Medieval texts hidden inside bookbinding uncovered

United States, Analytica Chimica Acta, Roman Law, Canon Law

Scientists have unveiled 6th century texts hidden within bookbindings of manuscripts that were made by recycling medieval parchments.

By fusing two imaging techniques – visible hyperspectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence – researchers from the Northwestern University in the US developed a new, non- destructive technology that gives access to medieval texts hidden inside ancient bookbindings.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, bookbinders recycled the bindings from medieval parchments into new binding materials for printed books. While scholars have long been aware that books from this time period often contain hidden fragments of earlier manuscripts, they never had the means to read them.

The book responsible for sparking the study is a copy of Greek poet Hesiod’s Work and Days from 1537. Purchased by Northwestern in 1870, the copy is the only remaining imprint retaining its original slotted parchment binding. Although it was this binding that originally caught the attention of Northwestern librarians, it was the suggestion of writing beneath the parchment on the book board which incited new questions.

When researchers studied the binding, they noticed that the bookbinder tried to remove the writing on the book board, likely through washing or scraping. The book board, however, retained two ghostly columns of writing surrounded by marginal comments, which were still visible through the parchment on book’s front and back covers.

“The ink beneath degraded the parchment, so you could start to see the writing. That is where the analytical study began,” said Emeline Pouyet, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS). Researchers used bright X-ray source and fast detection system which allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding.

They recognised it as sixth-century Roman Law code, with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins. Researchers hypothesise that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages.

The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code. The research was published in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta.

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