What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke in fact describes just some of our favourite finds from the first few days working on the Discovering Lost Manuscripts Project at Special Collections. The Discovering Lost Manuscripts Project aims to find and catalogue fragments of manuscript and rare book that were reused by early modern book binders to strengthen the bindings of early printed books. Although these fragments were once deemed unimportant enough by the bookbinders to tear up and use in newer books, today researchers have a keen interest in analysing where they come from and what they contain.
Our names are Amy and Kirsty and we wrote this in the second week of a six-week long Special Collections internship at the University Library, which was offered as part of the St Andrews’ Summer Internship Scheme. Our internship was one of a wide range of opportunities offered by the scheme, which aims to give students an insight into the goings-on of different units of the University. In this blog, we’d like to introduce the project and share some (because we didn’t have nearly enough room for all of them) of our favourite discoveries from the collections so far.
In our first week alone we found over 100 fragments tucked into the bindings of the collection of the 16th and 17th century books we have been searching through. Some are small and well-hidden under more modern pastedowns of paper. In fact, after a few near-misses and false alarms, we have developed a game called ‘Dirt or Writing?’ (The rules are fairly self-explanatory) while looking in detail at the front and back covers.
Other fragments may extend to several pages of printed text or manuscript, and because of their size give much more scope for analysis. We have been able to identify the writers and subjects of a number of them, including several fragments taken from bibles, a passage from Don Quixote and a commentary on a speech by Cicero against Marc Anthony. Yet, regardless of whether it is a tiny fragment poking out from a side cover, or a full page of medieval manuscript, the excitement of discovery has not lost its spark yet because you are never sure what might be around the corner (sometimes literally!)
Once we find a fragment (probably 1 in every 15 books), our job is to catalogue it for future use by historians, researchers and archivists. We note down the dimensions, language, material and subject of the fragment, then take a picture of it so that researchers may be able to analyse the fragments remotely. We also record the details of the book in which the fragment was found, since the fragments can sometimes tell us as much about the history of the individual book as it can about the text the fragment came from. Piecing together what the fragments tell us about the books and the texts is one of the joys and challenges of this project, and below are some examples of some of our exciting finds along the way!
- The 400 year old Laundry List
At the beginning of our internship, we mused about the kinds of things that we wanted to find during our time in Special Collections. Our wish list included reasonable, realistic ideas- we wanted to find a sheet of music used as a fragment, as well as some full page parchment fragments like we had seen in press releases about recent finds at other universities. However, before we came across either of those, day 2 of our internship fulfilled one of our more outlandish wishes – finding a shopping/laundry list!
Hidden deep within a book, we found this list of clothing which seems to be either a shopping or a laundry list. We can date the fragment in two ways – the italic script suggests that it comes from the 17th century, and the style of clothing listed can give us a clue of when it was written. Our favourite item on the list – ‘2 pairs of ruffels’, is another good indication that the list dates back to 17th century, a time when wearing ruffles was fashionable.
- Our oldest find?
The majority of fragments we find are printed text and whilst this makes it easier for us to work out the subject of the fragment, it is far more exciting when we find something handwritten! However, the initial excitement usually gives way soon enough to confusion, because it can be difficult enough trying to decipher what language the fragment is in, let alone trying to work out what its subject is!
We could identify that this fragment was in Latin because of a few instantly recognisable words, and the script it is written in – a particularly cursive sort of book hand – might date the fragment of this legal agreement fairly well to the 14th century, or it could be archaicised 17th century court hand.. Any further information, however, is quite difficult to decipher and usually in this scenario we ask for some help. The staff at the Library Annexe often look for ‘keywords’ to work out what the fragment might be about. Deeds often have notes about property, legal terms and names, and the deed below also mentions the death of whoever owned the property last – which is a little morbid! We think we can see the name Waren’ de Staff’. Does anyone know who he might be?
- Love note
Another curiosity that we had hoped to find during the internship was a love note in the pages of one of the books. Again, on just our second day on the job, we came across a gem of a find- a full page love poem explaining why the writer wanted to give this book (called ‘The Use of Passions’!) to his female friend! Although not strictly a fragment, this counts as not only one of our favourite but also one of our most useful discoveries. The poem is written in beautiful script and since it is such a good example of italic hand, it will be used as an example in future palaeography classes.
So what have we learnt from our internship so far? Working at Special Collections is a fascinating and enriching experience. Fuelled by the ever-present supply of biscuits and cake that makes Special Collections a great place to work, we are building on new skills such as learning how to handle delicate rare books and identifying different types of fragment and common styles of handwriting. Most of all, we are enjoying every moment of touring through the beautiful treasure trove that is the Special Collections rare book collections.
Amy Cooper and Kirsty Hardwick
Interns – Discovering Lost Manuscripts Project