Here are two well-known facts: books are the most numerous survival of pre-Reformation European civilization, but the majority of manuscripts that were created no longer survive. The study of manuscripts tends to concentrate on the minority that are complete survivals, but there is an intermediate world between living manuscripts and those that have died: there are those that exist in fragmentary form, tantalising glimpses of what once existed. Loss can occur through neglect or over-use, accidental damage or concious dismantling. The tradition of dismembering books has its own life cycle, being more fashionable in some places at some times than others. Sixteenth-century England saw one of its high points, when the making of new books often involved the destruction of older books. A project of the Centre for Bibliographical Historyis researching some of the survivors of that period.
The University of Essex is home to the book collection of Samuel Harsnett, Archbishop of York (1561-1631) who bequeathed his books to the town of Colchester. Many of the books are sixteenth-century and are in their original bindings; several of those bindings are interesting not just for their design but for the fact that their inside covers have pasted to them (thus the term pastedowns) fragments from other books – some from earlier printed works and some from manuscripts (ranging from the twelfth century to the near-contemporary to the binding). The intention is, during the summer of 2015, to catalogue these fragments and digitize them, making them freely available on the web.
The purpose of this project is not simply to provide a discrete digital database. The intention is to test what standards of cataloguing are required to encourage viewers in making identifications of fragments with others they may have before them. In doing this, it hopes to encourage a conceptual shift, from thinking of a fragment as an individual item and instead as a witness to a once-complete book, something of whose identity and history can be reconstructed by paying attention to all the material evidence the surviving element can provide. The aspiration is also that, having constructed the architecture of the database, the work can move on from this pilot and, over time, investigate other collections with the ideal being an eventual union catalogue of fragments in the British Isles. The value of this will not only be that it makes accessible to a scholarly and wider audience shards of our heritage usually hidden within bindings but also that it allows us to consider questions of the level, nature and processes of loss at different stages over the past (and present) centuries. Its aim, then, will be to help us learn from what survives and envisage what has been lost.
This project is being generously through seed-corn funding from the University of Essex. It is being run by the Centre’s Co-Director, David Rundle.