June 9, 2016

Recycling has been cool since at least the fifteenth century


An example of a print book bound with manuscript pages from Leiden University. Via Smithsonian.com.

An example of a print book bound with manuscript pages from Leiden University. Via Smithsonian.com.

When Johannes Gutenberg emerged on the scene of fifteenth-century Europe with the invention for which he is remembered, the printing press (or, more exactly, movable type), two things happened: the manuscript copying that had theretofore been the only available means of producing new books became instantly obsolete, and the number of books being produced in Europe positively exploded. It wasn’t long before somebody combined these two effects and began cannibalizing paper from manuscripts to reinforce the bindings and covers of new print books.

That the pages of early print books concealed even older writing in manuscript is not news to scholars of book history, but the handwritten pages have remained inaccessible, as bringing them to light would necessarily mean destroying the print books they were housed in.  Until now, that is.

As Jason Daley reports for Smithsonian.com, a Dutch researcher named Erik Kwakkel has realized that an imaging technology called “macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry” (of course!) can be used to scan the books’ bindings, revealing the manuscript text contained within them without doing any harm to the books themselves.

The process could reveal “a hidden medieval library” of the manuscripts that were on hand while Gutenberg was making handwriting uncool.

Dr. Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, told Dalya Alberge at The Guardian that he has high hopes for the project:

Much of what we’re finding is 15th or 14th century, but it would be really nice to have Carolingian material, so from the ninth century or even older. It would be great to find a fragment of a very old copy of a Bible, the most important text in the middle ages. Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings. So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.

Meanwhile, scientists are researching more efficient methods of gathering the images—this one can take up to a full day’s scanning per volume. Talk about a book of hours!



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.