The medieval art of recycling

A piece of parchment from a 9th-century manuscript was used as a pastedown (the inner front cover to strengthen the binding) for a later manuscript, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, Cod. Sang. 97

For this weekend’s rant, I considered the top 3 modes of recycling practised in the Middle Ages. One of the benefits of not having invented plastic is that you don’t have to worry about recycling it. But then you can’t ‘un-invent’ something once it’s out there, creating piles of itself.

Digression alert.

It occurs to me that no other society has been more anti-recycling than the ancient Romans. Their recyclophobia peaked in the 2nd century AD when the residents of Rome were throwing away their amphorae in what is now known as Monte Testaccio, a mound just outside Rome made up almost completely of pieces of broken pottery from an estimated 53 million amphorae. A better name for the Monte Testaccio would be the Shard (from the Latin testae for shards of broken vessels). Amphorae containing olive oil would have been discarded after transportation as they wouldn’t be reused. The terracotta amphorae were porous and the oil seepage would soon become rancid. The broken pieces may even have been drizzled with lime for antiseptic reasons. The largest anti-recycling operation known to the ancient man. End of digression.

Just think before you bin it, there could be some use in it!

For all their sins, the medievals didn’t achieve such dumping glory. On the contrary, in the world of writing, recycling was de rigueur. Here are the top 3 recycling practices inside the medieval scriptorium. As you will see, these practices all obey the imperative: Don’t skin another sheep if you can help it.

  1. Parchment being expensive, it’s wise to think of ways to avoid using more animal skin. Leave no stones unturned and no blanks unfilled. Writing in the margins of manuscripts, even when it has nothing to do with what’s already written, is the way forward.
  2. Use old parchment for all sorts of DIY projects: a parchment bag may not sell on the market, but it might come in handy. Even book covers may be made of old parchment. Don’t throw it away, it can be used in some other way!
  3. If you’re really stingy or a recycling freak, you can always scrape the writing off an old vellum manuscript and write over it. Unlike paper, animal skin preserves the ink of the writing in its fibres, so scraping the surface doesn’t really erase the text. By doing this, you’ve just created a palimpsest and earned the gratitude of generations of historians, as you’ve saved not just another sheep, but an old text which would have otherwise been discarded, lost or destroyed.

Reuse it or lose it.

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