Keeping the portal open: conserving Ms. Codex 197

At this moment the Penn Libraries are embarking on a search for a senior conservator and eagerly anticipating the September opening of a new, 3,500-square-foot conservation lab in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.  It’s a good time for a story about what conservation can do.

Decorated catchword, Ms. Codex 197, f. 64v

For some students, a 600-year-old manuscript works its magic on their imagination and curiosity even if they can’t read what’s written on its pages.  But, not surprisingly, being able to make out even a few lines of text takes students to another level, slowing them down to experience script and page layout for themselves.  So opportunities to read open up more pedagogical possibilities for faculty.  Students with skills in Latin or Italian have an abundance of choices among the manuscripts of the Kislak Center.  Students with skills in French or German have a respectable array from which to choose.  But for students whose needs would be best met by early English manuscripts, we have only a precious handful — five manuscripts.

Middle English manuscripts are now extremely difficult to acquire, and we are fortunate to have these five manuscripts  from acquisitions of the 1940s and early 1950s.  But they had hard lives before coming to the library, all but one having been rebound by owners of past centuries, often trimmed to fit into not particularly durable new bindings, and at the library the manuscripts continue to work hard for students, faculty, and library staff.

Ms. Codex 197 after conservation (Image by CCAHA)

Thanks to a gift from long-time Libraries friend Bruce McKittrick and the work of Richard Homer, a conservator at Philadelphia’s Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), one of these manuscripts is newly useful for research and teaching.  It has a solid new binding that better reflects the probable weight and shape of the manuscript’s original binding and that provides stability, flexibility, and protection for the manuscript inside.

Ms. Codex 197 is small.  It could almost be described as pocket-sized, if it weren’t so thick.  Written around 1400, the text is a devotional treatise addressing such topics as “How and why thou shalt love God,” “How thou shalt love thy friend,” and “How thou shalt love thy enemy.”  It offers the reader not only text in an accessible Anglicana script, but also charming decorated catchwords at the end of each gathering.  As shown in the images below from CCAHA, during Ms. Codex 197’s sojourn there, Richard freed the gatherings from their sadly deteriorating 18th-century binding, analyzed the past sewing, and re-used an earlier generation of holes to sew the gatherings into the new binding.

The new binding’s boards are built up with layers of matboard to be heavier and more rigid than the flimsy boards of the former binding, a closer approximation to the original boards, which would have been made of wood.  And the spine has sewing at its head and tail, characteristic of bindings contemporary to this manuscript, a detail quickly lost to wear and tear.  We had no examples of this binding element on medieval bindings in our collection.

Our goal for this manuscript was not to restore it to its original condition; that was never an option.  Former owners had made irreversible decisions such as discarding the original binding, trimming the leaves, and staining the edges of the leaves.  Furthermore, we had no desire to attempt to remove the traces of this manuscript’s passage through the centuries.  However, the decisions of an 18th-century owner did not stand the test of time.  Now we have added responsible 21st-century decisions that honor the original form of the manuscript and allow the manuscript to continue to serve, safely and effectively, as a portal into the turn of the 15th century for 21st-century students and researchers.

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