When is a book truly finished? As this exhibition’s title suggests, books are continually made, unmade, and reassembled with accretions and deletions.
Though we valorize completion, unfinished works also have a powerful allure. They challenge us to fill in blank spaces with our imaginations, to consider how rough outlines reveal creators’ thought processes, and to absorb the gradations and dissonances between the finished and unfinished sections of a work.
In fact, “unfinished” space was built into virtually every medieval manuscript. Empty margins were made to be filled not only with decorative borders but also with corrections and glosses added by the scribe and later readers. Although modern readers tend to avoid writing in the margins of books for fear of spoiling them, medieval readers expected annotations. Even in the lavish coronation book seen on the following page, a note in the margin explains that the queen should be crowned and consecrated before the Mass. Like margin notes, visible ruling lines also unsettle the “finished” version of a text for modern readers, but were often part of the planned design of the medieval page. In fact, ruling lines were so important to the appearance of a finished medieval book that they continued to be drawn in books even after the advent of print made them functionally obsolete.
Books left unintentionally unfinished by their medieval creators expose many facets of the book-making process—design decisions, technical choices, and raw materials. For example, the blank spaces left in unfinished books tell us that text was written first and colored initials and other decorative elements were to be added afterwards. (The blank spaces of modern paragraph indentations would likely appear incomplete to medieval readers, who would expect to see decorated initials in a finished work.)
Medieval manuscript owners also updated their books by repainting illustrations or embellishing pages with decorations cut from earlier manuscripts. They adhered scraps of outdated manuscripts to the bindings of books to strengthen them, or scraped existing text off of parchment in order to write something new in its place. In the following centuries, book owners continued to deconstruct and reconstitute books. Many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century devotional manuscripts contain cuttings from earlier illuminated manuscripts and woodcuts. In the nineteenth century, some collectors cut decorated initials and miniatures from medieval books, often pasting them into scrapbooks to create new assemblages, many of which were, in their turn, eventually cut up and dispersed. Other collectors reconfigured pieces excised from larger contexts into stand-alone objects by framing these cuttings as isolated paintings, perhaps emboldened by the medieval convention of enclosing miniatures in frames and borders. Books were also “perfected” with the addition of illustrations to manuscripts where they had gone missing. Some medieval illuminations were “improved”—retouched to fit contemporary tastes. Others were even forged using authentic materials, which both fed and took advantage of the growing market for illuminated medieval manuscript fragments. The so-called Spanish Forger scraped the music from a portion of a leaf excised from a medieval choir book and painted an illuminated miniature in the resulting blank space.
The cycle of mutation for medieval books continues today, even at the most fundamental stratum. Medieval books began as animal pelts that were scraped, stretched, and dried into parchment—a highly-stressed material that is deeply sensitive to changes in humidity. If left in damp conditions, parchment can become gelatinous. If the atmosphere is too dry, it becomes stiff and prone to breakage. Even slight fluctuations in humidity will cause parchment to curl up or stretch. Different leaves within the same book can react differently, their movements threatening to unseat the ink and pigments that they support. Parchment’s unquiet nature contributes to the crackling and crazing on many painted embellishments in the exhibition. The very pages of medieval books thus test our notions of finality and permanence as they sit restlessly on display.
Author: Anna Chen, Curator, Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2016.
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