Collaborative Research in Manuscript Making at the University of Graz, Austria

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Cod. Graz, UB, Ms 198, showing a 12th century herringbone endband in blue and off-white linen or hemp thread. (image courtesy of the authors and the University of Graz)

Luba Dovgan Nurse and Theresa Zammit Lupi

The University of Graz in Austria, has a remarkable collection of rare books and manuscripts totalling around a quarter of a million items. Its Special Collections Library is home to approximately 340 manuscripts from Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria (endowed in 1140 by the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular) that came to Graz following the dissolution of monasteries in 1782. The Seckau collection spans a period from the 12th to the 16th century and is a unique resource for the study of manuscript making.

Together with Dr Thomas Csanády, one of the heads of the Special Collections Department, we are currently surveying the Seckau collection from different perspectives: Dr Csanády as a theologian with a great ability to read the Latin texts, Luba as a textiles and organic materials conservator and Theresa as a book conservator and codicologist. Alongside this collaborative work, Luba is investigating the phenomena of piecing and repairing parchment with polychromatic silk threads focusing in particular on a group of 12th-century manuscripts for her doctoral research (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna). Figure 1 shows a typical example of a parchment folio sewn with silk thread.

While trying to define and date these stitching phenomena, it became more and more apparent that the dating of the binding structures is pivotal to this study. We are currently reviewing the published literature on codicology, palaeography and hand-sewing in manuscripts. Our approach is to focus on the book as a physical object and to connect the various strands of previous research. Our view is that the codicological study of the Seckau manuscripts ought to include the study of stitches because these too are essential components of the making of a book. In so doing we are seeking to link both content and materiality to develop new methods of looking at manuscripts. Another project that benefits from this collaborative methodology is the study of the manuscripts at Stiftsbibliothek Vorau, Austria.

The following are some examples of recent observations that we would like to share. The case studies discussed highlight the challenges of dating, the use of textiles in book production and the methods of historic repairs. Three examples come from the Seckau collection in Graz (Cod. Graz, UB, Ms 198, Ms 292 and Ms 278), and three come from the Stiftsbibliothek in St. Gallen, Switzerland (Cod. Sang. 248, 230 and 59).

The term ‘Einband’ in German translates as ‘binding’, but does that also include the sewing structure, boards and cover? Or does ‘Einband’ refer exclusively to the cover? The term ‘Einband’ is used to describe both the binding as a technique for connecting folios to form a book as well as the cover of a bound book. The bookbinding definitions are rarely, if ever, explained in the catalogues, leading to mis-evaluation of the catalogue data. In the case of the Seckau collection, the term ‘Einband’ has been often applied generally, which has led to assigning an inaccurate date to some of the manuscript bindings. Researchers of manuscripts would benefit immensely from having codicological descriptions available in catalogues.

After looking at about 70 manuscripts from this period, we have observed that many still have their 12th-century sewing structure, their 12th-century endbands, their 12th-century spine linings, their 12th-century boards, and their 12th-century fastenings. The only 14th/15th-century characteristic is their leather covers which were used to establish the chronological biography of the books. Figure 3 (Cod. Graz, UB, Ms 292) shows the inside board of one of the manuscripts with its 15th-century leather turn-ins and the red line that denotes the glue stains from the 12th-century turn-ins. Our preliminary survey suggests that at least two of the manuscripts still have 12th-century leather covers making them entirely medieval (Cod. Graz, UB, Ms 171, Ms 282). We are now critically reading the catalogue entries against the information we are observing as we survey the collection in depth.

There are several elements that provide evidence for the original sewing and binding structure of these manuscripts. The first is their endbands. Figure 4 shows a typical Romanesque endband (Cod. Graz, UB Ms 198) sewn with blue and off-white linen or hemp threads that run in opposite directions creating a herringbone pattern. Contemporary endbands from Schaffhausen (Min. 33) and another from St. Gallen (Cod. Sang. 292), which date to the 12th century, suggest that the same technique was being applied elsewhere in German-speaking lands. We have at least 20 manuscripts with such endbands at Graz University Library. A more extensive study is still required to form a better understanding of the number of Romanesque endbands in our collection, but this initial study already indicates a wealth of information.

On the subject of endband threads, it may be said that the dating of endbands relies on their materiality and not just on their pattern. Figure 5 shows a Seckau manuscript (Cod. Graz, UB 278) that has a parchment guard onto which a folio (f.8) was sewn using blue twine. When seen under magnification this plied yarn appears to be the same as that used to make the endband, both in thickness and colour. This suggests that the person carrying out the zigzag stitching to join the folios together may have also been the same person sewing the endbands. The same blue yarn is also used throughout this particular manuscript to join tears and to infill flay holes. It could also be that different craftsmen were working alongside each other and sharing materials in the same workshop. Ideally fibre and dye analyses would need to be carried out to confirm whether these are coming from the same source, but sampling from manuscripts, especially the threads, is often not possible. We therefore have to rely on non-invasive methods of investigation and on our own visual examination. In keeping our eyes open to observe the way in which things were made, we are able to provide clues to dating and provenance.

