Hol(e)y Moly!: Historical Damage and Repairs in Medieval Manuscripts

Figure 1: An early illustration of a parchment maker preparing the surface of the skin with a lunellum, or rounded knife. Detail from Msc. Patr. 5, folio 1r, around 1150. Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek.

When looking at a medieval manuscript, it is often the illuminations that catch the eye—colorful figures rendered in miniature, gleaming gold backgrounds, ornate initials that twirl and bloom across the margins. But beyond the illuminations, and even beyond the text, the substrate itself merits closer inspection. The parchment page is rich with information about the history of manuscript production and about the ways that makers and consumers of manuscripts viewed the materials used to create them.

Parchment, the predominant writing support in many parts of the ancient and medieval world, is prepared animal skin, usually calf, goat, or sheep. After the animal is slaughtered, hair and excess flesh are removed from the skin, which, in a wet state, is stretched on a wooden frame and dried under tension. Once dry, the skin is scraped with a sharp curved or crescent-shaped knife (often referred to in Latin as a lunellum) to prepare its surface for writing or painting.

Figure 2: Here, a parchment maker has stitched up an area of damage in a wet skin to prevent it from expanding as the skin is stretched further.

In some manuscripts the parchment is amazingly thin, even translucent, and so pristinely white that it is difficult to imagine its animal origin. But in other manuscripts, the parchment retains more evidence of both its source and manufacture: smatterings of hair, uneven coloration, scars from wounds or insect bites sustained during the animal’s lifetime, knife-gouges from the slaughtering process. All of these are frequently evident in the finished product.

Weaknesses in the skin can cause it to rupture as it is stretched on the frame, resulting in circular or oval holes of many sizes. As the skin is further tensioned, these holes in the wet skin will expand, reducing the amount of useful surface area and therefore the value of the finished parchment. A careful parchment-maker could prevent this by stitching perforations shut with a heavy thread before final tensioning. Medieval scribes and artists appear to have taken holes and imperfections in stride, sometimes ignoring their presence entirely and calmly writing around them or sometimes using them as opportunities for creative, humorous, and playful decoration. The following examples illustrate a few of the techniques and materials that the makers (and users) of manuscripts selected to decorate imperfections.

Ornaments in ink

Figure 3: A repair adorned with ink. Gospel Book, Austria, probably in the monastery of Seitenstetten, between 1225 and 1275, MS M.808.

In this example from MS M.808, a thirteenth-century Austrian Gospel Book, we see how the scribe has incorporated the parchment-maker’s sewn repair into the delicate red flourishes that ornament a decorative initial. Looking closely, we can see that there are multiple small holes running around the slit-like opening; these are sewing holes from a repair, from which the thread was later removed. The oblong shape of these holes is evidence of the tension exerted on the stitching as the skin dried and contracted on the frame. Before lettering and decorating, the scribe circled this imperfection in the parchment in light gray, perhaps with the same stylus or metalpoint employed for ruling the lines of text. In this way he called attention to an area that would require extra attention as work progressed.

Figure 4: A small hole transformed into a face. Breviary, Germany, possibly Würzburg, ca. 1477, MS G.13.

In this video, we see how a fifteenth-century German scribe playfully acknowledged the way a hole provides a glimpse of the following page. At first glance, it appears that the scribe of this manuscript, MS G.13, has drawn a small face, framed in red, in the lower margin of the page. However, as the page is lifted it becomes clear that this “face” is actually an oval-shaped hole in the parchment, that to this scribe, resembled the shape of a head. As we turn the page, the hole becomes a window through which the face is peering. The scribe draws the reader’s attention right to this hole by outlining it in ink, perhaps to emphasize the small transformation that will take place when the reader turns the page.

Ornaments stitched in thread

Figure 5 : An unadorned parchment-maker’s repair (left) sits beside another that has been adorned in silk thread (right) on folio 153v. Berthold Sacramentary, Weingarten, Germany, 1215–1217, MS M.710.

Figure 6: A hole in the parchment is embroidered around its perimeter and filled with macrame on folio 42r. Berthold Sacramentary, Weingarten, Germany, 1215–1217, MS M.710.

