The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 5
Sep 1989


Stop Destroying Ancient Bindings

by J. A. Szirmai
Beelaertslaan 16, 6861 AV Oosterbeek, Netherlands

Reprinted with permission from Gazette du Livre Médievale, No. 13, Fall 1988, pp. 7-9 (editorial offices at CNRS-CEMAT, 156, avenue Parmentier, F-75010 Paris, France).

It was 50 years ago that the first detailed observations on technical aspects of the bindings of Carolingian manuscripts from the Reichenau monastery were made. Gerhard Kattermann of the Badische Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe, where the manuscripts are kept, showed his findings to a young local bookbinder, Adolf Heinz, who carefully studied the bindings and provided a technical description (Archiv f. Buchbinderei, 1938, p. 33-38). Kattermann's report (ibid., 1939, p. 17-20, 31-32) proved that not all of the Reichenau manuscripts had been newly bound in the course of the extensive rebinding operation in 1457 by the monks Pfuser and Plant. Out of the 163 manuscripts 21 kept their original binding which lasted for another 500 years, even if showing some signs of wear and tear (the latter facilitating the observations of the internal structure otherwise hidden). The studies of Heinz and Kattermann deserve credit for drawing attention for the first time to the technique of the simple, undecorated Carolingian binding, and thus arousing the interest of other investigators, like, among others, Van Regemorter, Pollard and Vezin.

The studies of Heinz and Kattermann did not entirely exhaust the subject, as often happens with the works of pioneers. The technical description of Heinz was based on the study of two bindings only (Aug. cxi and ccxxxiii), whereas Kattermann' s article contains several intriguing photographs without giving full explanation of all details. Intriguing, because they seem to have bearing on the earliest use of sewing support and its relation to the ancient kettle-stitch sewing. The desire to clarify some of these issues prompted a visit to the Badische Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe, in July 1988, with the aim of reinvestigating the material of Heinz and Kattermann, supposedly still available.

Disappointment is a feeble expression to qualify the confrontation: out of the 21 bindings listed by Kattermann, only two (Aug. clxxi and clxxxvii) are still in their pristine original state. The others have been more or less crudely "restored" between 1967 and 1978, two of then even completely rebound (in one case the cover has been saved and is kept separately; the cover of the other one has disappeared)--all this without any detailed record. Among the irreplaceable losses are two bindings studied by Heinz (Aug. cxi: rebound, cover lost; ccxxxii: thoroughly restored). They share the fate of a few hundred original bindings of manuscripts and incunabula of the Badische Landesbibliothek, the only possessions of that Library that escaped destruction by the 1942 fire, and it is tragic that they have been more or less destroyed after that disaster, but now purposely, by misguided hands. Nevermore will we have the chance to verify, for example, the course of sewing thread or details of the attachment of the boards of the Reichenau bindings, to determine the nature of the sewing thread or the variations in the construction of the tab-headband: the evidence is lost forever. It is like suddenly standing over the tomb of a dear friend, whom one was hoping to reach still alive.

One wonders whether custodians of ancient books are sufficiently aware of the fact that these are not just media of information transfer, but rather archeological objects, the original state of which is a condition for any scientific investigation. Restoration is likely to change irreversibly their original state. To quote Goldschmidt (Gothic and Renaissance Bookbindings, London, 1928, p. 123): "Our knowledge... is far too limited to permit us to judge what essential data we are destroying when we allow an old book to be handed over to the binder to be restored.' There is no such thing as restoring an old binding without obliterating its entire history." The importance of this must be especially stressed in view of the fact that so many original bindings have already vanished: worn-out bindings have been replaced, but more often intact bindings have been needlessly renewed to the taste and fancy of fashion-conscious book-collectors.

The finding that only two of 163 manuscripts of Reichenau, still at Karlsruhe in 1938, retained their binding in original state means that not more than 1.2% of the original material is available for study. This is very close to the figure of 0.9% which can be calculated from the data of Gilissen (La reliure occidentale antérieure à 1400, Turnhout, 1983): out of the 1500 manuscripts in the Royal Library Albert I in Brussels, only nine are in their original binding, and five possess partially original features. Do scientists need to be told that observations deserve hardly any trust when statistics have to be based on 1% of the original population? Are the students of bookbinding archaeology--one of the youngest branches of the book sciences--condemned to groping their way in darkness through the stacks of the libraries where an original binding is becoming an unexpected rarity? Is it not shameful that conclusions must be based on restored bindings, like recently by Vezin (Festschrift Johanne Autenrieth, Sigmaringen, 1988, p. 87) concerning the structure of carolingian bindings from Würzburg, with the argument that "1' auteur de cette restauration nous a affirmé qu'il avait démonté le volume en observant soigneusement le sens du passage des fils et qu'il avait reconstitué avec la plus grande exactitude la couture ancienne"? Do we have, in the future, to content ourselves in our research of ancient bindings with this sort of evidence?

Concern about the preservation of original bindings is not new. More than 100 years ago Wattenbach (Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, Leipzig, 1871) issued a serious warning to this end: "Es ist immer eine grosse Barbarei, wenn man, wie das besonders in früher Zeit häufig geschehn ist, ohne Noth die ursprünglichen Einbände zerstört." Although it is gratifying to know that the present custodians of the Reichenau manuscripts share the regret about this state of affairs, and that the present restorer adheres to more candid restoration ethics, the loss remains irreplaceable. And the conclusion from the above lines can only be an appeal: Please, please stop destroying ancient bindings by unnecessary restoration!

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