Hidden in Plain Sight: Medieval and Other Manuscripts Recycled as Bookbinding Material --Introduction


Medieval music score used as cover

Medieval manuscripts and other early printed materials were often discarded for a variety of reasons. In some cases, manuscript copies of books and manuscripts came to be considered obsolete after the adoption of the printing press and were replaced by newly printed editions of the same work. Manuscripts in England were generally discarded during the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540, during the reign of King Henry VIII.


However, many of these manuscripts live on in other ways. Originally written on parchment made from a specially prepared animal skin, these sheets were prized for their thickness and sturdiness. Bookbinders used them as outside covers as well as inside reinforcement for spines or inside front or back endpapers, and so they became an early form of recycling, now referred to as binding waste.


This exhibit highlights some manuscript fragments from the Underwood Law Library’s McKnight Antiquarian Book Collection. Some are indeed “hidden in plain sight,” as binding waste used for book covers is immediately recognizable when the book is pulled from the shelf. Others are a bit more hidden, discovered when the books are opened and manuscript remnants appear peeking out from under a spine or inside cover.


Barratt, Alexandra. "Waste not, Want not: Manuscript Fragments in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland." Parergon 32, no. 2 (2015): 19-37. doi:10.1353/pgn.2015.0101.

Reynolds, Anne. "'Such Dispersive Scatteredness' : Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste." Journal of the Northern Renaissance (Jully 9, 2017). https://jnr2.hcommons.org/2017/5010/