The examples in this section are all drawn from the Berthold Sacramentary, an incredibly luxurious manuscript that was written and illuminated in Weingarten Abbey in Germany. It is filled with beautifully stitched and embroidered repairs, possibly carried out by nuns associated with the abbey.1 In some instances, the parchment maker’s original stitched repairs, which would have been quite plain and utilitarian, have clearly been removed and replaced with more decoratively stitched silk thread in bright colors. On this page (Figure 5, 153v), a decorative repair sits beside one that has been left unadorned; though the parchment maker’s thread has been picked away, the sewing holes remain visible. On another leaf (Figure 6, 42r), we can see how a larger, unrepaired hole in the parchment was filled with stitched macramé in purple, pink, green, and white silk thread. Embroidered stitches radiate around its edges. Another feature seen in this detail is a row of three prick-marks used as guides for ruling lines of text on the page; these are the small oval holes in the margin and are unrelated to the repair. An image of the entire page can be viewed here.

Figures 7 and 8: These details show that the embroidered repairs extend into the finished miniatures, indicating that these stitches were carried out after the miniatures were completed. Berthold Sacramentary, Weingarten, Germany, 1215–1217, MS M.710, folio 127r (left), folio 108v (right).

On other leaves in this manuscript, we see similar decorative stitching applied to long, straight cuts, often extending to the edge of the page. Looking closely, it becomes clear that the sewn cuts extend into the edges of the illuminations, indicating that both the cuts and the repairs were carried out after the illuminations were finished.

But why would such drastic and invasive measures be applied to a finished, or nearly finished manuscript? An explanation can be found by considering some inherent properties of parchment. Unlike paper, which is formed as a flat sheet, a piece of parchment begins its life in three-dimensional form, undulating around the flesh of the animal, stretching and bending along joints and limbs. The skin is tight and less flexible along the spine and neck, and more pliable and elastic along the belly and axillae where the legs meet the body. Although the parchment-making process strives to fix the material into a relatively flat plane, the inherent irregularities in the skin inevitably result in bulges and distortions once the skin is released from the frame. These uneven contours can be problematic within a bound volume or even result in damage. Abrasion to inks and painted surfaces can occur, particularly in areas where bulges are compressed into pleats or creases when a book is closed; this can happen during the binding process or over time as the book is used and stored.

Figure 9: This detail shows the misalignment of the page edge at the terminal point of the repair. Berthold Sacramentary, Weingarten, Germany, 1215–1217, MS M.710, folio 127r.

The straight cuts and subsequent repairs in the Berthold Sacramentary and other Weingarten manuscripts are almost certainly the result of deliberate interventions to reduce page distortions that endangered the illuminations. The misalignment of page edges at the sites of the joins, as well as distortions to nearby areas of text and illumination, suggest that narrow, wedge-shaped areas of parchment were excised from the margins; the two cut edges were then pulled together and sewn with the same colorful thread and decorative stitch-work applied to the parchment-maker’s repairs. This deliberate and decorative solution to an early preservation problem shows a deep understanding of materials and techniques on the part of the Weingarten community, as well as a commitment to the survival of these sacred images and texts.

Taken as a group, the Weingarten embroidered repairs are in themselves an act of devotion. They result not only from necessity but from the desire to transform a blemish or a functional repair into something beautiful. The decorative repairs in margins of the Berthold Sacramentary are fully in keeping with the dazzling opulence of the manuscript as a whole, which is lavishly illuminated and bound in a jeweled treasure binding. To learn more and see a digital facsimile of this extraordinary example of medieval book production, visit this page.

Melissa Moreton, figure 2; Lydia Aikenhead, figures 3, 4; Maria Fredericks, figures 5, 6, 7, 8.

1. Sciacca, Christine. “Stitches, Sutures, and Seams: “Embroidered” Parchment Repairs in Medieval Manuscripts,” in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol. 6, ed. Robin Netherton, Woodbrige: the Boydell Press, 2010, p. 70.

Lydia Aikenhead
Pine Tree Foundation Fellow
Thaw Conservation Center
The Morgan Library & Museum

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The Thaw Conservation Center at The Morgan Library & Museum, a world-class laboratory for the conservation of works on paper and parchment—drawings, prints, photographs, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, fine bindings, and literary, historical, and music manuscripts—as well as a place for conservation studies, opened in February 2002.
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