The Ingenuity and Beauty of Creative Parchment Repair in Medieval Books

Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century)

Books repaired with silk thread. Uppsala, University Library, Shelfmark unknown (14th century)

Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Patr.41, fol. 69r.

Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Patr.41, fol. 69r. Detail.

Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16, 12th century

Freiburg, Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, MS L 34, 14th century

Another day, another collection of fascinating discoveries from medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel who previously introduced the internet to his observations on the history of doodles, color theory, and rare forms of bookbinding. Kwakkel has also been investigating how bookmakers found creative solutions around damaged parchment—thin membranes of cow and sheepskin used for printing books between the fifth and thirteenth centuries before the rise of paper. Parchment was extremely delicate and costly to manufacture well, so imperfections from animal hair follicles to small tears and texture anomalies were left for the poor scribes to contend with.

After witnessing their doodling artistry, it should come as no surprise that medieval scribes had a host of ideas to work around bad parchment, from webs of silk embroidery to cheeky illustrations, the blemishes were incorporated right into the physical texts. Although a different medium, the process is uncannily similar to the ancient Japanese process of repairing broken ceramics, Kintsugi, where fractures in pots or bowls are mended with precious metal, acknowledging the history of the imperfect object instead of discarding it.

You can learn much more about Kwakkel’s parchment discoveries in his article “The Skinny on Bad Parchment,” and in these two posts on Tumblr.

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