History and Its Fragments

macro-XRF technology in action

Nearly twenty years ago, in a bookbinding workshop, my instructor revealed two trade secrets that pushed my fascination with books into obsession: 1) in rare cases, personal notes–including love letters–have been found nestled under the endpapers of old books, and 2) if you expose the spines of books made during the rise of printing, you’re likely to find they’re lined with scraps from the bindery floor–fragments of pages from other books.

Recently, I was excited to discover that, using a new technology, Dutch scientists and other academics have been x-raying bindings made between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries to reveal such forgotten fragments — without causing damage by removing the bookbinding. These “hidden libraries” are believed to be the unique remnants of historical works, and it is estimated they can be found in one out of five printed books from the early modern age.

But even as I find myself intrigued with this search, I can’t help but question where the meaning lies in uncovering small bits of history that held so little value at the time when they were covered over. As I began to ponder this question, I was grateful to find our author Peter N. Miller’s book History and Its Objects: Antiquarianism and Material Culture since 1500, which gives voice to exactly why it matters. He argues that our current preoccupation with objects is far from novel and reflects a human need to re-experience the past as a physical presence.

In his introduction, Miller writes:

 The longing trapped in things helps connect the professional students of the past, of whatever species, with Homo sapiens writ large. All of us experience the power of the past in things, whether cleaning out the closets of deceased parents or cradling our grown children’s mementos or experiencing the shock of connection to an impersonal past through the magic of the haptic.

Several years before Erik Kwakkel, Medieval book historian at Leiden University in The Netherlands, was using macro-XRF imaging to visualize fragments of medieval manuscripts, he was teaching a class in which his students found 132 notes, letters and receipts from an unidentified court in the Rhine region, jotted on little slips of paper. On his blog about medieval manuscripts, he notes:

They were hidden inside the binding of a book printed in 1577. . . . and were discovered during our class while students were systematically going through the binding remains in the library.

My favorite slip is a tiny note written by (or on behalf of) Count Philip (d. 1508), who held court near the river Rhine. On 31 May 1486 he sent his servant to Heidelberg with a most charming request. “Could you please get me some wild roses?” he writes, adding, “but make sure to also include some that are not yet flowering.”

Kwakkel goes on to say:

That such a twice-recycled object still exists and that it provides such detailed information about real people asking for real things, turns the archive into both a valuable medieval source and an exciting object to work with. Holding the request for wild roses in your hand really makes you think about how the flowers will have been used, who looked at them, and what conversations were held in the room where they were placed.

When I think about such discoveries, I am also attracted to their historical value, but in the end what moves me is something less tangible. To think that the full content of a book may lie beyond what our eyes can detect — that one piece of history, whether private or public, may have been stashed away inside another — cannot help but spark my imagination.

As Miller reminds us, “sometimes it is not the visible but the submerged, or forgotten, parts of the history that matter. We see the trees, but it is not the forest that we miss so much as the roots.”

Jennifer Savran Kelly is a manuscript editor at Cornel University Press. This is her “personal note” and she hopes it doesn’t get covered over in some future “bindery.” You can follow her on Twitter @savranly.

History and Its Fragments