Peterhouse MS.270, is a breviary or small collection of liturgical texts according to the use of Sarum originating from the fourteenth century, probably from East Anglia. In the recent catalogue of the medieval manuscripts of Peterhouse, Rod Thomson describes it thus: “Beautifully written, probably by a single scribe, in formal gothic bookhand, with initials in colours and gold with full borders to some folios”.
The provenance of MS.270 is unknown before 25 March 1661, when it was given to the College by Algernon Peyton, as noted on the title page (Picture 1). The manuscript is one of two given by Peyton, who also gave the College approximately sixty printed books.
As of the start of 2016, the manuscript was found to need conservation, which was undertaken by the author of this piece.
Description and Condition when received.
The original binding was lost, and a later cover of parchment lined with printed waste paper was, according to College records, provided in 1791-2: evidence from the printed waste confirms this date (Pictures 2 and 2b). For more information on the fragment of printed waste paper in picture 2b, see the addendum at the foot of this blog post.
The original sewing supports, seven split and twisted tawed-leather thongs, were still in position, broken or cut off at the ends. There are three deep saw-cuts across the spine into which thin cords were glued, to provide board attachment for the previous binding (Picture 3).
Of the original endbands, only fragments of green and pink silk threads remained from the secondary sewing. The multiple tie-downs of the primary endbands still remained, although the cores were missing. The back pastedown has been identified as a fragment of a thirteenth-century legal manuscript (Picture 4). The cover was in a poor condition, detached from the bookblock, its joints split and it had been previously mended a number of times.
The book comprises 466 leaves of fine, delicate parchment in gatherings mainly of 8 occasionally 6, giving a total of 61 gatherings. It is physically a relatively small book measuring 200 x 140 x 68mm in its cover.
On initial inspection, splits were noticed to some of the parchment leaves in the inner margins, although the full extent of the damage only became apparent when the volume had been pulled. The splits are associated with the later deep saw-cuts and the animal glue that had been introduced into the cuts, which had stuck together many of the leaves and restricted their movement at those points. The sunken cords, still mostly intact were further restricting the flexibility at the spine. Centuries of unsympathetic handling has exacerbated the damage. The worst of the splits were mainly confined to gatherings 38-49. Damp staining, with associated cockling of the leaves was noticed, particularly in gatherings 37-42, with some loss and damage to the written media.
An early decision was taken to disbind the volume in order to carry out the repairs needed to prevent further damage to the leaves, and then to rebind in a more sympathetic binding that would offer greater protection and less vulnerability to handling. Rebinding would provide the opportunity to use traditional techniques and the best modern materials available that would allow the volume to ‘work’ properly again, giving flexibility and protection.
The right (back) thirteenth-century Ms. fragment pastedown was lifted from the board by humidifying, and then drying under tension. The raised supports were removed by carefully cutting the threads underneath the supports with a scalpel, without damaging the backs of the gatherings. The pulling was done with great care into the component gatherings, then releasing each leaf from the glue traces in the saw-cuts, using a fine spatula, being careful not to cause further damage at these vulnerable points (Picture 5). Thread fragments and displaced dirt was retained, but mostly dirt in the gutters was not disturbed.
The outer folds of some gatherings were split, and these were repaired with toned Japanese paper using gelatine adhesive. Similar repairs and guarding was carried out to the back leaves and the former thirteenth-century Ms. pastedown which was guarded to be sewn back into the book. The splits to the leaves were repaired with remoistenable tissue*(2) using a fine Japanese tissue and gelatine adhesive. The tissue is prepared in the studio by floating the tissue onto a film of 3% liquid gelatine. When dry, the tissue is peeled off its backing sheet, cut to size, remoistened on a pad of damp cotton wool or sponge, then applied to the damaged area with tweezers, then weighted and dried between blotters (Picture 6). The tissue is applied to both sides of the split. This technique has much to recommend it, the tissue being light and strong for its weight, opaque and unobtrusive when dry, does not add bulk or introduce excessive moisture, and dries quickly (Pictures 7, 8, 9 & 10 before and after).
Following the repairs, the volume was collated into its correct sequence to prepare for sewing. New parchment endpapers were made up with tawed-pigskin joints, to be sewn through the fold. Free guards of handmade paper were placed around the outer gatherings, which protects the outer leaves from ingress of adhesive, and prevents ‘drag’by the flyleaves.
It was decided that the manuscript would be resewn on four supports, rather than the original seven. This was more than adequate for the size of the volume, so alternate stations were missed out. The volume was sewn on four double cords of Barbour’s Super Cabled flax cord using unbleached and unwaxed 18/3 linen thread. Each gathering was sewn all along using a herringbone stitch linking to the gathering below. Usually when sewing such a volume, it is good practice to pack-sew, which involves carrying out extra winds of the thread around the supports at each station, so that the cords are completely covered, or packed, by the sewing thread. This helps to control flexibility at the spine and produces a compact textblock. However, in this case, extra packing was unnecessary due to the multiple thin gatherings so the thread covered the cords completely. Excessive packing can lead to a misshapen spine (Picture 11).
Swell at the spine edge was controlled by knocking down the backs of the gatherings after each was sewn, although a certain amount of swell will be needed to accommodate the boards. If the swell is controlled, the spine should naturally revert to its previous shape, and there should be little need for rounding or shaping. Backing with a hammer is never done.
