As was detailed in the previous blog we carefully planned in advance the rebinding of MS 59 once the extensive additional repairs to the brittle and damaged vellum of the backfolds had been carried out. The opportunity was taken to photograph the backfolds prior to sewing as valuable clues to previous bindings visible at this stage would be again hidden once the manuscript was resewn and bound.
The traditional sewing frame was set up with the new linen cords attached and tensioned. The cords were fabricated by cabling unbleached linen thread to the required thickness. The sewing commenced with the new front vellum flyleaf followed by each of the six quires of the text block and finally the new back flyleaf. The linen thread was passed into the centre fold of each quire and out and around each of the double linen cord sewing supports. At the changeover point it passed into the next quire and the process was repeated travelling in the opposite direction. The sewing needle was modified by bending the shaft to allow an easier transition between the cords.
Fig. 2 Sewing MS 59 employing techniques practiced for centuries.
Once the manuscript was sewn it was removed from the frame and endbands were sewn at the head and tail with the same cabled linen cord as the endband. The endband thread was passed through a vellum ‘slotted spine’ which protects the backfolds of the quires and gives some resistance to the opening characteristics of the manuscript.
The next stage was the attachment of the new cushioned ‘blue jean’ binding boards. Channels were cut into their inner surface and the sewing supports and endband cores were laced on to give a very robust mechanical attachment between the text block and binding boards. Like the sewing, this work also emulates methods employed in early medieval book making.
The white alum tawed leather was prepared with the minimum of paring using the full thickness of the skin where possible. Starch paste was applied over the surface of the leather apart from the spine. The manuscript was covered, stretching the leather over the boards and turning in over the edges. The binding was then allowed to settle and dry under light weight. In order to attach the covering leather to the spine of the manuscript; a secondary endband combined with a primary stitch through the cover was sewn at the head and tail using two coloured threads.
In addition, a chemise made from linen, similar in form to the modern dust jacket, was sewn up and this will help keep the cover clean. A dropback box designed to apply slight pressure to the closed binding will keep the manuscript in optimum condition.
The finished structure opens with ease and with minimum strain on the thousand year-old vellum folia and the pigments and ink applied to their surface. The information recorded during the disbinding phase will help us better understand how this small ‘pocket gospel’ might have looked when it was first produced in central Ireland in the eighth century. The current binding will hopefully protect the precious contents into the next millennium.
The three pronged approach to the Early Irish Manuscript project has afforded us the opportunity to focus our attention on key modern disciplines in relation to manuscript study; conservation, research and digitization, all of which require close scrutiny of the material and content. In addition we have taken full advantage of the extended time period working with each of the manuscripts to search for clues of their past life and attempt to answer such questions as: where and when was it written; how was it used; and what did it look like when it was first bound (this is a familiar question for early medieval books, as less than a handful of insular manuscripts are still contained inside their original bindings)? There are quite often subtle and not so subtle clues to assist in answering these and other codicological questions if you know what you are looking for.
Sewing (fig. 1): How the quires of early medieval manuscripts were sewn together varied geographically and chronologically and even though the original sewing has likely long since been replaced, often more than once, evidence of its existence, such as holes in the backfolds of the quires or even ghost traces of impressions in the vellum can yield useful clues, such impressions might even inform us of the thickness and make-up of the thread. If you are really fortunate, original thread fragments may remain trapped under a later sewing.
As we pointed out in a previous post, three of the Gospel Books under examination were formerly kept in book-shrines. The shrines are extant for the Book of Dimma (TCD; fig. 1) and the Book of Mulling (National Museum of Ireland), while the damage visible on Codex Usserianus Primus implies that it was also kept in a metal box for some time (see more on this HERE).
The practice of enclosing books in ornate boxes probably stems from the use of book caskets during religious ceremonies in early Christian Rome. The Gospel, considered to be the Word of God, needed to be housed in an appropriate manner: lavish bindings and boxes were devised to protect the Scriptures and assert their importance through the use of precious materials.
When the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) was received in the Conservation Department of Trinity College back in 1977, it was sporting a binding that had been carried out by the British Museum in the late 19th century. The style of binding was similar to that employed for Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) (see previous post) and involved the now individual vellum folios being glued around their edges and set into paper panels, before being gathered together and sewn into a leather binding.
The fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (see previous post for background) were, until a few years ago, kept in a late 19th- or early 20th-century binding (fig. 1). Unfortunately, we have no recorded description of how the manuscript was kept prior to this.