Friday, 24 January 2014

The Syriac manuscripts in the British Library: what happened to the bindings?

Those of you who have been working on the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library have probably observed that many of these codices have been rebound after arriving in London. The large majority of the codices that I brought to my desk during my stay there came in a fairly recent museum or letterpress binding.

I am working on Syriac codices that have been used in worship contexts. In other words, I am interested in these codices as ritual artifacts, not only as text carriers. Hence, I am curious about the ways in which the aesthetical qualities of the bindings and the overall layout of the codices mattered to those who engaged with them in those contexts.

During my stay in the British Library last year, I asked the academic librarian if it would be possible to see any codices in original binding, enquiring in particular about 13th century bindings. She kindly offered me
to have a look at two beautiful exemplars: Or. 13465 and Or. 8729. Or 13465 (dated 1475) is a particularly well kept New Testament in an original goatskin binding decorated with brass studs. Or. 8729 is a large and beautiful Gospel lectionary with an equally beautifully engraved leather binding (possibly 13th century). A note explains that this binding has been purposefully preserved. The leather covered wooden boards have been turned inside out, so that the embossed leather – formerly the exterior of the codex – now faces the textblock. I could easily understand why these two items had been kept intact. These were items intended to be admired. The bindings were obviously valuable, and in addition they were so well kept that they were still able to perform their main duty: to protect the vulnerable quires of the textblocks.

When I asked the helpful librarian if it would be possible to see an exemplar with the more typical, less expensive, Syriac binding: simple wooden boards covered partly or in whole with equally simple leather (not the ornamented or engraved type), she unfortunately could not offer me any further assistance.

If William Cureton can be trusted on this issue, however, there probably were a few of that kind in London when the Syriac manuscripts arrived there in the 1840s. In his preface to The Festal Letters of Athanasius (1848), Cureton writes the following about the arrival of a new shipment of manuscripts from the Syrian Monastery (Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt), 12 October 1847:

"The day after their arrival I went to inspect them. At the first view I could almost have imagined that the same portion of the library as had been brought, nearly five years previously, by Dr. Tattam, was again before me in the same condition as I found it when the books were first taken from the cases in which they had been packed, as if the volumes had been stripped by magic of their Russia, and clad in their original wooden binding; and the loose leaves and fragments which had cost me many a toilsome day to collect and arrange, had been again torn asunder, and scattered in almost endless confusion. I found the collection to consist of a considerable number of volumes, and a large quantity of disjointed quires and separate leaves” (Cureton, Festal Letters, xiii-xiv).

So, what happened to all these other bindings mentioned by Cureton: all those half-damaged and not-so-pretty, rather mediocre bindings that were not covering the stunningly beautiful display items, but the codices typically intended for use?

I made some further enquiries at the library and was told that the codices were rebound in the last half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, most likely by the HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationary Office) for the British Museum (Thanks are due to Martyn Jones and Cordelia Rogerson).

But what really gave me food for thought was that the library could not provide me with more information than this. Apparently no one had kept records or photographs of the process when the codices were in fact rebound. Consequently, if this is correct, we don’t know what happened to the bindings and we can’t find out what the individual volumes would have looked like.

This is quite striking and interesting in so many ways. On the one hand, it is of course honorable that a library will decide to rebind an item that is longer protected from wear and tear. If a codex is not bound properly, it will fall apart and people like me would not be allowed to study it at all. When it comes down to it, Her Majesty's Stationary Office has only done what binders have always done: when a binding is worn out you repair it. If the binding is beyond repair, you rebind the codex. In addition, as Cureton pointed out, many of these manuscripts did not arrive in London as neatly preserved codices. They arrived in the form of dismantled or unbound quires and sometimes in heaps of single leaves. I am of course grateful to the ones who made the effort to gather them, put them orderly back together and bound them so that scholars can study them.

On the other hand, the procedure of not keeping track neither of the original binding of the codices, nor of the process of rebinding them suggests to me that this was done at a time when scholars and librarians were not that interested in manuscripts as cultural and material objects. The texts contained in the codices mattered a lot, and they still do, but the qualities of the artifact per se did not: particularly not if the item was mediocre, low cost, and manufactured for general use. So unfortunately, at a time when the tide has turned and we are increasingly interested in these aspects of manuscripts, this information is no longer available.

If anyone knows more about what happened to the bindings than I do, or if you have other information than the one I got - please write to me or leave a note below and I will update this post. If anyone knows of more medieval Syriac bindings in the British Library, please let me know that as well. I am going back there next month.

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