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A close up of the condition of one of the pages of the book. The page has text in black ink and traces of text with red ink.
Inscription from Weissenau Abbey. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2017.

Good Wood: Using Beech to Rebind a Medieval Manuscript, Part 2

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This is a guest post by John Bertonaschi, Senior Rare Book Conservator in the Conservation Division.

In Part one of this blog post, I wrote about my efforts to secure a supply of quarter-sawn beech wood to rebind a 13th century manuscript, Decretum Gratiani, from the collection of the Law Library. Now, in Part two, I will be describing the manuscript and what we know of its history and provenance.

A close up of the Decretum Gratiani book lying flat on its side with paper tabs in between several pages.
Decretum Gratiani before treatment. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2016.

Decretum Gratiani (properly titled Concordantia discordantium canonum) is one of a number of medieval works that attempted to organize the immense body of rules, decrees, practices, and precedents which had been produced during the previous thousand years of existence of the Roman Catholic Church, and was taken, along with other collections, to form the Corpus Juris Canonici or, Body of Canon Law. It was composed by the Camaldolese monk Gratianus, a professor at the University of Bologna, in the mid-12th century and remained among the primary sources for the teaching of canon law right up through the early 20th century.

Most of what we know about our copy of the Decretum comes from its entry in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Books in the Library of Congress, an essential catalogue written by Svato Schutzner. His chronology of the parts of the book is as follows: It begins with a conspectus, or summary, of slightly smaller dimensions that was written on parchment different from that found in the rest of the book. Schutzner dates it as older, probably from the end of the 12th century, and from Switzerland, possibly the monastery at Engelberg. The primary text, based on the script, appears to have been written in Italy, or by an Italian scribe, at the beginning of the 13th century. The all-around glossing and decoration, highlighted by Lombardic capitals in blue and red pigment, were added in Switzerland or southern Germany in the first half of the 14th century. Apparently, the manuscript waited over 100 years to get its glossing, decoration and binding.

A close up of the condition of one of the pages of the book. The page has text in black ink and traces of text with red ink.
Inscription from Weissenau Abbey. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2017.

An inscription on the first page of the conspectus tells us that the book had been in the library at the abbey of Weissenau in southern Germany. The abbey was dissolved in 1803 and our manuscript eventually ended up in the possession of Dyson Perrins, a British businessman and philanthropist, whose bookplate is still on the inside front cover.

A bookplate showing intricate detail of symbols surrounded by a lined border.
Bookplate of Dyson Perrins. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2016.

We have Perrins’ grandfather William, along with his partner John Lea, to thank for the famous Worcestershire sauce, which discriminating diners ask for the world over. Perrins became manager of the Worcestershire sauce company after the death of his father, and was also director of the Royal Worcester Porcelain Factory, which was taken over by the Ministry of Aircraft during the Second World War to make components for radio and radar equipment. During and after the war, Perrins raised money by gradually selling off his magnificent book collection. The Library of Congress acquired this Decretum Gratiani manuscript in 1941.

At some point in its history (we speculate it was in the 17th century based on the appearance of the boards) the manuscript was rebound. The parchment text block was trimmed at this time, as evidenced by glosses written near the edges of pages which have been partially cut off.

Two images depicting close up shots of an old book. The top image has text with brown ink and blue and red accented letters. The bottom image shows the spine of the book.
Script cut off at the margin (top) and Hide glue applied to the spine; The script visible is offset from manuscript fragments used to line the spine (bottom). John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2016.

By the late 19th or early 20th century, this binding of plain leather had broken down, necessitating a repair called a rebacking. The leather on the spine and in the board joints had deteriorated to the point that the boards would probably have come off, so new leather was put onto the spine and the boards reattached to it. This is a conventional way of repairing a book with detached boards that is still used today. Unfortunately, our repairman applied his leather directly to the spine with a thick layer of hot liquid hide glue.

Heat and moisture together are the mortal enemies of parchment, and the spine contracted significantly, creating a stiff back with undulations in the parchment radiating out from the center and making it impossible to open the book fully.

The glossing in the inner margins, which in some places is less than 1cm from the center fold, could not be seen. This, taken with the Law Library’s desire to have the manuscript scanned and made available online, drove our decision to take the book apart and rebind it.

Two images side by side. The left image shows an open book exposed under raking light. The right image is a close up of a page of text.
Left: A bifolium from Decretum Gratiani in raking light shows heavy cockling in the parchment from the application of hot hide glue to the spine. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2017. Right: Inner margin glossing is very close to the center fold. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2017.

As for the quarter sawn beech wood, that saga has reached its finale. After curing for about a year, first in the air and then in a kiln, my contact at Montgomery County Parks, Patrick Harwood, informed me the wood had reached the moisture content we had requested and was ready to be picked up. On a drizzly morning in early December, Senior Rare Book Conservator Katherine Kelly, my partner in this endeavor, drove us in her SUV to MC Parks’ Green Farm facility in Gaithersburg, MD. Patrick and his crew were busy preparing for their second annual Urban Wood Sale, which was to take place at the end of that week.

Four images in gallery orientation. Top right photo shows stacks of wood inside a warehouse. The top right shows a close up of one of the stacks of wood. The bottom left shows two men standing in front of an open car with a stack of wood placed inside the trunk. The bottom right shows John walking into the conservation lab holding a plank of wood.
Preparing for Montgomery Parks’ second annual Urban Wood Sale (top left) and Quarter sawn beech cured and roughly planed (top right). John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2022. John Bertonaschi and Patrick Harwood with a carload of beech (bottom left) and Bringing wood into the Conservation lab (bottom right). Katherine Kelly, Conservation Division, 2022.

The beech had been planed and was wrapped up and ready to go. There was more than I anticipated, I estimate about 100 board feet, give or take, and we’re staggered by Patrick’s and Montgomery Parks’ generosity to our Division. We filled the SUV with wood and made our way south to the Library. The Capitol Police officers on duty at the garage entrance were very understanding as we brought in loads of planks. Now, we have to figure out where we’re going to put it all, but that’s a problem I’ll take any day of the week!

In Part three of this series, I’ll describe how we took the book apart and began treatment of the parchment pages.

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Comments (2)

  1. A fascinating story! As a woodworker I found the process of acquiring and curing the wood especially interesting. Was there ever any concern over using American beech as opposed to the European which presumably was the original species?

    • The comment below is written by the author, John Bertonaschi:

      Dear David,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t pretend to know differences between American and European beech, if any exist. I wanted an alternative to oak and, given the place of origin and time period of our manuscript, beech seemed the most likely choice. Many different kinds of wood were used, including beech and oak. They used what they had available. In that spirit, lacking beech I would have sought another native hardwood. I was just lucky enough to find a local source for beech. I have nothing against oak except that I find it difficult to plane. I’m not a woodworker! The white oak we have was, coincidentally, harvested in Scotland. I hope you will follow future installments of this series when we start processing the wood.



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