The confession of a 15th-century curator of manuscripts

We generally know very little about the early physical life of medieval manuscripts. We know when texts were started and completed, we may even know where the book travelled, to whom it was donated, who sold it, etc, but to get really close to a particular moment in the volume’s history one has to be very lucky, as these instances are extremely rare. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for medieval books to circulate without bindings.

There is a manuscript in The British Library of Nicolas de Biard’s Distinctiones, a work of scholastic theology: this is Additional MS 21355. Nothing is known about Nicolas, except that he was a mendicant friar and that he lived in the second half of the 13th century. A collection of Nicolas’ guidelines for writing sermons, the Distinctiones are the only work which can be unquestionably attributed to him. It was being copied and used at the University of Paris towards the end of the 13th century. The Additional manuscript was written in the 14th century. It has a 15th-century full-leather binding with wooden boards and a strap and peg fastening. This type of fastening mechanism is older than the clasp and, in this instance, it used two leather straps with metal tabs at one end that slotted into the raised pins of metal plates attached to the opposite board. It is quite extraordinary.

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When released from the pins, the straps unfasten the book and reveal the parts of the mechanism to be in a very good condition. The only unusual thing is that the book has to be upside down for it to open.

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Once open, it becomes clear that the spine is not doing as well as the fastening. It is quite wobbly, and for this reason the manuscript has to be handled with extra care, not to put any strain on the loose cords and the stitching.

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The damaged spine reveals at least two pieces of parchment whose purpose was to reinforce the spine.

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By far the most remarkable detail of this manuscript is the story it carries. On the verso of the first leaf, there is an inscription in red ink written by brother William of Mailly in the winter of 1426. William seems to be the same person whose name is mentioned in an inscription in another manuscript, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Latin 3506: ‘This book was written and completed by brother William of Mailly (per fratrem Guillermum de Mailliaco) of the Dominican convent of Auxerre in the year of the Lord 1401, on St George’s day.’ (f. 94).

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The inscription reads:

Ego frater Guillelmus de Mailliaco hunc librum in parva libraria dissutum repperi et folia eius dispersa, in quo xvi folia deficiebant. Dolens ergo quod sic male tractabatur, et dubitans ne aliquis eum, ideo quia incompletus erat, umquam vellet religare, et sic inutilis extitisset, prædicta xvi quæ in eo deficiebant scripsi et addidi eidem, ipsumque religavi, anno Domini MCCCCXXXI, in adventu Domini. Oretis Deum pro me.”

I brother William of Mailly, found this book in a small bookcase, unstitched and loose-leaf, from which sixteen leaves were missing. Pained that it had been handled so badly, and doubting that anyone, given how scrappy the book was, would ever wish to have it bound, and that it would thus end up useless, I completed the aforesaid missing sixteen leaves and added them to the book, and had it bound, in the year of our Lord 1426, at Advent. Pray God for me.’

We might have here the first ever confession of a curator of medieval manuscripts. We have at least one of the earliest genuine feelings for books which have been ill-used and mis-handled, sadness as well as confidence. Upset about the condition of the book, and perhaps because Nicolas de Biard’s work was important for the studies of the Auxerrois Dominicans (another copy appears to have been at hand, from which William supplied the missing text), William determined to have it bound (or bind it himself, who knows, the verb is active), rewrite the text that was lacking and make it available for readers, saving the book from uselessness (inutilis) and perhaps loss. He understood that without a binding and the missing folios, the book would not have made much of an incentive for reading. William must have been a lover of books indeed, but also someone who would take action to save, repair and preserve the library collection.

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