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