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.