Monday, 29 July 2013

Conserving medieval registers

This week your blogger caught up with Katerina, our free-lance conservator here at Worcester Cathedral Library. Currently, Katerina is working on a project funded by a charitable trust to repair twenty medieval registers, and some post-medieval registers.  The purpose in repairing the registers is to make them more usable for researchers.

On Friday, Katerina was working on A. 24, a register from 1501-1510. A.24 is a register of leases and tithe payments, relating exclusively to land in Devon. There is a bit of a mystery  behind this register. The Cathedral priory, to our knowledge, never held any land in Devon, so we are all a bit stumped as to how or why this register which solely pertains to Devonshire properties has ended up at Worcester!

Nonetheless, I was interested to learn more about the construction of this register, and find out how Katerina will go about repairing it. Here’s what I found out.
Photograph, A.24. You can see the limp vellum cover and along the bottom of two tackets made of twilled parchment. These bind the quires to the cover. Photograph by K. Powell, conservator. Reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
 A.24 is a register is made up of two thick paper quires, tacketed or bound to a limp vellum cover, pictured above. The lower page has a flap on its outer edge. This flap would have originally wrapped around the register, and probably have been tied with an alum tawed skin tie, to offer additional protection. The vellum cover appears to have been re-used, and evidence of an earlier binding can be seen in holes on the front and back covers. This re-used vellum cover even has some earlier writing on it, which I have not attempted to decipher (yet.)

Photograph, A.24. You can see the severe curling of the edge of the leaves, and imagine the difficulty Caterina must have trying to unfold them all. Photograph by K. Powell, conservator. Reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The binding was not done by a professional but more likely in house, perhaps at Worcester. It is an early type of stationary binding, a very basic construction. The tackets (the bits that hold the pages to its cover) are made from twirled parchment and run through two layers of parchment stays.
What I found interesting about A.24 is that, although the cover and the binding are made from parchment, the text-block or quires are all made of paper. This is probably because late medieval writers clung to using parchment as a binding material, often believing it to be far stronger than paper.

There is a large amount of surface dirt on both the binding and the text-block. Therefore, the first stage of conservation is cleaning. As a substantial portion of the text-block has edges that are severely curled, Katerina has to painstakingly uncurl the edges before she can begin the cleaning process with a smoke sponge. The cleaning process for A.24 will take Katerina one day.
Photograph, an earlier conservation project. Manuscript being undergoing treatment with gortex. Photograph by K. Powell, conservator. Reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The next stage after cleaning is humidifying the paper. The pages will be humidified in a Gore-Tex and capillary matting sandwich. The matting is a polyester wadding like material which holds the moisture, Gore-Tex lets a small amount of the moisture through and gently humidifies the paper. Two pages can be humidified at the same time. The pages are then pressed between blotting papers until dry. This will flatten the curled edges.
The second issue needing attention is the tears that have resulted from the severe curling of the edges of the pages. These will be repaired by Katerina using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Japanese paper is especially useful in conservation because of its long fibres, which make it very strong and well suited to repair work.
Broadly speaking, Katerina uses Japanese paper along the grain on the tears because it shrinks less when used this way. For larger repairs to the text-block she often uses Japanese paper across the grain because this maximizes the strength of the repair.
A.24 will be completed over the next month, leaving around ten more registers to conserve. We are very grateful to Katerina and her colleagues for their continuing help and hard work. The medieval registers are one of a number of conservation projects we are currently involved in. The link below provides information on some of our other conservation work. If you feel that you would like to support the ongoing conservation work at Worcester Cathedral Library, click this link to find out how:

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