Recycling and Reuse in Medieval Manuscripts

When you think of the Middle Ages, do you think of recycling? While the concept may seem foreign to us now, medieval people regularly reused and recycled all kinds of objects. Obviously, medieval recycling wasn’t concerned with the idea of reducing single-use plastic or trying to decrease contributions to landfills. Instead, recycling was simply a material and cost saving measure. One place where recycling is most prevalent, and noticeable, is in the art and architecture of the period. Books especially were susceptible to being recycled and reused. Such an example can be seen in our copy of Liber domus Sororum in Coesfeldia ordinis Santi Augustini.

Interior of back cover of Liber domus Sororum in Coesfeldia ordinis Santi Augustini.
Exterior of back cover of Liber domus Sororum in Coesfeldia ordinis Santi Augustini.

When I came across this book, I was struck by the fact that the back cover was a piece of recycled parchment. The reused piece of parchment is a sheet of music, the notation and ledger lines apparent. Music is show on both sides of the back cover. Because of the music shown, it most likely belonged in a liturgical manuscript. The book is dated to be around the fifteenth century, but it’s noted that the existing piece of music probably predates that time period, but no exact date has been pinpointed. The reused music sheet sticks out like a sore-thumb from the rest of the book. Not only is the content different, but the materiality and colors of the cover don’t match the rest of the book. This led me to one question: why was a piece of medieval music being used as a back-cover?

Before trying to answer this question, we need to understand why books were recycled in the medieval period. Like any form of creating art and architecture, it was expensive. The cost of making any book meant spending a lot of money, devoting hours of labor, and purchasing precious materials. Even producing the parchment for the pages was no easy feat, as depending on the length of the book, hundreds of animal skins were needed for to make the pages. With so much time, money, and effort, manuscripts were seen as too valuable to just be thrown away when a book was too worn down or considered useless. Rather than creating or buying new materials, existing objects were dismantled and repurposed for new functions. Simply put, book-makers saw existing manuscripts as just another material in their supplies. Why use a new piece of clean parchment when an existing piece could do the same job? They used any part of the book they could. They turned them into new pages, book-spines, or, in the case of the Liber domus Sororum in Coesfeldia ordinis Santi Augustini, book covers. Reusing existing pages became so commonplace, that the term palimpsest was created by scholars. A palimpsest is defined as parchment where someone has “erased” or scraped off the text on the page and re-written over it. Tearing the spine out of an old book and scraping ink and paint off of pages sounds sacrilegious to us now, but wasn’t to early book makers. While we think of books as holders of content and ideas, people in the middle ages thought of the book as an object that had purpose, both for its content and its materiality. 

A collection of medieval liturgical pages used as covers from the Newberry Library in Chicago.


So, why was a sheet of music specifically used in this manuscript? Liturgical manuscripts were regularly recycled in manuscripts and commonly found as covers and bindings. Liturgical manuscripts held prayers, hymns, and songs for worship for mass. These manuscripts were heavily used by their readers for daily prayers and mass. This meant that the book was regularly interacted with and had a shorter life-span than others in the medieval period. With such regular use they were frequently replaced with new scribal copies. With the constant replacement of such books, bookbinders had a supply of useless liturgical manuscripts to use at their disposal. Rather than throwing them away, they gained a second life by being recycled into these new books.

While today we see these reused materials as an integral aesthetic and valued element of the whole book, medieval book-makers saw it simply as an economic and functional use. Materials weren’t to be wasted, but rather given a new purpose if they could be recycled. Our copy of Liber domus Sororum in Coesfeldia ordinis Santi Augustini is entirely digitized on DigiNole.

Resources:

Manuscripts in transition: recycling manuscripts, texts, and images: Proceedings of the International Congress (sic) held in Brussels (5-9 Novemeber 2002). Eds. Brigitte Dekeyzer and Jan Van der Stock. Belgium: Brussels, 2002. 

Ryley, Hannah. “Constructive Parchment Destruction in Medieval Manuscripts.” Book 2.0 7, no. 1 (April 2017): 9–19. 

Ryley, Hannah. ”Waste not, want not: the sustainability of medieval manuscripts.” Green Letters 19:1 (2015), 63-74. 

Skemer, Don. “The Anatomy of a Palimpsest (Garrett MS.24).” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 57, no. 2 (1996): 335-43. 

Toth, Peter. “Palimpsests: The Art of Medieval Recycling.” Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Blog. The British Library, September 14, 2016. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/09/palimpsests-the-art-of-medieval-recycling.html.  

Waters, Jamie. “Nothing Goes to Waste: Print and Manuscript Pieces Recycled for Bindings.” Source Material. The Newberry Library, October 24th, 2017.  https://www.newberry.org/nothing-goes-waste-print-and-manuscript-pieces-recycled-bindings.  

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