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Conserving Quires for the Choirs

A comparison between five medieval manuscripts

By project conservator Angelica Anchisi

During my first year on the Carnegie Project, I had the opportunity to work on a group of five 15th-century manuscripts, mostly antiphonaries (choir books), ranging in size from 40×30 cm (TCD MS 101) to 54x38cm (TCD MS 77).

Three of the manuscripts (TCD MSS 77, 78 and 79) presented themselves, as is the case of a large number of other manuscripts from this period, in a typical 18th-century binding that had been “Executed for the College in 1741-1744 by the shop of John Exshaw of Dublin in speckled calf”; whether the original contemporary binding had been discarded during this process, or if the manuscripts had already been rebound before 1741, it’s difficult to say.

What is certain is that the contemporary medieval binding was replaced with a typical 18th-century full leather structure with hemp sewing supports laced-into laminated boards. At a later stage all three of the manuscripts were rebacked in the early 1900s with the use of poor-quality leather.

The other two manuscripts in the group (TCD MSS 100 and 101), purchased by Trinity in 1835, had “escaped” the re-binding frenzy of the 18th century and still conserved their medieval covers with alum tawed sewing supports laced into timber boards, and fore-edge clasps.

Each of the three manuscripts rebound in the 18th century, presented pretty much the same kind of damage: the weakening and/or breaking of the sewing along the middle of the spine, the leather from the reback also failed along the same line, detachment of one or both boards, and damage and deformation of the vellum pages. This kind of structural damage being completely understandable considering the size and the weight of the manuscripts.

The treatment, took about 24/25 days for TCD MSS 77 and 79, and 38 days in the case of MS 78; conservation involved cleaning of the spine after removal of the old leather and lining, the consolidation of the sewing and sewing supports, and reattachment of the boards followed by rebacking with new leather. In the case of TCD MS 77 new boards were made and laced-on, the book was then rebound in a quarter leather binding.

The most “time consuming” part of the treatment was the consolidation and the repair of the pages. All three manuscripts, especially TCD MSS 77 and 78, presented a fair amount of deformation and creasing of the vellum, mostly in the first and last section, that had resulted in tears and losses. The only way to bring the vellum back to an acceptable condition and to make the consolidation and repair process easier and more straightforward, was to remove the damaged sections from the bookblock, lightly humidify, and pin them under tension, so as to ease the level of deformation.

It is evident that the majority of the damage on the pages, especially in the case of TCD MS 78, derived from having been exposed to water and to an unsuitable environment in the past; but it is also safe to assume that the binding was too light and unable to keep the parchment from reacting to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, allowing its movement, and therefore its creasing and deformation over time.

This theory is proven by comparing TCD MSS 77, 78 and 79 to MSS 100 and 101 which, as already stated, had been kept in their original medieval binding with heavy timber boards and clasps.

In the case of these last two manuscripts, the damage was limited to the weakening and/or breaking of the alum tawed sewing supports along the front joint; a fairly common issue due to the repeated movement of opening/closing of the book, combined with the weight of the timber boards. The treatment therefore was minimal, taking 16 days for TCD MS 100 and 6 days for TCD MS 101, and only involved the consolidation of the sewing supports.

The pages, kept in check by the heavy boards and the clasps, were free of damage and creases and were in almost perfect condition; no intervention whatsoever was needed and even the dry cleaning of the bookblock was mostly superfluous due to the protective nature of the binding.

While it is commonly acknowledged that past rebindings are now part of the history of the book and, if still functioning, should be preserved as much as possible (for example by only rebacking and consolidating the structure instead of rebinding the whole volume); it’s still quite safe to assume that the loss of the contemporary bindings and in time, of the will, and skills, to reinstate them, has weighted quite heavily on the correct preservation of these, and many other medieval manuscripts.

By Angelica Anchisi

Conservator Manuscripts for Medieval Studies Project.

The ‘Manuscripts for Medieval Studies’ project is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This project is part of the Virtual Trinity Library programme to conserve, catalogue, digitise, and promote the Library’s unique collections, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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