Historian's High-Tech X-Ray of Medieval Book Reveals Mysterious Object

X Ray of the spine of a book

The Spring 2022 issue of Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures includes a fascinating paper by J.D. Sargan, Jessica J. Lockhart, Andrew J. Nelson, D.L. Meert-Williston, and Alexandra Gillespie. Dr. Sargan and his team describe the results of a new application of micro-computed X-ray tomography (µCT) that they used to look inside premodern books to gain insight on their binding and history. Their scan revealed a great deal of information - and a mysterious "left behind" object in the book's spine. This discovery is detailed in The Ghosts of Bindings Past: Micro-Computed X-Ray Tomography for the Study of Bookbinding. We asked him to provide some more details on this cutting-edge technology and what it can reveal. 

What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus? 

I am a medieval book historian: I investigate the practices of book production, readership, and use in the medieval period as a lens onto wider issues of culture and community formation. I came to that research area via one very grubby little manuscript, which I was introduced to through a compulsory module I took as part of an interdisciplinary masters in Medieval Studies. This book was a compilation of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century religious texts made in England but written in French and Latin, all of which had probably (at some stage) been used for preaching. But what captivated me was the accumulation of marks, dirt, and organic material that had built up on and between the pages over the intervening centuries. These kinds of marks provide such visceral contact with people from the past, through shared touch and shared experience. But they also suggest that the norms and expectations for interacting with books were sometimes quite different from our own. And if a manuscript doesn’t include verbal responses to the work (as is usually the case), it can be difficult to know what to make of most of the evidence we find in books. Who made these marks? How long ago? Were they intended, a consequence of use, or simply incidental or accidental damage? These were the puzzles that really drew me to manuscripts as a particular window into our layered engagements with past lives. From there, what I thought was a doctoral project on language use in Britain after the Norman Conquest quickly became a project on book use, the first stage of which makes up my book project, Reading Early Middle English Books: 1066-1300. CT imaging adds an extra layer to that, looking inside the layers to think about the physical structures that underlie the book’s haptics and see what is hidden beneath the surface.

Your paper details the use of a new application of micro-computed X-ray tomography to look at the interior structures of books three dimensionally. How does this technology improve upon traditional x-rays or other scans of valuable, fragile texts?

Micro-computed X-ray tomography (better known as micro-CT) has been used only occasionally to study textual objects. In most cases, the objective of these studies has been to access material that cannot otherwise be read, usually because (for one reason or another) they are too fragile to be opened. Some neat examples of this research include a study conducted by William Brent Seales in which CT was used to image and virtually unroll a Pentateuchal scroll from En-Gedi, Israel that was almost totally carbonized in a volcanic eruption in; or recently, investigations in the contents of a trunk of undelivered post from the seventeenth century, in which an international team of scholars imaged letters still sealed with wax to find out about their structure and contents. Micro-CT can help with this because for a long period many cultures in and around Western Europe used inks that incorporated metal salts (usually iron) for writing by hand, and these metallic elements show up very clearly under x-ray.

X-Ray Topography of a Book
Micro-computed X-ray tomography. Photo by Andrew J. Nelson.

Our investigation is a bit different because we are interested in how our books were made and how their structures have changed over time through repair, rebinding, and reuse. This difference in objective means we set up our scanner a little differently, in order to focus on binding structures and maximize the distinctions between different parts of the book. But we were inspired by other work: in 1975 Graham Pollard, an important medieval binding specialist, took some single-shot plain film (2D) x-rays of early bindings in the Bodleian Library. These helped to answer some questions, but because the resulting images are static interpreting them still required some degree of deductive reasoning that was not always successful. Micro-CT, on the other hand, produces a volumetric (3D) scan that can be manipulated and moved through from any angle, allowing us to follow particular structures through the book. More immediately, in 2013 a team from Cambridge University and the British Library used a micro-CT scanner to image the St Cuthbert’s Gospel, the manuscript with the oldest complete binding from Western Europe. In that case, imaging was conducted to investigate the structure and production of the early binding of one particularly exceptional book. Our goal here was to show what this technique could provide for the study of more workaday books, especially those no longer in their original bindings.

