Conservation of Higden’s Polychronicon…Part 1!

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.

Ms Hunter 223_Before

Fig 1: MS Hunter 223 before conservation, showing damaged tightback binding

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.


Fig 2: The leaves in the manuscript would bend in the middle when the volume was opened

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.

MS Hunter 223_Before_Cropped-2

Fig 3: The opening of the volume at the beginning of the project, showing damage to the endband, undulations in the textblock, and an historical repair

Treatment decisions

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!



Fig 4: During disbinding an earlier set of evenly-spaced pierced sewing holes started to reveal themselves. Unfortunately, these holes had allowed glue from the more recent binding to get down deeper between the pages

MS Hunter 223_During_cropped-2

Fig 5: The hot glue had caused some local damage to the parchment on the spine edges. Where glue had seeped between the sections and now restricted the movement of leaves, it was carefully removed

Ms Hunter 223_During_Cropped2-2

Fig 6: After light surface cleaning, lots of little neodymium magnets were used to ease out just the worse of the creases in the leaves. Damage to the sewing holes and spinefolds was repaired with Japanese tissue and cold gelatine mousse

MS Hunter 223_Gel Humidity Patch-2

Fig 7: Where historical repairs needed to be removed – either to allow access to damaged areas, or where the repair was causing other problems – a low-moisture rigid gel was cut to size and used to gently humidify the adhesive holding the repair so that it could be removed

University of GlasgowPhotographic Unit

Fig 8: After repair and whilst still disbound, the full manuscript has now been captured in high-quality digital images

MS Hunter 223_During_Cropped3-2

Fig 9: The leaves are now settling under gentle pressure, and when we return to the studio, work on this project can be completed. Watch this space for more updates!

Categories: Archives and Special Collections


1 reply

  1. Thank you for sharing this with the world! Your work is so important to maintaining the integrity of such important pieces of history. The conservation process is fascinating and almost magical, as you erase the wear and tear that dust, moths and oily hands have caused over the centuries. I look forward to seeing your progress on this project in the future!

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