Recycled Manuscripts

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For related articles, see Manuscripts (disambiguation)

J. Franklin Mowery, former Eric Weinmann Head of Conservation, curated Recycled Manuscripts for The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Material used in the production of books has always been one of the most expensive costs of its manufacture; therefore, little of it went to waste. For centuries, discarded manuscripts have been recycled by scratching away ink and writing a new text (known as a palimpsest) on old vellum or paper, or by using old manuscripts in the binding of a book. Similarly, new uses were found for leftover, defective, or damaged printed material, known as “printer’s waste.” Bookbinders would scavenge discarded or disused material and use it for lining the spines of books, for end-leaves, or even for the boards and covers of books. Many of these recycled texts lie hidden in the insides of bindings and only come to light during conservation treatment.

Feoffment of 1616, former binding for The Salerenne Schoolle, or, the regiment of Healthe. Manuscript, ca. 1625. Shelfmark V.a.126.

One of the most memorable stories of the discovery of a hidden manuscript at the Folger occurred in 1984 when head of conservation Frank Mowery discovered a fragment of the earliest surviving manuscript written in England, picture to the right. It had been "recycled" in 1578 to bind two medical texts printed in London. Over the centuries, layers of paper were adhered over the vellum manuscript obscuring and hiding the text. In 1984, the book underwent conservation treatment and the manuscript (Eusebius Pamphili, Bishop of Caesarea. Historia ecclesiastica. Translated by Tyrranius Rufinus. England, ca. 640–650) was discovered in its binding. Because this early manuscript is outside of the scope of the Folger’s collection policy, it was sold at auction and purchased by Sir Paul Getty. It now resides at the Wormsley Library outside London.

While that instance was a quite remarkable find, the discovery of manuscripts in binding material is fairly common for book conservators. Early sixteenth-century English vellum manuscripts are common examples of wrappers used to protect a text-block without expending a lot of time or expense. Recycled vellum is also used for the flyleaves of books. And the boards of bindings are sometimes found to be recycled manuscript pages glued together, creating an early example of cardboard. The scraps of paper glued together to create this cardboard-like material are known as “manuscript waste.”

Dozens of pieces of manuscript waste were discovered during the treatment of Thomas Palgarno's text, The Salerenne Schoolle, or, the regiment of Healthe, written ca. 1625. Palgarno wrote the book in flat sheets with the intent that it would later be bound. Probably not long after he finished it, a bookbinder sewed the pages together and wrapped a vellum manuscript around boards made from dozens of recycled paper manuscripts that had been glued together. For almost five centuries these lost manuscripts lay hidden.

Listen to former Head of Conservation Frank Mowery tell the story of his 1984 discovery of the earliest known English manuscript in "Very Early Edition."