The book your team analyzed with this new technology is MS Canon Grandel's Prayer Book. Can you give us a little background on what this book is and what the text contains? 

MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book is a fifteenth-century Book of Hours belonging to Western University in London, Ontario. Books of Hours are personal prayer books used to pray the canonical hours of the Catholic Church. They are some of the most commonly surviving medieval books, so in some ways MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book is very typical of late medieval manuscripts. But all Books of Hours vary somewhat in appearance and content depending where and for whom they were made. Manuscript producers might vary the order of prayers and psalms, add devotions to particular saints, or enhance the decorations and images to adapt a Book of Hours for its intended user. For instance, we know that MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book was made in the vicinity of Lille because the calendar at the front of the manuscript includes the holy days of Sts Bavo, Gaugericus, and Ghislain; all saints whose celebration was limited to that local area. We also know that, when it was first made, MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book included a schema of six single page illuminations, which have since been removed (probably by a later collector). The manuscript gets its name from one of its previous owners, Canon François-Joseph Grandel, who was installed as a canon of the Collégiale Saint-Pierre de Lille (now the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille) on 11 September 1766 and whose name can be found written on the front flyleaf. Canon Grandel still worked for the Church at the time of the French Revolution. He was one of the canons who was exiled from the Church in 1790, but by the time the community regrouped after the Concord (1802) he had retired to a nearby village. Knowing this much about Canon Grandel is good evidence that our manuscript was still being used close to the place it was made at the close of the eighteenth century.

In your paper, you talk about discovering "ghost binding" - earlier structures of a book's binding that can help tell the story of its history. What kind of stories can a book's binding tell us? 

In the case of MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book we were imaging a book that had been rebound several times over the course of its life, most recently in the eighteenth century (possibly while Canon Grandel owned it). The sewing holes we found tell us a lot about how one or more of its earliest bindings were put together; we can even tell which direction the sewing needle went through the pages and reconstruct its path. Such features were constructed differently in different times and places, so reconstructing the sewing patterns of previous bindings might tell us a lot about where a book or its binding was made.

In other cases, the materials hidden in bindings help paint a picture of the local and transnational networks of trade and exchange that supported book production. For example, the wallet-like cover of the Faddan More Psalter—a ninth-century book of psalms found in a bog in County Tipperary in 2006—is lined with papyrus. The materials and techniques used to make that wrapper testify to the exchange of materials and information between Ireland and North Africa at that time. Bindings might also be reinforced or lined with recycled written material. This was a common way of recycling defunct manuscripts and documents right into the early modern period and identifying the material used can give us a lot of new information about what was read, when, and in what numbers. Just one example is Tamara Atkin’s (Queen Mary University of London) recent identification of a lost twelfth-century French romance written by Guillaume d’Orange and used to support the binding of a book printed in 1528. Scholars had hypothesized that the text existed, but this is the first time a copy had been identified. In both of these cases, the materials that tell these stories of movement and use could be visually identified. But many more examples are hidden within and beneath existing bindings, all of which at their core provide some of the only surviving evidence for the movement of premodern people.

Your scan of the book revealed many things, including an "unidentified metallic wire or thread" stuck in the gutter of the book's pages. Can you tell us what your team's best guesses are as to this object? Do you think it was left in the book unintentionally?

We really enjoyed puzzling over this metallic object when we spotted it on our scan. My collaborator Andrew Nelson (Western University) brought it to our attention when we first examined the data together with Jessica Lockhart (University of Toronto) and Alexandra Gillespie (University of Toronto). The long, curved shape gave us a few ideas. It could have been a piece of a binder’s needle that had broken off during some recent repairs, or a fragment of gold that had flaked off the decoration and fallen into the book (there are certainly other bright specks on the scan that appear to be metallic dust, some of which came from the gold and colored pigments used to decorate major initials.)

