“Manuscript in two halves”, reads the assessment note for MS. Laud Lat. 98, and it’s not exaggerating. Our image of the manuscript’s spine shows a clean split; even the sewing supports have snapped.
This image represents new territory for us. For the first time, we are capturing images of the spine and edges of each manuscript. This is undoubtedly a good thing (for codicologists, historians, and anyone trying to imagine more clearly what the manuscript is like in real life), but it does mean that for the first time we are publishing a large number of images of damaged bindings. Many of the manuscripts selected for this project come from the 17th-century library of Archbishop William Laud, who liked to rebind his manuscripts in uniform tan leather. These Laudian bindings were quickly and cheaply made, and they have not held up well to centuries of use and are now generally in poor condition. These aren’t our first digitized Laud manuscripts—we previously digitized a number of Hebrew Lauds for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project, including some whose bindings are in poor condition—but damage like this isn’t obvious from most angles. Even looking at the folios of MS. Laud Lat. 98 where the split occurs, it’s hard to tell how severe it is; you can only really tell by looking directly at the spine, head or tail.
The Bodleian’s conservation studio, in line with global ethical standards for work with cultural heritage, practices minimal intervention, focusing in most cases on stabilizing damage as unobtrusively as possible. In some cases, such as where minimal repair would not be effective or where it is impossible to safely handle the manuscript at all, more work is required. Two examples of extensive interventions have featured on this blog. MS. Laud Misc. 158 was rebacked some years ago. More recently, Bodleian conservator Sabina Pugh had the opportunity to completely re-bind one particularly damaged Würzburg manuscript in order to make it safe to handle. The Laudian binding has been preserved alongside the manuscript, and the structure and materials of its new binding are more in keeping with its 9th century origins. The fully digitized manuscript will soon be available on this website. Such extensive work is an exception to the norm, however, made possible in the case of MS. Laud Lat. 102 by funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and a number of Friends of the Bodleian. Most of the manuscripts being assessed as part of this project are stable enough to be digitized without conservator intervention, while a few are sent to the conservation studio for small repairs either before or after they are photographed.
This is not to say that manuscripts in unstable condition are never digitized. When a manuscript is in truly bad condition, digitization can be a protective act. The measures in place in the Bodleian’s imaging studio (90° opening angles, no pressure applied directly to the leaves, a conservator present if necessary) protect damaged manuscripts as well as healthy ones, and once a fragile manuscript has been digitized, the library has the option to ask researchers to consult the digital surrogate instead of the original. It’s not always the case, however, that a visibly damaged manuscript is unsafe to handle. As visually shocking as they may be, the two halves of MS. Laud Lat. 98 are both in stable condition. Careful handling by a photographer or reader would not exacerbate the damage, so the manuscript is a low priority for conservation work. Higher priorities include torn or detached leaves, historical repairs that are causing the manuscript to chemically or physically deteriorate, and other conditions that are likely to grow worse with handling or with time.
I would not personally relish the prospect of handling MS. Laud Lat. 98—I am very willing to leave that to the experts—so I am delighted that we have been able to provide a digital surrogate as part of this project. The image of the split spine evokes for me the enduring power of the manuscripts themselves, which have outlasted their creators, their former libraries and even their physical casings. We may hope that the images we are creating will fare as well.
Emma Stanford is the Bodleian’s Digital Curator and the project manager for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands.