The Conservation and Rebinding of the Pauline Epistles

Copied in Northumbria in the eighth century on leaves of tough, rather crudely finished parchment, the Epistles of St Paul (B.10.5) is the oldest book in the Wren Library.  Although several leaves are missing – some are in the Cotton collection at the British Library – those that remain have survived over 1,200 years of use, including at least two rebindings.  The book was bequeathed to Trinity College in 1615 by Thomas Nevile, who had the book rebound and his crest stamped on both boards.  The binding appears to have been carried out at great speed and with little regard for accuracy: the sewing thread misses the spine-folds by a wide margin throughout the textblock and the book has been trimmed so that it is now very out of square.

Neville’s arms on the front board of the old binding

In the eighteenth century the book was rebacked and a thick layer of hide glue was applied to the spine to compensate for a failing structure that was breaking, rather than flowing, open.  This sort of treatment was very common at the time, but fails to take account of the mechanics of the book when it is opened.  The spine, now inflexible due to the thick, brittle layer of hide glue, could not move as the book was opened, and forcing the leaves to stay open caused the structure to split all over again.  After at least 250 years in this state, the whole book creaked and cracked alarmingly at even the most careful of opening, and the leaves strongly resisted flexing. Conservation treatment was urgently required to allow the book to be studied and enjoyed safely by more generations.

The inflexibility of the spine caused the manuscript to split on opening

After detailed discussion with the Librarian, the old binding was dismantled to allow the leaves to be repaired.  Work involved removing thick layers of animal glue and the humidification and reshaping of the bifolia to remove the distortion caused by the hammering of the spine to accept the later boards.  With repairs completed there was an ideal opportunity to photograph the entire manuscript at high resolution so that holes in the spine folds, as well as the text, can be studied in the future.  The leaves were also photographed over a light box to record the vigorous scraping patterns in the surface of the parchment.

One of the bifolia photographed in transmitted light to show scraping marks of the original parchment-maker’s knife
Preparing a parchment patch to repair damage to a spine-fold

After a period of settling under weighted boards in a climate-controlled environment, the manuscript was re-sewn on double supports using existing holes.  The herringbone stitch chosen for the sewing allows each quire to be securely attached to the sewing supports and to link to the previous quire, making a very strong but flexible foundation for the binding.  The ends of the sewing supports are laced into oak boards in the traditional manner to make a strong attachment, and the spine was covered with alum-tawed calfskin, a material used by medieval binders which has proved to be durable and flexible over many hundreds of years.

Lacing on the new oak boards

The well-seasoned quarter-sawn oak of the boards has such a beautiful grain that we decided to make this a feature of the binding: the covering skin and internal joints are accommodated in shallow rebates along the spine edge, and the rest of the boards are exposed, with the grain enhanced with a natural polish.

The completed binding

The rebound book is designed to have a good opening so that the leaves flow without being strained, and readers and visitors alike can enjoy it once more.  The remains of the old binding are preserved for future reference and stored in the bespoke box which houses that manuscript when it is in storage.

The new binding allows the leaves to flow and open well

This was a special guest blog written by Conservator, Edward Cheese. The manuscript can be viewed online here.

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