Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 106, fol. 123r

A conservation perspective on imperfect parchment

Natascha Domeisen’s ‘The importance of being (im)perfect’ brings up a key aspect of understanding parchment. This is a subject that has increasingly interested me, as a conservator, in recent years. Drawing attention to dramatic holes and repairs found in the writing surface reminds us of the human element that is so visible in these books.

Parchment production is a complex, highly skilled, and time-consuming process that is now largely lost to us. Decisions were required at every stage – from production through to use – about how to respond to processing a natural skin material, how many of the inevitable marks would be visible at the end, and whether these were acceptable.

The two lovely examples that we see in MS. Laud Misc. 106, fol 123r and MS. Laud Lat. 117, fol. 17v show decisions taken by both the parchment makers and scribes.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 106, fol. 87r

MS. Laud Misc. 106 has lots of leaves showing holes that have opened out during the tensioning process (the skin isn’t stretched as it doesn’t get larger). Fol. 87 has a nice example showing some remaining hair at the edge of the hole that indicates that that this hole at least was caused prior to dehairing – probably as the skin was being removed from the carcass. The parchment maker in this case did not sew up any of the larger holes during production, and the scribe has just written around them without any attempt to patch of repair them before use. Clearly the choice of parchment with its holes and flaws was accepted here.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 106, fol. 123r

On fol. 123, there appear to be several holes (I think I can see the edges of four) in a small area. It is very hard to work and scrape around holes and this area would probably have been thicker and gelatinized. I think what we see here is the scribe cutting away an awkward area of parchment before use, but again making no attempt to patch or repair it. I think I can see a similar approach taken on a number of the other leaves, though not as dramatically.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Lat. 117, fol. 17v

MS. Laud Lat. 117 is slightly different as it has lots of smaller holes as well as sewn repairs by the parchment maker – and then possibly modified repairs which may have been carried out as the manuscript was written. It is interesting that there are many small holes left alongside some sewn repairs for larger holes or flaws.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Lat. 117, fol. 110r

This was not always successful. On fol. 110, a tear has opened, and the tension has broken the thread on the middle hole on fol. 17 which then spread up. For both I’m not sure if the thread we now see is the parchment maker’s or if it was replaced later when the parchment was surfaced, or even by the scribe. The decorative or coloured threads that we sometimes find in manuscripts tend to have been carried out during the writing process rather than by the parchment maker.

Isn’t it amazing what you can spot in digitized images?

About the author

Andrew Honey is a book conservator at the Bodleian Library with a teaching and research role. He recently completed the conservation and rebinding of the Winchester Bible and is the conservation advisor to The Mappa Mundi Trust. He has wide interests in the materiality of rare books and manuscripts, and a particular interest in historic paper. His paper research has ranged from the writing papers used by Jane Austen (in Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts) to the faults found in the Shakespeare’s First Folio (’Torn, wrinkled, stained, and otherwise naughty sheets – how should we interpret paper faults in seventeenth-century paper?’).