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Scholar unpicks medieval ‘upcycling’

30 September 2016

The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, BPH 148, fol. 61v

Cock-a-doodle: a group of nuns in Delft added chicken heads to their manuscripts

Cock-a-doodle: a group of nuns in Delft added chicken heads to their manuscripts

MEDIEVAL bookworms would personalise old volumes of literature with annotations, poems, and draw­ings, and would even sew fabric into the bindings in a parallel to today’s trend toward “upcycling” second-hand books, an art historian at the University of St Andrews, Dr Kathryn Rudy, has discovered.

She documents the practice in Piety in Pieces: How medieval readers customized their manu­scripts, pub­lished this week.

Her research suggests that 15th-century book-lovers person­alised old books to keep them fashionable, and document memories and events such as a birth, marriage, or death.

Medieval books were expensive. “Most manuscripts made before 1390 were bespoke and made for a particular client, but those made after 1390 — especially books of hours — were increasingly made for an open market, in which the producer was not in direct contact with the buyer,” she said. “Increased efficiency led to more generic products, which owners were mot­ivated to personalise.”

For example, a former Dean of Aberdeen, James Brown, in 1499 bought a prayer-book manuscript from a workshop in the Southern Netherlands. Now kept in the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh, it contains a portrait of Brown kneeling in prayer before an image of the Virgin, later personal­ised by sewing in curtains for “added grandeur”. He also added verses to blank folios.

”Book-buyers of the late 14th, and throughout the 15th, century still held on to the old connotations of manuscripts — that they were custom-made luxury items — even when the production had become impersonal,” Dr Rudy said.

To download a free PDF of Piety in Pieces, visit www.openbookpublishers.com/product/477/.

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