Following sewing, the book was placed in a backing press, the spine was lightly pasted between the supports and after a short drying period, the spine was manipulated using the hands only to produce a gentle flair at the shoulders. The panels were then lined with Japanese paper using paste. No further linings will be used.
The endbands were sewn using the same unbleached linen thread used in the main sewing, around a single core of cord which has been pasted and covered with thin leather, which makes it more rigid and helps to keep its shape. The threads were tied down in the centre of every 2-3 gatherings just below the kettle stitch. At each tie-down, the thread direction was reversed creating a back bead and a very firm and durable endband *(3) (Picture 12).
The endbands are an important feature of the structure of the binding, as they contribute to supporting the spine at the ends as well as controlling flexibility. A manuscript of this era would almost certainly have had laced in endbands but as this would necessitate cutting the covering leather at the turn-ins causing weakness, they were not employed in this instance.
Wooden boards were prepared from seasoned, quarter-sawn oak, planed to a thickness of 8mm, which was judged correct. The inner spine edges were planed to a bevel to take the shape of the swell at the shoulders, and the outer spine edges planed to the level of the spine. The remaining edges were bevelled at the inner edges, and sharp edges and corners sanded smooth. Recesses for the foredge straps were drilled and chiselled in both faces of the lower board.
Lacing holes were marked up and drilled, with recesses between the two holes to take the cords chiselled on the inner faces. Holes were staggered to avoid using the same grain and the possibility of splitting the wood (Picture 13).
The boards were laced on, securing the cords in the second holes with tawed pigskin ‘wedges’. The cords were not unravelled or thinned but kept to their full thickness for maximum strength, and the boards were laced on fairly tightly to exert the necessary pull on the spine (Picture 14).
An early decision was taken to cover the volume with alum-tawed pigskin, the material of choice for the rebinding of manuscripts, due to its proven durability and strength. Only the turn-ins were pared, keeping the full thickness of the skin at the spine area. Before pasting, the leather was dampened on the hair side with a weak salt solution. As the leather was not to be adhered to the spine, the spine area was masked off with card and the rest of the skin pasted up twice with wheat starch paste. The bookblock was capped with polyester film to protect it during the covering process.
The covering was carried out with the bookblock in a perpendicular position, the boards positioned on the skin and pushed down. The turn-ins and corners were worked using only hands and fingers to avoid marking the surface, before the boards were carefully and gently closed, stretching the skin over the spine (Picture 15). The book was then tied up either side of the supports with string and tying-up boards, and the caps shaped (Picture 16). When dry, the inner joints were stuck down and once the foredge straps had been attached, the turn-ins were trimmed and filled in, and the inner faces covered with handmade paper *(4).
The foredge closures are an integral feature of the structure, as they cause the boards to exert pressure on the spine and leaves. In this case, simple pin and ring closures were employed made from silver, which with time should tarnish to a pleasing blue/black, with straps of tawed leather strengthened with vellum. The pins were set into pre-drilled holes in the upper board, the straps set tightly to start with anticipating some stretch of the material. Finally, a drop-back box was constructed from acid –free millboard, covered with linen buckram, to also house a folder containing the earlier cover (pictures 17-21 after shots).
This article has described the detailed repair and rebinding of a unique fourteenth-century manuscript volume using many of the same materials and techniques that were employed centuries ago, before the advent of the printed book, the mass production that followed and the consequent decline in standards. Particular emphasis has been placed on strong and durable construction, most notable in the sewing to produce a self-supporting spine, protected by the covering leather but not restricted by it, allowing the pages to open as flat as they were originally intended.
*(1) Dr R.M. Thomson. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts of Peterhouse, Cambridge 2016.
*(2) Remoistenable tissue.Van Velsen & Jacobi. Journal of Paper Conservation. Vol 12 (2011) no.1.p36
*(3) How to do it: Endbands. J.Cassels. The New Bookbinder, Vol 27 (2007)
*(4) Robert Espinosa – Specifications for a Hard Board, Supported, Laced Construction Binding for the Conservation of Rare Books. Roger Powell. The Compleat Binder: liber amicorum ed. By John L. Sharpe. 1996. p 315-327.
Japanese paper – Kingawa Ivory 24gsm-John Purcell Paper
Japanese tissue- Tengujo 11gsm -John Purcell Paper
Alum-tawed Pigskin – J. Hewit and Sons Ltd.
Parchment endpapers – William Cowley Ltd.
Barbour’s super cabled cord – old stock.
Linen thread 18/3 – Sandboy textiles, Hereford.
Foredge closures – T. Wolfendale (Silversmith) firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by James Cassels.
This fragment of printed waste paper was used for lining of the parchment spine in repairs made to Ms. 270, which entered the collections in March 1661. The text has been identified as part of the 1792 edition of Robert Pattinson’s Ecclesiastical Researches, printed in Cambridge by Francis Hodson. Its use in the repair of Ms. 270 provides further evidence for the campaign of rebinding of the College’s manuscripts in the early 1790s described by Rod Thomson in his recent catalogue of the medieval manuscripts of Peterhouse, and carried out by Joseph Gee, journeyman to the bookseller John Merrill.