Holey Books: Ancrene Wisse and the Art of Medieval Manuscript Repair

HQ AW initial and tearEncountering a manuscript is a vastly different experience to reading a modern printed edition of the same text. I discovered this when I had the privilege of examining the Ancrene Wisse manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402) during my internship at the Parker Library. Ancrene Wisse—meaning ‘advice for anchoresses’—is an early thirteenth-century text intended to guide the devotional lives of female religious recluses. But, alongside its content, what struck me about the manuscript was its palpable materiality. I was confronted with an animal skin that had been skilfully made into a durable writing surface, and could see the flaws in the parchment that sometimes resulted from that process. The flaws, in particular, ensured that I saw the text not as an abstraction, such as critical editions present, but rather as an unavoidably physical instantiation.

AW page with hole and sewn tear
Flaws in the parchment: a hole and a stitched up tear

The production of medieval manuscripts was an arduous process. Skins, from livestock such as sheep and goats, were made into parchment through ‘the laborious processes of liming, curing, dehairing, scraping and smoothing’, as well as being ‘strategically cut to maximise the available surface area to produce as many leaves as possible’.[1] These processes, particularly that of scraping the skin, could result into small holes, which would grow larger when the skin was stretched out. The skin could also already be weak or damaged in places, and therefore prone to tearing. Medieval scribes consequently had to be creative in repairing parchment holes, which ‘could be stitched, glued with a patch or simply avoided by writing around them’.[2]  Parchment leaves were often folded in such a way that ‘any irregularity and damage appear at the edges’, so that the binder could potentially decide to cut off the damaged area.[3]

AW close-up sewn tear within text
A repaired tear within the body of text

MS 402 of Ancrene Wisse contains examples of several of these repair techniques. I saw tears stitched up with green thread, often at the edges of leaves; it is probable that these leaves were intentionally folded so that the imperfection would not interfere with the text. Holes also appear within the body of text itself, and are sometimes left open, sometimes stitched up. I could tell that these holes occurred prior to the scribe writing on the parchment because the scribe had cleverly navigated the text around them. It was striking to see how the scribe works with the physicality of text—almost as if in artistic collaboration. On one leaf, two colours of thread have been used, suggesting that the parchment was repaired on more than one occasion; perhaps some of the original stitching came loose and a different colour was used to replace it. Yet in other places, stitches have clearly come out without being replaced, as the parchment bears the puncture holes of a needle; this is likely because a modern conservator would not venture to replicate the original repair works. Furthermore, as the parchment has dried and hardened over the centuries, the original thread that restrained an old tear is no longer needed; the parchment can hold itself in place.

AW two thread colours
Two colours of thread on the same leaf

Due to its abundance of flaws, the parchment used for Ancrene Wisse seems to be of relatively low quality. The quality of materials used in making a manuscript could give us clues about the societal value of the text and its readers. Orietta De Rold explains that ‘[m]odern research suggests that the qualitative differences in the process of making the parchment had an impact on the production of the medieval book. Little evidence of the quality of the parchment which was bought and sold is available in contemporary records […but…] it is possible to observe differences’.[4] One example she gives is that dark, easily creased parchment was often used for university books in the fourteenth century. Such low quality parchment corresponds to the fact that the text was not meant for ecclesiastical purposes; it was merely for use by students. While Ancrene Wisse is itself a religious text, its intended audience of the female religious could resign it to lesser parchment, at a time when women were undoubtedly considered lesser members of society.

To me, the flawed nature of the parchment seemed wonderfully juxtaposed with the visible care and precision that had gone into making the manuscript as neat as possible. After the leaves of parchment were made, they were ‘passed to others for the addition of pencilled margins and lines’.[5] The scribes’ precision is evidenced by the fact that the ‘relative dimensions of margins’ were often determined by ‘the golden mean or sectio divina’.[6] Scribal work was undertaken by monks, and was even viewed as an act of devotion, as Peter Stoicheff suggests:

Some scripts are as small as one-sixteenth of an inch high, too small to be easily read with the unaided eye, suggesting the devotion was not in the act of reading but the act of the inscription into the parchment surface itself – literally making the word flesh. Digital enlargements of such scripts reveal an astonishing accuracy in the straightness of line, the height of script, and the shape and detail of individual letters.[7]

AW tear without thread
A tear that had once been stitched up

Given the scribes’ commitment, perhaps the additional task of repairing imperfections simply added to the profundity of their devotional act. Tears and holes could be imbued with theological significance due to the medieval trope of comparing manuscripts to bodies—in particular, the body of Christ—and thus seeing manuscript flaws as analogous to the wounds of Christ’s Passion. The scribes’ dedicated work in preserving a text of religious value such as Ancrene Wisse on flawed, animal material could even be seen as symbolically incarnational—‘literally making the word flesh,’ as Stoicheff writes. These parallels reinforced my sense that the parchment’s flaws add to the beauty of the manuscript, as they deepen its symbolic potential.

R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain write that ‘[c]ritical editions […] regard texts as abstractions, treating them as having an ideal form of which manuscript instantiations are imperfect representations’.[8] Yet my experience with the Ancrene Wisse manuscript at the Parker Library taught me that this supposedly ‘ideal form’ carries little of the immediacy of seeing an animal skin, complete with all its flaws, interacting with the text itself, in literal and symbolic ways.

–Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[2] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Materials,’ in The Production of Books in England 1350-1500, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, A History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013): 65.

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