Historically bookbinding vellum could be as simple as a recycled manuscript page, the text still visible. We’ve talked about vellum as a material before here. (Follow the link if you’d like to know more about the messy process of making vellum.) But we haven’t talk much about how vellum was used and then re-used in manuscripts. Are you familiar with the lovely word “palimpsest”? Wikipedia gives us the concise definition:
|A Georgian palimpsest from the 5th/6th century.|
Vellum (made from calfskin) and parchment (made from a variety of animal hides) grew in popularity as a bookmaking material in Europe after about the 6th century and through the Middle Ages. Since it was such a durable material, it was easily washed then repurposed for a new text. Scarcity and the cost of vellum and parchment for new texts meant that older manuscripts were often recycled in this way. As time passed and the pages aged, the faint remains of the former writing would re-emerge, enough so that scholars can decipher the original writing. Sometimes the text is visible enough to be read by eye, but today scholars have tools such as ultraviolet light, x-rays, photographic and digital imaging techniques to help make lost texts legible. Many celebrated ancient Greek and Roman texts are only known to us via these kinds of overwritten manuscripts.
Texts most likely to be reused included obsolete legal and religious ones, the kinds of things that are of intense interest to historians, but less useful to the average reader in the Middle Ages. Texts might be in foreign languages or written in unfamiliar scripts that had become illegible over time. The books themselves might have been already damaged or incomplete. Heretical texts were considered dangerous to preserve; reusing the materials was considered less wasteful than simply burning the books.
And this fall, in the spirit of reuse and repurposing, students will be encouraged to examine their materials for qualities that suit a particular use, and to explore intelligent alternatives. Fabric, paper, plastic, Tyvek, Gore-Tex, felt, dental floss and neoprene are all possibilities that come to mind.
The class will be taught by Susan Mills from October 29 – November 1, Monday through Friday, 10am – 4pm.