Scan of prayer book with unidentified metallic wire or thread visible in center of left side spine
The curved white line on the left side of the image is an unidentified metallic wire or thread located in the gutter of the page. Image by J.D. Sargan.

We asked Deborah Meert-Williston (Western University) to perform a visual investigation and see if she could spot it now that we knew it was there, but it seems to be wedged deep inside the spine between two gatherings. Once I had conducted some measurements it became clear the object was much finer than most needles: about the width of a fine thread. That still doesn’t give us a lot to go on, but one possible solution is that it’s the bristle of a very fine wire brush left behind during the conservation process.

Do you have plans for using this technology on additional texts or in other ways?

I think each of us has our own little wish lists of books we would like to see imaged using micro-CT. But this work is still in its infancy. It began as part of a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation called The Book and the Silk Roads based at the University of Toronto. The project aimed to move towards to a new picture of the history of the book as a history of exchange, transnational entanglement, parallel development, and the movement of people through the use of developing scientific techniques. Micro-CT scanning was one such technique and MS Canon Grandel’s Prayer Book was something of a proof-of-concept study (although we knew it would have exciting results if it worked). We scanned at least ten more books after this one in collaboration with Andrew Nelson and Deborah Meert-Williston at Western University; with Giovanni Grasselli’s Geomechanics Group and the Fisher Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the University of Toronto; and with Williams College, The Northeast Document Conservation Center, and Harvard University. Those books included several early printed volumes, a Spanish antiphoner, a book of poems by Rumi, a modern bamboo pothi book, and two Kashmiri codices and the results have contributed to the deeper study of each object. Some of those objects and our investigations of them, including the results of our scans, went on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto earlier this year. The online exhibition and the videos we produced for it are still available: 

One really important thing about this work is that once that scan data exists it can be used for many different purposes and returned to as new techniques develop for processing the data. For instance, several teams have been working on the speciation of wooden artifacts from CT scans. One of the ongoing projects at the University of Toronto aims to use that technique to date and identify the source woods used to make binding boards.

What's next for you, research-wise? What are you currently working on?

For the last year I have been based at Durham University (UK) working on the bindings of manuscripts from Durham Priory Library. In that time, I’ve also been working with a private conservator on a manuscript from Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, as well as revisiting some data from earlier scans to think about their use in conservation, outreach, and education. We are trying a lot of interesting things involving 3D modelling, segmentation, and display, but it’s a technical process and there’s a lot to learn! We’re also working to introduce some more portable and accessible (economically and geographically) methods that can contribute towards this kind of research by building up resource sharing and looking to tools used in other fields.

Next academic year I’ll be working on the Bolton Library (the Diocesan library of Cashel) which is currently in the care of the University of Limerick. My work there will help with current work to conserve and catalogue the collection. My research will focus on the early printed books in the library, with a particular interest in localizing binding styles and identifying the written waste used as binding supports. Alongside that work I have several other collaborations I’m excited about that I hope produce fruit!

The other thing this work has prompted for me is some hard thinking about methodology in the field of book history more widely, particularly with respect to diversity and accessibility. As the Book and the Silk Roads project points out, since its inception the field of bibliography has promoted, benefited from, and sustained many white supremacist and Eurocentric myths about Western culture and progress. It’s also a very masculinist field in terms of its methods and the metaphors it works by. I am writing my way through some of those challenges and hoping that what emerges are some creative new ways of engaging with books that may nourish, support, and represent marginalized communities better.

James Sargan

J.D. Sargan is a medieval book historian working on the literature and manuscript culture of high and late medieval Britain. His current research focuses the use of digital and scientific imaging to assess patterns of production and use in medieval manuscripts and the methodological and disciplinary implications of such studies. He will shortly be leaving Durham University to take up a post at the University of Limerick. His postdoctoral work has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Zeno Karl Schindler Foundation, Christopher and Margaret Lendrum, and the European Commission. 

Written by: MAFY
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