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Advent Definitions: Why did the manuscript lose its tail?

HelenBiggs19 December 2017

Contributed by Angela Warren-Thomas, Senior Conservator.

Christmas is a long list of exciting stuff for most of us, and near the top of my list is wrapping paper and presents. Actually, wrapping is a complicated process of choosing a precious item for a special person and presenting it in a beautiful covering that keeps it cosseted and safe.

R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There are many reasons for and ways of wrapping special or precious things.  At Special Collections, we have an amazing example of just such a thing. One of my absolute favourite items in our collection is a 15th Century Chemise or girdle binding.

This small volume, almost pocket size, has a soft pink binding of alum-tawed sheepskin.  Alum tawing was an ancient process of treating prepared animal hides with alum salts and other materials. This process made the skins very soft and flexible, rather like suede leather today. The production of alum leathers became very widespread during the Middle Ages, and was used for the production of not only bookbinding leathers, but amongst other things gloving leather, leather for belts or girdles and leather for women’s shoes.

This little book then, has an extra wrapping; its Chemise covering, also made from alum-tawed sheepskin. The Chemise cover traditionally continued loose below the cover of the book in a long tapered tail with a large knot at the end, which could then be tucked into someone’s girdle or belt keeping the precious book safe and close to hand. The knot was usually strips of leather woven together in some decorative manner. The book hung upside down and backwards so that when lifted it was ready for reading.


The Altar of the “Gertrudenbruderschaft der Träger”1509. St. Anne and the Holy Kinship. Two of St. Anne’s relatives are carrying a girdle book
 

These books were normally religious: a cleric’s daily Office, or for laypersons, especially women, a Book of Hours. Women particularly wore the girdle book; it was already fashionable, in the 15th century, to wear a girdle belt above the waistline and these books in their “wrapper” or Chemise binding became visible statements of social position, wealth and learning, intellectual curiosity or at the very least literacy.

MS GERM 20 at UCL Special Collections. Inside our Chemise binding is a manuscript, “The Passio Christi”. Written in beautiful Bavarian script, it has ornamental red ink initials throughout.
 

Our Chemise binding has unfortunately lost its tail at some time in the past. There are one or two theories as to why this could have happened.  Possibly, it survived the destruction of libraries and books during the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which swept across Europe in the 16th Century. Cutting off the tail of the chemise binding, most of which were religious texts (which is not surprising, as it was churches, monasteries and convents that produced the majority of manuscripts), would have been an instant disguise for a religious manuscript. Perhaps the leather tail was removed to make it easier to store the volume on a shelf. It was only in the late 16th century that books began to be shelved upright with the spine outward, and the construction of a girdle book would have made it difficult to slip the volume onto a shelf between other books. On the other hand, possibly a nice piece of leather was needed for some other use, and the extension on a Chemise binding was a handy source of leather.

Whilst we may never know the reason why our manuscript lost its tail, we do know what it would have looked similar to in all its glory. Thankfully, wrapped in the remnants of its Chemise binding, our manuscript remains a precious gift for anyone fortunate enough to open it.


A model of a Chemise binding made by Fred Bearman

Advent Definitions: All that glitters

Vicky APrice7 December 2017

‘Gold’ in R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There is much to be celebrated about gold in its many forms. From the most precious jewellery to the cheapest golden glitter pen, for me gold always brings about a giddy fascination.

As the definition suggests, it’s a material and colour that usually denotes value, beauty, godliness or importance.  When I see it in art I often think of the adoring artist, unashamedly displaying admiration and enchantment with someone – think Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – or a pious artist creating an icon intended to glow with luminosity above an awe-struck congregation.

 

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

The same is the case when I happen upon gold in UCL’s Special Collections.  We hold many manuscripts and rare books that feature gold leaf – either on the pages’ edges, the binding or within the text and illustrations themselves. Perhaps the most staggering example is a copy of the Persian poet’s Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan (‘Romance of the Sultan Akbar’) from 1749. The cover is gilded and ornately decorated, while the leaves inside radiate a dazzling richness only possible through the use of gold leaf:

 

The beginning of the Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan poem

This tome, along with other manuscripts and manuscript fragments were the inspiration for a community art project in the Summer with with Sidings Community Centre. They host regular adults’ colouring in sessions, during which local residents for whom social isolation is a high risk come together to enjoy some light-hearted art.  I brought them copies of UCL’s most glamorously golden items, and together we had a go at doing some of our own gilding, inspired by the collection.

Some members of the group brought in a chosen fable or poem:

 

A gilded chicken!

Others preferred to stick to colouring in, tackling copies of some ornate lettering:

 

A slightly psychedelic take on an image from Biblia Latina, an illuminated bible from the 13th or 14th century (MS Lat 9)

We even experimented with ‘aging’ the gold leaf:

 

Not a bad first try with using gold leaf!

We look forward to more community and school projects that explore the incredible collection of manuscripts and manuscript fragments at UCL – especially if it means we get to bring the glamour of gilding to more workshops!

Volunteers’ Week – A Day in the Life

Vicky APrice1 June 2017

Volunteers-Week-Logo_colour

Its the start of Volunteers’ Week today and we would like to say an emphatic THANK YOU to every single person who has offered their time and expertise over the past year to UCL’s SCAR department, without whom many a project would have been difficult or even impossible to complete.

There is a wide range of roles that volunteers can take up within SCAR: helping with events, sorting through new collections, enhancing cataloguing, assisting in exhibition preparation, helping with our media and online communications (the list goes on!).  Throughout Volunteers’ Week we intend to share a snapshot of some of these roles with you.  Each week day from today to the 7th June, a guest volunteer writer will bring you a ‘day in their life’.

Our first blog is from Calum Cockburn, who recently started to help us improve our understanding (and therefore cataloguing) of some of our manuscript fragments.

Calum Cockburn: Manuscript Fragment Volunteer

Part of MS Frag/Lat/7, a twelfth century manuscript fragment

Part of MS Frag/Lat/7, a twelfth century manuscript fragment

My work as a volunteer involves studying and transcribing Special Collections’ manuscript fragments, checking their catalogue references, and identifying the texts they might contain. My current project is MS Frag / Lat / 7, a twelfth-century Latin manuscript, composed of six loose folios, apparently taken from different parts of the book. The manuscript is full of wonderful details: two columns of Latin text, with many unusual scribal abbreviations; long-fingered manicules pointing to specific lines; large decorated initials; blue and red paraph marks and rubrication; many examples of later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century annotations and stains on both flesh and hair sides, suggesting that at one time it was well-used.

The texts the manuscript contains have proven difficult to identify – not least because the surviving pages are not always consecutive – though at least one appears to be a copy of a treatise on vomiting and stomach purgations by Pietro d’Abano, an early medieval Italian astrologer, professor of medicine and infamous compiler of magic texts.

Excitingly, the manuscript is also the subject of the latest in a series of workshops jointly run by Yale and UCL: ‘Digital Editing and the Medieval Manuscript Roll / Fragment’ (DEMMR/F). This two-day event happening in the first week of June will use the manuscript fragments housed in Special Collections as a means of training attendants in palaeography and manuscript studies (their original purpose when they were first bought by UCL almost a hundred years ago), and at the same time consider the issues around creating digital editions of such texts.