MS Hunter 223 is a 14th-century parchment manuscript copy of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a medieval chronicle of history and theology.
Whilst little direct evidence remains in this copy to allow us to know exactly what the structure of the manuscript’s first binding would have been, we can say with a good degree of confidence that the parchment leaves would likely have been sewn onto split alum-tawed thongs laced into channels made through wooden boards (probably oak) in order to attach those boards to the manuscript. After the book was covered, some sort of fastening would usually have been added in order to maintain a little pressure on the leaves from the wooden boards. The structure would probably have used little glue on the spine, depending instead on robust sewing and sound construction.
The current ‘tightback’ binding is quite different, and may date from the 17th or 18th century (see Fig 1). The trimmed leaves were sewn onto single raised cords laced into pasteboards, and the edges coloured red. The book was fully covered in reverse leather – a leather finished so that the flesh side faces outwards with a suede-like finish. Whereas in the original binding it is unlikely that much glue would have been used at all, in this instance the covering material was adhered directly to the spinefolds of the parchment quires with a thick layer of animal-based glue. There had also been a later ‘reback’ repair, where lost or damaged spine leather had been replaced, the edges of the new repair inserted under the older leather on the boards.
The condition of this later binding was much deteriorated, with a number of serious condition issues – both boards were fully detached from the book, the reback repair had failed and come away from the spine, and there were some breaks in the sewing structure.
The rounded, heavily-glued ‘tightback’ style of binding can be very damaging to parchment text blocks, and within the manuscript, one could see the strain that the structure was placing upon the leaves. Where they were held at the spine by glue penetrating between and into the quires, the pages were not able to open freely and fully to the back of the fold. One could now see the leaves bending in the centre, collapsing instead into a tented shape each time (see Fig 2). This was adding to the stress placed on the parchment material as well as flexing and abrading pigments sitting on the surface. Over time this would cause additional damage to the manuscript.
Much undulation of the leaves could be seen throughout the book where, over time and without the restraint of fastened wooden boards, the leaves had been able to respond to fluctuations in humidity. In addition, a number of leaves had creases or failing historical repairs, others showed unstable tears or losses in the parchment, meaning that damage could be easily be increased with handling of the leaves.
The goals of the conservation treatment were to enable readers to safely access the manuscript in the Special Collections reading room, and to enable full digitisation of the manuscript. With agreement from the senior librarian, the decision was taken to remove the manuscript from what remains of the current binding and, after making any necessary repairs, place it into a new conservation binding structure with wooden-boards which will put much less strain upon the leaves and allow them to move more freely.
Due to generous support in the form of an individual donation towards the conservation of this manuscript, we were able to get conservation treatment underway in 2019. Here are a few images of some steps of the treatment carried out so far… watch this space for updates when we are able to get back to working on the project later in 2020!
Categories: Archives and Special Collections