the article. Technically, Hebrew scrolls are written on vellum, as parchment can be made from sheep, goats, horses, or cows. The Mishneh and Talmud call the vellum most scrolls were written on "gevil," which refers to the outer layer of a split-calf skin. (I am pretty sure the DSS were written on this layer of skin, which is a handy example from antiquity.)

There is a nice short summary of this process as applied to the medieval codex here. Either way, I think it is helpful to have these processes in mind when looking at fragments and folios. Not only does it help explain some of the physical anomalies that pop up every now and then in the form of bumps, splits, and holes - but it further helps to remind us that texts and textual variants aren't the only history told by manuscripts and codices.


An Update on This Blog

I am finally finishing up a large writing commitment that has kept me from this blog. In the last year a massive backlog of coptic and assorted bookbinding related stuff has stacked up. I have a lot of info culled from a few weeks at the Oriental Studies Library in Cambridge. I have a large stack of Nag Hammadi and related images to wander through, as well as some work on a few neglected Robinson articles that he so kindly directed me towards. I still haven't gotten around to talking about some of the papers on miniature books/amulets from the last SBL. And of course with the explosion of post-copyright stuff on Google Books, a lot of volumes that previously could not be had through inter-library loan now can be had anywhere with a wireless signal. I look forward to exploring some classic and forgotten resources on the history of books, paper, and ancient libraries right here on this blog.

Long story short, I look forward to getting back to this blog. And to great many who come here for the coptic bookbinding posts from a few years ago, there is more to come. I have been working on copying some extant coptic sewing and cover patterns, and will share images of that work here.

Jewish Book Materials at Perugia

A genizah is a room in a synagogue or cemetery that is used as a staging area for books and paper materials that need to be properly disposed. As no writing that contains the name of God can be destroyed, there is a set of rituals in place by which they can be buried in periodic cycles, often associated with various agricultural or religious blessings. Such writings would include anything from personal correspondence to scripture, and intact genizot offer a wide range of secular and religious materials in a variety of languages. The discovery of a genizah, such as the famous Cairo Genizah that contained almost 200,000 items waiting to be disposed, can open up worlds of linguistic and religious data that we have never been able to explore. In a digital age, it can be hard to comprehend how significant this Jewish practice has been for the study of history. But imagine if we lived in world in which no computers existed and then were to seal a reasonably sized library of our most treasured books and letters for archeologists to discover in 800 years. That approximates how important genizot can be. One man’s trash is another man's academic career.

But apart from all the historical and linguistic data we pick up from these deposits, there is also a wealth of book data to be had. I used to spend hours in a university rare book collection I curated just randomly selecting volumes and studying spines, sewing patterns, corner folds, etc… What someone interested in bindings would see in a genizah is much different from what someone interested in the actual texts would see. There are extant bindings, stacks of text blocks with similar sewing patterns, ranks of covers in a variety of materials, pamphlets – a book construction bonanza. There is some serious book technology history that comes to light in these finds.

In an exhibition of the wryly named Perugia Genizah (a genizah-in-spirit collection in the Biblioteca del Dottorato at the University of Perugia), we get a glimpse into the history of the construction and use of the Hebrew scriptures during the transition from the hand-written to printed market. Hand-written books were so much more expensive than those mass printed by the growing publishing industry, the vellum of worn out hand-written books often ended up being reused in the bindings of new printed volumes. Indeed, a sizable number of pages from Hebrew manuscripts have been discovered as padding in the binding boards of Italian medieval codices, 24 of which have been "excavated" at Perugia. From the exhibition catalog summary: “Of the twenty-four printed books in question, twenty were rebound with complete double folios, and four detached from two single folios.” Intact double folios are a nice find. The exhibition website summarizes the origins of these folios as mostly 13th to 15th century copies of Hebrew scriptures and rabbinical writings in Hebrew and Aramaic, and a 13th century Spanish copy of the Babylonian Talmud. It is typically thought that the reason we have so many Jewish books ending up in the bindings of later volumes is that after being confiscated during the Inquisition, they ended up as refuse in bookbinding shops. For example, a papal bull in 1553 rounded up all copies of the Talmud in Rome to be burned on Rosh Hashanah of that year, and many pages of these costly vellum books were filched from these fires to be sold to bookbinders. The Talmud pages at Perugia probably come from such an occasion. As similar confiscations often occurred during the emergence of the printing press industry, a lot of these vellum materials ended up on European trade routes, eventually coming to rest in the covers and spines of random codices.

So apart from the material historians can glean from these recovered texts what does the Perugia collection have to do with bookbinding?

1. The exhibition is a good entry point into this history of rebinding. One can quickly see the rise and fall of cultures via the cycling of paper and parchment materials through later generations of bindings. Is the history of book technology a political history? It certainly is, and the failure to recognize this is in part what led to confusion about the use of codex in the first and second century.
2. There are some excellent photos from the conservation process as part of the exhibition. Even the non-specialist can see pretty clearly how these materials were re-used so many centuries ago and then recently reclaimed.
3. The story behind how these folios ended up in later codices sheds light on how book materials made their way around European and Mediterranean trade systems. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see materials with a Germanic provenance ending up in volumes bound in Italy. I think this ultimately calls for greater attention by scholars of Christian and Hebrew manuscripts to how basic medieval bookbinding processes relate to the texts that are discovered either intact or as disiecta membra. In this period, as exhibitions like this one at Perugia demonstrate, it is possible for one volume to represent a few generations of written materials.

There are some similar projects ongoing in Europe that have released interesting bookbinding info, I will track some of it down.