Another form of evidence related to the challenge of dating interventions is this fine example from St. Gallen; Cod. Sang. 248 (Figure 6) is a manuscript with a compilation of texts from the 9th to the 12th century with a 15th-century binding. Here the manuscript folios in the last quire were repaired in the spine folds by adhering 4th-century parchment fragments in the margin areas while stitching with red and green silk threads in the text areas. These repairs must have taken place in the 15th century when the manuscript was given its present binding.

There is documentary evidence that the 4th-century fragments were removed in the 19th century and separately stored. The slits in the fragments suggest that they were removed by detaching them from beneath the quire sewing, leaving it intact. This intervention is contemporary to the 19th century because the binding sewing has remained undisturbed. These repairs were accessed externally by cutting the spine of the manuscript at the joints between the sewing stations.

It is remarkable that whoever carried out the tear repairs in the 15th century was very sensitive to the way this was done: the parchment pieces were stuck only to the margins, whereas the green and red threads were used to sew in the text areas to allow readability. A digitized version of the fragments removed from this manuscript may be found here: St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, Front cover – Veterum Fragmentorum Manuscriptis Codicibus detractorum collectio Tom. I. (Accessed 25 October 2022).

When looking for comparative material at St. Gallen, we came across some outstanding manuscripts, making it quite difficult to pick just a few examples to illustrate how our skills and interests came together for this short essay. But one volume we wish to mention is Cod. Sang. 230. This was written and decorated in the 9th century and has flays infilled with parchment secured by stitching in beige silk threads (Figure 7). Judging from the 9th-century text in the infills, it is clear that they are contemporary to the making of the manuscript, meaning that the stitching of the parchment pieces was also carried out before writing. To our astonishment, in some of these infills (parchment pieces stitched with silk) we found the presence of gold coloured metal threads twisted together with the silk threads. In some cases, the silk yarn is plied and highly twisted which suggests that it might have been originally intended for weaving rather than sewing. Unfortunately, this manuscript is not yet digitised.

Our last example demonstrates the marginal place given to textile elements in the study of manuscripts. This stems partially from the challenge in describing them and also because of their hiddenness, often tucked beneath a cover or spine. The loosely-sewn quires of Cod. Sang 59 permitted a peek at its inner spine allowing us to see pieces of fabric used to reinforce it at the head and tail. At the head it is made of red silk with a twill-like pattern. At the tail, the fabric is also silk, with an elaborate pattern in blue and red, with one selvedge clearly noticeable. The loss of the fabric at the cap prevents us from establishing whether the fabric is a woven narrow band (ie. with two selvedges) or a cut of a piece of fabric. Both fabrics not only serve as a structural reinforcement, but also reach the extended leather caps making them visible. Together with the endbands, they form part of the design of the book. See St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 59, Front cover – Bible (Lc) with Glossa ordinaria. This example raises questions about the use of recycled or leftover textiles in manuscript making and the interconnectivity between the crafts.

As we are working towards a better understanding of the material nature of the Seckau manuscript collection, we are presented with the challenges of bringing together various strands of previous research related to codicology. The textile components in these manuscripts are part and parcel of the binding features, making the collaboration research between a textile and book conservator a much-needed method and a rewarding experience.

Acknowledgements: We thank the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen and the University of Graz for permission to publish the images, Kathrin Hug for making the manuscripts available, Dr Franziska Schnoor and Dr Philip Lenz for fruitful discussions, Dr Christine Jakobi-Mirwald for sharing her research with us, Michaela Scheibl for information on the catalogues in Graz and Dr Thomas Csanády for providing a deeper insight into the content of the manuscripts.

Dr Theresa Zammit Lupi -
Luba Dovgan Nurse -


Dr Theresa Zammit Lupi studied art history in Malta and book and paper conservation in Florence and London, obtaining her doctorate from the University of the Arts London in the conservation of manuscripts in 2008. In 2017 she was awarded a research fellowship at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Theresa has worked internationally and moved to Austria in 2021 where she heads the Book Conservation Unit of the Special Collections of Graz University Library.

Luba Dovgan Nurse is an object and textile conservator based in Austria. She worked in textile design and production before obtaining an MA in the history of textile and dress and an MA in textile conservation from the Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton. She has worked internationally and is currently pursuing a doctorate of science at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Additionally, she is a visiting lecturer in preventive conservation and object-based research at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, Bratislava.

(Read the article in the December-January 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 93, p. 16-21)

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The University of Graz in Austria, has a remarkable collection of rare books and manuscripts totalling around a quarter of a million items. Together with Dr Thomas Csanády, one of the heads of the Special Collections Department, we are currently surveying the Seckau collection from different perspectives.
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