The small format ‘pocket gospel’ book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) was the penultimate manuscript scheduled to be imaged as part of the Early Irish Manuscript Project. The Book of Dimma, like the two manuscripts already imaged; the Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) and the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) was contained in a modern conservation binding. In the case of Dimma the binding was worked by Roger Powell in 1957.
Powell was also responsible for the re-binding of the Book of Kells (TCD MS 58) and a number of other early Insular manuscripts.
As with all manuscripts in the project, a detailed examination was carried out to assess the condition of the Book of Dimma prior to imaging. This process immediately flagged some issues in relation to the extremely tight back margins of many folia, where often the writing disappeared into the gutters of the opening. We also identified many areas of damage, particularly in the final quire, where structural damage, in the form of splits on a number of folia, was located at the bottom edge of the backfolds, the position of the damage making any in-situ repair impossible. Critically, there was concern that even opening the book risked further damage, particularly in this area. Powell had carried out extensive repairs to the vellum folia prior to re-binding the manuscript, and given the vulnerable location of the damage found in the last quire it is unlikely he would have chosen not to deal with this, so we can surmise that the damage occurred after his work.
The rough handling and poor storage of these manuscripts prior to being deposited in our national institutions has resulted in staining, embrittlement, gelatinization and losses of the vellum, and this has also left the manuscripts susceptible to further damage even with careful use.
The next stage of the assessment involved carrying out trial imaging using our Icam KT5242 book copy stand. This did facilitate full access to the text but often required ‘stressful levels’ of manipulation of the manuscript due to its ‘tight’ binding structure.
After in-depth discussion it was decided that the best option was to dis-bind the manuscript. This process was very straight forward due to the reversible nature of the Powell binding; reversibility being a key aspect of all quality conservation bindings. With this approach there is no adhesive in direct contact with the quires of the manuscript and as a result when ‘pulling’ the book, it is simply a matter of cutting the sewing threads in the centre of each quire and manipulating each in turn from the binding.
Adhesive is kept away from the backfolds by various means, in the case of Dimma it was achieved with the use of a parchment ‘zig-zag’ spine liner, which followed the profile of all spinefolds of the assembled quires, and was held in position by the sewing process. It was decided to maintain the individual quires in their removed form, with no attempt to separate them out into folia or to flatten out the backfolds of the bifolia. In this state imaging was straight forward, and all folio were fully captured.
The dis-binding process also allowed us access to study the backfolds of all the bifolia, typically this is where the best codicological information can be found with clues as to previous bindings and sewings in evidence if you are lucky. There are some telltale indications from the Dimma backfolds that hint at earlier binding structures and these were recorded along with all other evidence such as green stained (copper?) holes in the vellum, possibly perforations from nails used to hold decorative metalwork in place on the 12th century shrine which once housed the manuscript. All this evidence was gathered by constructing a Perspex® former with back lighting that allowed the bifolia outline and all physical features of the manuscript to be traced while maintaining its folded form.
Currently each of the six quires from the book of Dimma are housed in individual custom-made folders in a cruciform ‘Phase Box’. The conservation treatment will include repairs to the now accessible damaged areas of the folia, and re-binding using a structure that will protect the precious contents while allowing safe access for display and research.
John Gillis, Senior Conservator, Preservation and Conservation Department