Beyond the surface

Beyond the surface
Our book conservator Rachel discusses the makings of traditional Gothic bindings and book structures.
10 July 2015

In preparation for display in the Library’s current exhibition Revealing the Rothschild Prayer Book c. 1505–1510 from the Kerry Stokes Collection, Preservation Services was very excited to receive into its care a fourteenth-century English Psalter MS 1172. The Latin text is dated to 1330–1350 AD and features annotations and drawings by a sixteenth-century Welsh school boy. The manuscript remains in what appears to be its original monastic binding.

Preparing the manuscript

The Psalter is representative of traditional European Gothic style bookbinding. It features a text block comprised of parchment leaves folded into quires (groups of folded leaves). The hair side of animal skins are always slightly shinier than the flesh side. The scribes, who were responsible for preparing leaves for writing, were careful to match the leaves to give page openings an even and consistent appearance throughout the book once it was bound. The wooden boards are English Oak which have been planed and moulded to give a cushioned shape. The manuscript is sewn together using thick linen thread which is worked over five slit alum tawed thongs. For those of you lucky enough to see this treasure in the Library's exhibition gallery, the inside of the wooden board is displayed, and the laced thongs secured with wooden trenails (wedges) are visible. Another interesting feature of the Psalter is the edge painting which is visible along the foredge (the edge opposite the spine). Storing books upright on a shelf with the spine facing out was not commonly seen in England until the sixteenth century, prior to this books were stored flat on lecterns or in chests. As books were often displayed foredge-out, edge painting was a way of identifying volumes.

Psalter c. 1330–1350, South-West England, ink and pencil on parchment, engraving and letterpress on paper in a contemporary binding of sheepskin over oak boards, PETHERICK COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS), MS 1172, Foredge and spine

MS1172: inner board

Gothic bookbinding

Many book conservators agree that Gothic bookbindings represent the pinnacle of European book production. The reasons for the high regard in which these book structures are held relate to the mechanical properties of the binding, which evolved over the previous centuries. One of the characteristics that typifies this book structure is that they are often completely adhesive free, relying instead on quality robust materials and sound construction techniques to keep the book together.

The evolution of bookbinding techniques in Europe was tied in closely with innovations in the book arts. With the invention of moveable-type printing in the fifteenth century, demand for books grew exponentially. In order to keep up with the pace of the printing presses, bookbinders turned to faster production techniques, such as abbreviated sewing, and the use of more economical materials, such as chemically tanned leathers. Long term, this had a negative impact on the longevity of book bindings as more economically viable and cheaper materials were sourced by the book trade. Therefore, one can’t help but hold Gothic bindings in such high esteem as authentic examples of a bygone tradition.

Repairing the Psalter

The Psalter is in a fair condition considering the age of the manuscript. The cover is alum tawed sheep skin which is undecorated, thus giving us a hint of its simple monastic origins. The cover shows signs of heavy use with abrasions across all surfaces and corners. The outer joints had split and were stabilised using Japanese repair tissue. The lower board has heavy indentations transecting the manuscript which may indicate the book was wrapped with twine at some point in its history. Several of the sewing supports are broken, making the upper board attachment precarious. To stabilise the board for exhibition, dyed linen thread was used to temporarily re-hitch the wooden board. This method of repair offers a minimally invasive, reversible, and unobtrusive support.

 The remains of two alum tawed straps are evident, which are nailed onto the upper board. The straps would have originally clasped onto the lower board. This is an interesting feature of English books of this age, which differ from Gothic books produced on the Continent which typically clasp onto the upper board. Books with parchment leaves require additional pressure to keep the parchment from cockling with changes in humidity. Therefore it is usual for manuscripts with parchment quires to have wooden boards and/or straps and metal clasps to help hold the leaves flat when the book is closed.

MS1172 Thread hitch repair and lower board with twine impression

The Psalter is written in iron gall ink with decorative borders and initials in a variety of coloured pigments and gold. Several initials and border decorations were in need of consolidation treatment due to cracks mostly in relation to suspected lead white degradation. To consolidate cracked and powdering media the Conservation Department uses isinglass which is a conservation grade adhesive derived from the swim bladder of sturgeon fish. The adhesive is applied under the lifting particles using strong magnification, a small brush, and a very steady hand.

MS1172: parchment repair

MS1172: parchment repairs before and after

Interestingly, there are a number of historic tear repairs visible throughout the text block. These early repairs were undertaken using sewing thread to create a thread butt join, which was a technique carried out by parchment makers and scribes to create a robust repair. Whilst these repairs were left untouched in order to preserve the historic record, other tears were repaired using conservation-grade gelatine adhesive and Japanese tissue or gold beaters skin.

Conservation treatment of this wonderful treasure took place over a one month period and the Psalter is now on display in the current exhibition, Revealing the Rothschild Prayer Book 1505–1510 from the Kerry Stokes Collection, for your enjoyment.

Rothschild Prayer Book on display