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.
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