Working With Liturgical Manuscripts, Part 12 – Many Layers, Many Languages



One of the great joys of working with liturgical fragments in book bindings is that there is always room for surprise. To be sure, it need not be a big surprise, neither does it have to be all that uncommon, but sometimes you do encounter surprises that adjust your understanding of what you are working on, and remind you that history is a bit more complex than you had realised. In the following blogpost, I wish to present you with one such little surprise which I came across while trying my best to identify the texts of a liturgical fragment that was in a rather poor state, namely Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA K 284, a book whose cover I have written about here.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The fragment was used as the binding for Zacharias Theobald’s Hussiten Krieg, an account in German about the Hussites in Bohemia and the life and death of Johannes Huss. This edition was printed in Nürnberg in 1621 by Simon Halbmayer. (I am grateful to Jakob Povl Holck at the University Library of University of Southern Denmark for these details.) In the prologue, we see the mixture of German and Latin and the mix of corresponding types that have been used in the printing.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

This blend of Latin and vernacular is something that is typical to encounter when working with these fragments. In this case, there is a blend of languages not only in the typeset and the text, but also in the content of the book versus the binding of the book, containing, as it does, the Latin of liturgical books.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
Across the spine: Herlufsholm, the name of the library where this book was last keptRARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

As stated, the cover fragment – and indeed the binding itself – was in a poor state, and in these pictures the poor degree of legibility is not only a matter of the camera’s focus or the light in the room – although these also play a part – but predominantly a matter of how worn the letters and the colours of the manuscript fragment itself are. As we see, even the cover itself is coming apart. Consequently, I had to be very careful, but at the same time I needed to turn and open this book to catch any possible angle in order to uncover even the tiniest strip that could assist me in the identification of the text. Sometimes, one tiny strip showing only one single letter can be the defining factor that allows me just enough to go on when trying to transcribe the text.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

As I was examining the book, however, I became aware of the many layers of the binding itself. It is easy to forget that the fragment(s) used for the cover of the book is only the most visible, and that there are several other fragments that have been used inside the cover, along the spine, or in any other of the many nooks and crannies of a book. There was, however, one reminder of this multi-layered nature of book-bindings, namely a small flap covered in residual glue and torn paper, peeping out on between the cover and the page, protruding from the bottom of the spine.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

On the other end of the page, however, I discovered something I had not anticipated, my little surprise that added a significant amount of excitement to my examination, and one that – in hindsight – quite probably made my eyes bulge in astonishment. I found a little scrap of what looked like paper, containing Hebrew script.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

At first I was dumbfounded, as this was the first time I had encountered Hebrew letters in any of the fragments and bindings I had been examining. As I gathered my wits, however, I realised that this was not as unusual as I at first had thought. After all, early modern printers used a wide array of materials when binding their books, and not only medieval vellum. The vellum seems to have been favoured for the spine and the cover, as vellum is quite strong and can better withstand the pressures and the general wear to which the book is exposed. However, for the inside of the cover, used as a thickener, as it were, it was more common to use paper. This paper often originated from books that had been discarded, such as test printings, botched printings, or books that simply were not selling. The latter is a point to which John Dryden draws our attention when, in the satirical poem “Mack Flecknoe”, he describes the unsold books of what he calls neglected authors as being “Martyrs of pies, and relics of the bum”, referring to how paper was reused as wrapping paper for food, and toilet paper. In short, it is not surprising to find printed paper tucked into the binding to strengthen it. 

What did surprise me, however, was the Hebrew script, and I contacted by colleague Martin Borysek who was then at University of York as a member of the Centre for Medieval Literature. Martin has worked on Hebrew texts, and I turned to him hoping that he could translate what little text I had found. He was very kind welcoming, and told me to send him whatever I had. In the next few days, however, I decided to go back to the book and see if I could unearth a bit more of the text.              

I decided to be a bit less careful in my handling of the book, and I tried to see how the paper covering the inside of the book cover actually was. It turned out to be quite loose.


RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

 Fortunately, the text available was sufficient to provide something tangible, and Martin wrote back to me, saying that that this was some kind of register, list or index. The combination of Latin and Hebrew, along with numerals and references to tomes and folios, suggested to Martin that this was an example of Christian Hebraism, a text in Hebrew intended for a Christian audience, most likely for educational purposes.  

As it stands now, the multi-layered, multi-lingual binding of RARA K 284 has not been fully transcribed, translated or even identified, but it serves as a good reminder of how these treasure troves can yield a relatively wide variety of languages as well as content. It is also a good reminder of how necessary it is to have colleagues expert in fields relatively far removed from your own expertise, and how necessary it is that those colleagues are kind and welcoming.