Medieval waste matter found in Leiden University Library
Erik Kwakkel, researcher at the Faculty of Humanities, has found an extraordinary manuscript in the University Library’s extensive collection of medieval books. The book in question dates back to the first half of the eleventh century and is made entirely out of waste left over from the production of parchment from animal hide. The manuscript shows that people were already interested in economising in the Middle Ages!
Dr Erik Kwakkel, who works at the Leiden University Institute for Cultural Disciplines (LUICD), discovered the extraordinary little book as he was preparing an exhibition for a symposium on Anglo-Saxon paleography. Kwakkel is familiar with the physical characteristics of animal hide and was as such able to recognise how exceptional the book is. In a study which is soon to appear, he argues that readers in the Middle Ages also recycled waste matter, as we do today, in order to write short messages, such as voting ballots, short letters and lecture notes. Now he has discovered a book in the University Library which is made entirely out of such waste matter. Never before has there been such a discovery in a Dutch collection. The attitude of medieval scribes, that 'such strips of waste matter are not suitable for a normal book', is completely at odds with the discovery of the manuscript.
In the production of parchment, the material which was used for books, it was customary to cut off the outermost edge of the prepared animal hide. This resulted in long strips of waste matter, approximately 15 centimeters wide, of a yellowish-brown colour with a number of tears and holes. These waste strips were not considered fit to write on, and were thrown away or boiled down into glue. Today, modern calligraphers still cut off the outermost edge of the animal hide. The low costs of the waste matter are the reason behind this example of medieval recycling. The reader could not expect to find excellent quality for this low price: the pages are strongly discoloured, they are not rectangular in shape but follow the contours of the animal, and they are exceptionally small (not even 14 centimeters from top to bottom). Furthermore, the scribe literally had to knot the ends of the waste matter together in order to create acceptable pages. The booklet stands in sharp contrast to more imposing works dating from this time. It shows a relatively unknown side of medieval book production, one which illustrates that it apparently did not always matter how shabby the final product turned out to be.
The booklet mainly consists of a commentary on Prudentius. This classical author was very popular in medieval education which makes it likely that the book was intended as material for study. The book is part of a collection of three medieval manuscripts and was made in France during the first half of the eleventh century. The University Library acquired it in 1690 from the estate of Isaac Vossius.
- Personal homepage of Erik Kwakkel
- Website of the Leiden University Institute for Cultural Disciplines
- Website of the University Libraries Leiden