Re-using Manuscripts in Late Medieval England
In three sentences, please tell us what your book aims to do.
My book shows how late medieval manuscripts were made well and designed to last for a long time. By demonstrating the durable qualities of manuscripts, I show how they could be re-used in a variety of ways, by being repaired, recycled, and shared. I explore aspects of medieval book history ranging from animal husbandry, through the crafts of book production, to a library book protected by a curse!
Why did the demand for books flourish during this time period?
In England as in Europe, the trade in books flourished in the fifteenth century, and rose rapidly to meet growing demand. Several factors contribute to this burgeoning book trade, including an expanding reading public with diverse interests, a market for paper and print books, imports of new books, and opportunities for local production of manuscripts. People wanted books – there were busy centres of production in London, Oxford, Leicester, and York, and book fairs took place all around the country. At the same time, older books were repaired and sold secondhand too.
What methods did medieval craftspeople and readers use to recycle manuscripts? Is there one method that you found especially surprising?
Manuscripts were recycled in many ways. One of the best known methods is palimpsesting. This involves scraping or washing text from parchment, often – but not always – to make way for a fresh text. While I had heard of this method, I hadn’t seen much of it until I went rummaging in the archives. I was surprised by how messy the results of scraping can be – some palimpsested surfaces are blotchy and scuffed, and sometimes the parchment has been scraped into holes.
How did you become interested in manuscripts?
During my postgraduate degrees in Oxford, I had the opportunity to study manuscripts in person in several collections in the UK, and in the USA. I am drawn to medieval books because they are so vividly and brilliantly handmade. I still find it remarkable that I can study parchment, script, and bindings shaped by the hands of craftspeople who lived hundreds of years ago. Even the scruffiest manuscripts fascinate me.
Tell us about a manuscript you were excited to look at more closely for this book.
I was particularly excited to study a manuscript with an amazing limp binding (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 33). It’s a kind of folded parchment wrapper, made from recycled church documents. These covers also preserve a partial draft version of the romance Sir Firumbras, which is written out again in full in the main body of the book. It’s unusual to find a draft Middle English text at all and even more unusual to find it still travelling with a copy of the text as a recycled wrapper like this.
What’s one thing you would like others who work with manuscripts to take away from your study?
Anyone who works with medieval manuscripts certainly sees re-use all the time, so I hope that my work provides a useful contribution to the ongoing conversation about these features. Above all else, I hope my book will encourage further critical reflection on how we describe and engage with the weird materiality of medieval manuscripts.
HANNAH RYLEY is Lecturer in Early Medieval English at Balliol College, Oxford; she also teaches for the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford.