A medley of Medieval Manuscripts

A medley of Medieval Manuscripts
Up close and personal with some collection gems from another time
22 May 2015

It’s not often that Australian conservators get the chance to work with fragments from the Medieval era. However, this year the whole conservation team at the National Library had the privilege of working with 108 fragments of medieval manuscripts collected by Rex Nan Kivell. The fragments, all in much need of some conservation attention and time, was the focus of this year’s Tax Time Appeal project. The parchment fragments arrived in the Preservation Services laboratory in varying states of disrepair due to their use and re-use as paste- in’s for books produced in later eras. The parchment fragments all presented various challenges for the Library’s conservators as they set about devising a treatment plan for all 108 fragments within a short time frame.

Parchment fragment

Just one of the manuscript fragments delivered to the conservation laboratory for treatment, MS4052/T-28, Nan Kivell Calligraphy Collection

Materials and techniques used by the team in formulating the perfect treatment solution for these collection gems were sourced locally and from overseas. Close consultation with staff from the Manuscripts branch helped the conservation team in their approach to ensure that these fragments received the best of care before being digitised by the Digitisation and Photography team and returning to storage.

Isinglass, goldbeater’s skin, hand-made Japanese tissue and conservation grade gelatine adhesive were some of the new materials that were sourced from overseas suppliers and made available to the conservators to use specifically for this project. Conservators are guided by an ethical approach to their work, ensuring techniques and repair materials used in any project suit the item to be repaired. The Library’s conservators researched the most appropriate techniques and materials for repairing and conserving parchment, which is quite a different material to the usual paper based items that are seen every day in the laboratory. Historically, goldbeater’s skin was used in the process of beating gold leaf to its desired thickness. The skin is available in various thicknesses and is made from the intestine of a calf or steer.

microscope view

Coloured pigment on the manuscript fragments required careful treatment. Isinglass was applied to flaking and cracked pigment. 

Goldbeater's skin was used to repair cracks in the parchment. MS4052/T-30, Nan Kivell Calligraphy Collection

The Library’s conservators used goldbeater’s skin to repair cracks and splits in the parchment with conservation grade gelatine in the pigmented areas only. Toned Japanese tissue was used as a repair material around the edges and to infill areas of loss. Many of the fragments also had pigments that were flaking, cracking or friable. Vermillion and ultramarine were some of the pigments identified. Cracking or flaking pigments were consolidated with isinglass. Isinglass is an adhesive made from the swim bladders of Russian sturgeon fish used in conservation to consolidate pigments. The conservators discussed the ethics of using animal based repair materials such as goldbeater’s skin and isinglass to ensure that these materials were only used when absolutely necessary. It was decided by the conservators that isinglass as a consolidant and goldbeater’s skin used for repairs would provide sympathetic repairs to the damaged fragments of parchment and would be sympathetic to the nature of the medieval manuscript fragments.

Other treatments involved flattening creases that were obscuring text, some fragments had deep creases, making text illegible. A variety of methods were employed to help relax the creases including a method termed as overall humidification and tension drying for those fragments with especially stubborn creases!

tension drying 1

Tension drying was used succesfully to reduce creasing in the parchment fragments.

tension drying parchment

An overall shot of the tension drying technique.

The project has been a great accomplishment for the busy preservation team, with all 108 parchment pieces undergoing assessment and treatment within eight weeks.

Thank you, a very interesting read. I appreciate the detail about the materials used and the processes. I would have love to have read more about the fragments and where they came from. Medieval times ...(sigh), fascinating.