how medieval manuscripts survived through thick and thin

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In Oxford 40 years ago, as postgraduates, we were to go to the University Press on Great Clarendon Street and experience the early methods of printing and binding, pagination and decryption of the Elizabethan secretary hand. All very useful technical stuff, when my doctoral thesis was on Anthony Burgess.

But I enjoyed it all for himself – it delayed having to make a living for a year – and Hidden Hands (a pretty awful headline: thought it was going to be scent skin cream or masturbation) brought it all back. For Mary Wellesley’s book concerns the mechanics of literary production. She loves nothing more than a nice stroll through the British Library’s Special Collections room, leaning over original medieval texts and receiving a “tangible, fragrant and visual encounter” with the past. You don’t quite get that browsing in a Sally Rooney pop-up store.

Wellesley likes to manipulate vellum or parchment, with their organic stench, tanned and tanned goatskin or calfskin leaves. The ink was made from oak galls and soot. When the writings were decorated with lions, golden parakeets, dragons, or “a ladybug climbing on a plump cucumber” (at least that’s what Wellesley says it looks like) colorful paints were mixed in from there. egg yolk, gum arabic, lichens and pastel. The paper was made from pulp rags poured into a sieve-like frame, which was then pressed between sheets of felt, shaped yarn creating distinctive watermarks.

Before the arrival of printing with Caxton of the Netherlands in 1476, books were copied by hand – an extremely laborious task. It took years to copy a Bible. A full-time scribe would only manage 20 projects in a lifetime. The scriptorium was “heated to keep scribes and artists from having cold hands … Cold hands were sort of a professional hazard,” Wellesley insists considerately. (When was the mitten invented?)

These manuscripts were in themselves works of art. Among the intertwined ivy tendrils in The Luttrell Psalter are sketches of falconry, watermills, and horses, which look a bit like sheep, perhaps squirrels. “St Dunstan pinching the devil’s nose” sees St Dunstan tormenting a fox terrier with sugar tongs. In the Sherborne Missal, which is full of pink enamel chintz, there is a bald man with a swan on his head.

Many early books were chained to the shelves, like spoons in a British Rail cafeteria. The volume of the Psalms of Anne Boleyn had a gold metal binding, which could be attached to her belt, preventing loss. Nevertheless, books were an endangered species. The Vikings, “like biting hornets,” destroyed everything they encountered, including monks and nuns, when they attacked the northeast. The manuscripts were hidden in coffins for safety. The Gospel of St Cuthbert, weighing 162 g, measuring 10 x 14 cm and made 1,300 years ago, found in a tomb in Durham, was purchased by the British Library in 2012 for £ 9million.

Wellesley points out that only a fraction survive to this day. “The vast majority of manuscripts produced in medieval times perished due to fire, flood, neglect or willful destruction. After the Reformation and the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536, the Protestant culture of cancellations was fierce. The contents of the monastic libraries served as candlestick corners, lighting, cleaning boots and toilet paper. (Imagine people wiping their buttocks on the Book of Kells.) There were other pious vandalism during the Civil War.


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