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.
Parchment is a very durable material and even if it is quite sensitive to humidity (see previous post) it can withstand a lot of wear and tear. This characteristic has made it a favoured writing material for several thousand years. It replaced papyrus when the first multi-quire codices came into use because its flexibility and resilience allowed the centrefold of the several gatherings to be sewn together into text blocks without tearing1; and when paper became the most widespread writing and printing support, parchment still continued to play an important role in bookbinding as a covering material.
Nevertheless parchment can be damaged when documents are heavily used or misused. Tears, splitting and losses can result (figs. 1 and 2).
A moth ate words. To me it seemed
a remarkable fate, when I learned of the marvel,
that the worm had swallowed the speech of a man,
a thief in the night, a renowned saying
and its place itself. Though he swallowed the word
the thieving stranger was no whit the wiser.
This short verse was recorded in Old English in the tenth century Book of Exeter (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).1 Riddles such as this likely served a host of functions in Anglo-Saxon culture, from educational to performative.2 In the case of our example, the riddle alludes to a problem inherent in the organic properties of medieval book-making materials (see previous post). Manuscript texts were vulnerable to wear or damage from natural processes and environmental factors, not to mention handling (see previous post).