X-Rays Expose a Hidden Medieval Library

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the book and book ownership. In fact, when I was doing my graduate studies in medieval Irish literature, I was often more interested in the marginalia that contained the owners’ commentary than the narrative on the pages. I would also look at the genealogy that some bound manuscripts contained and wonder about these individuals listed and what their lives were like. To find out that people are now able to find repurposed (or destroyed if one looks at it this way) manuscript pages in the bindings of early printed books is to know that there is a whole history of ownership living just out of reach. Who chose to discard these pages? What made them expendable outside of the fact that printing was making book ownership and dissemination more accessible to more of the population?
Although my interests have begun to lean towards the modern short story, my interest in ownership and literacy stands strong. These new discoveries may tell us more about the transition to print and changes in literary culture.


Readers of this blog probably know that early-modern book bindings contain hidden treasure: fragments cut from medieval manuscripts, ranging from small snippets to full pages. The fragments were placed inside bindings to reinforce the bookblock and to provide support for the boards (see this post I wrote about it, and this one as well). This recycling process – plain-old slicing and dicing, really – was common practice, old-fashioned as handwritten books had become after the invention of print. In fact, medieval pages are found in as many as one in five bindings of printed books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  While the stowaways are normally hidden from our eyes, we sometimes get to meet them face to face when a binding is damaged (Fig. 1).

Leiden_UB_583_x_x Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, 583, printed work (16th century) with medieval fragments inside (12th century) – Photo EK

But what to do with the thousands of fragments that are hidden from us in bindings…

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Heron Moon Press

I am an adjunct assistant professor of English at Pace University in NY, adjunct faculty in English at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ, an online member of the adjunct faculty at SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, as well as a freelance editor and writer. For many years, I've taught, guided, and tutored many individuals from those as young as kindergarten age to Grad-school students. I've worked on fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs. What has given me the greatest pleasure, is when I have students get together in a group, and create a story together. I offer the theme (e.g., Create a version of Red Riding Hood) and they run with it. I hope to offer this community collaboration to many more people. The goal is to prove that you don't have to be alone to write, you don't have to offer yourself up alone to the group, you can collaborate and offer the world (yes, the world is the community) a chance to create a narrative together. The results have been amazing.

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