Academic journal article Parergon

Waste Not, Want Not: Manuscript Fragments in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland

Academic journal article Parergon

Waste Not, Want Not: Manuscript Fragments in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland

Article excerpt

All books are prone to obsolescence. Superseded translations, discarded liturgies, texts now available in a more up-to-date format, or through a more contemporary medium: all have outlived their usefulness. (1) But the physical book, especially if written on parchment, stubbornly persists and may be put to other, originally unforeseen, uses. So it is that we have the phenomenon of 'manuscript waste', that is, manuscript fragments incorporated into the bindings of printed books and manuscripts. The text may no longer be valued, but parchment is tough, certainly tougher than paper, and early bookbinders wasted nothing.

In 2010, the Auckland Savings Bank (ASB) Community Trust made a grant of NZ$73,000 to the Auckland Library Heritage Trust. This generous gift enabled the Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, to re-catalogue 2,000 of its books printed between 1468 and 1801. In particular, any manuscript waste was noted, such as wrappers, pastedowns, quire-guards, and spine liners. More than thirty years before, Christopher de Hamel had listed and partially identified nine binding fragments in the Auckland Libraries, (2) but the new cataloguing campaign unearthed ten more. At about the same time, Professor Alexandra Gillespie of the University of Toronto and I were working on the pre-1650 manuscript bindings in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, some of which also contained manuscript waste, (3) so I was asked to examine and possibly identify the new finds.

The combination of so many Latin texts online in machine-readable form and quick, easy, and accurate digital photography has much improved our ability to identify random fragments of medieval manuscripts. This can now be done by those without immediate physical access to well-stocked Northern Hemisphere libraries and without the extraordinary visual memory of N. R. Ker, who identified over two thousand pastedowns in Oxford libraries without any such modern aids. (He modestly attributed his success to 'the orderly methods of medieval writers'. (4)) Of course, it is satisfying to be able to identify the previously unidentified; but more to the point, we can now see just how typical are the manuscript fragments in Auckland and how they fit into a wider international pattern. It is clear that medieval and early modern binders were not vandals who disembowelled any manuscript unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. On the contrary, they seem to have been quite discriminating in their preference for dismembering, and recycling, primarily obsolete or obsolescent manuscripts.

This article will first discuss the fragments already described by de Hamel and about which we can now offer further information. The first had been described in 1989 simply as '[t]wo small vellum strips'. (5) In fact, wrapped around the spine of Part II of Secunda pars totius summe maioris beati Antonini (Lyons: J. Cleyn, 1500), (6) there are no fewer than six parchment flanges that, because the book is now nearly disbound (a pencil note inside the front board notes, 'poor and damaged copy of little value), are visible inside the lower board and on the spine itself. The top flange is blank; each of the remaining five contains between five and eight lines written in black ink in a Praegothica hand (7) with intralinear and marginal glosses (see Figure 1). Enough is legible to identify the text as from Book One of the early Latin translation of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics known as the Ethica Nova. (8) A modern scholar would find this an interesting text, as only forty manuscripts of this, the oldest extant translation, survive, in whole or in part, all dating to the thirteenth century. (9) In contrast, the standard translation by Robert Grosseteste survives in nearly three hundred manuscripts. (10) But the sixteenth-century binder's perspective was not ours: this was simply an obsolete text, however rare it might be. Ker's comment on the situation in sixteenth-century Oxford is relevant here: binders, he notes, did not

   make much use of the manuscripts of the medieval Latin translations
   of Aristotle . … 
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