Medieval Manuscript Fragments

Sian Witherden, Resource Description Librarian

‘Poirot!’ I cried. ‘This is a fragment of a will!’ […] My brain was in a whirl. What was this complication of a will? Who had destroyed it? The person who had left the candle grease on the floor? Obviously. But how had anyone gained admission? All the doors had been bolted on the inside.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

A textual fragment is intrinsically enigmatic and tantalizing. Where did it come from? How and why was it separated from the rest of the text? These are precisely the kinds of questions that occupy Poirot and Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)—a case that involves poison, a substantial inheritance, and a partially-destroyed will. However, we can ask the same questions about the collection of medieval manuscript fragments in St John’s College library. One of the smaller examples, fragment 18, can be seen below. Fragments like this might not help us to solve a murder mystery, but they do help to uncover the history of the college library and shed light on the construction of early bindings. 

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 18

There are around a hundred loose medieval manuscript fragments in St John’s Library, collectively known as MS 235. These fragments were once used to support the bindings of college library books. When those bindings were later repaired or rebound, the fragments were removed and saved. To put this in context, it is helpful to look at a few bindings in St John’s Library in which medieval manuscript fragments survive in situ, and have not been removed.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 157
(rear pastedown)
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 104, fol. ivr

In the examples above, medieval manuscript fragments have been used as endpapers. Endpapers are the leaves added to the front and back of a bound codex, which help to protect the text leaves. The outermost leaf of the endpapers is often attached to the cover or board and is therefore called a pastedown. Endpapers that are not attached to covers or boards are known as free endpapers or flyleaves.

MS 157 is a sixteenth-century theological compilation, but the manuscript fragment attached to the rear board originates from a mid-thirteenth century glossed copy of Job. MS 104 is a glossed copy of Deuteronomy that was produced at the end of the twelfth century. At the front of the book, an unfinished leaf from a mid-twelfth century monastic service book was repurposed as a flyleaf.

Manuscript fragments could also be re-used externally, as we can see our next example. Y.4.46 is a compilation of four printed items relating to medicine, which variously date to between 1555 and 1566. The binder used part of a medieval copy of the Gospel of John to cover and protect the outside of the book.

Oxford, St John’s College, Y.4.46

Why were medieval manuscripts taken apart and reused? In her recent book (2022), Hannah Ryley has highlighted that medieval parchment was time and labour intensive to produce, but was a very durable material—and so it could be reused for its physical value (especially its strength) even if the textual value was no longer important. As she puts it, ‘Outdated, unfashionable, or simply dilapidated manuscripts that were no longer needed or wanted for their texts were taken apart for their component parts’ (Ryley 2022, p. 63).

In the case of St John’s College MS 157, the manuscript fragment was attached to the rear board upside down. For the early modern binder, the value of this copy of Job lay in the material properties of the parchment rather than in the text written upon it. In fact, a later reader has taken advantage of the blank space left on the fragment to make some notes, with the result that the text of the fragment (at the bottom) and the later notes (at the top) actually run in opposite directions:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 157 (rear pastedown)

But what about the loose fragments in MS 235? Which bindings were they used in? Sometimes, clues can be found in older catalogue entries. For example, when Henry Coxe described MS 108 in 1852, it included fifteenth-century flyleaves from a commentary on Paul’s epistles to Timothy. These were later removed and are now known as fragments 112 and 113 (as they were catalogued by Ralph Hanna in 2002). Occasionally, the fragments themselves offer fortuitous clues about their past use. We can see this in the case of fragment 95b, which is from a fourteenth-century copy of Thomas Aquinas’s Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum. On this leaf, you can see a short alphanumeric sequence: X.3.14.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 95b
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 95b

This is a pressmark, a term that comes from the word ‘press’ meaning ‘A large (usually shelved) cupboard’ (OED ‘press n.1’ III 10). A pressmark, then, is a mark that indicates the cupboard in which a book is to be found. More specifically, what we have here is a shelfmark. A shelfmark is a pressmark that also indicates the specific shelf on which a book can be found, and sometimes also how far along the book sits on that shelf. In this case, the shelfmark X.3.14 indicates that the book in question belongs on press X, shelf 3, and is the fourteenth book along.

The following photo shows part of the Old Library at St John’s, which was built in the 1590s. It is notable for being the first Oxford college library to have upright bookcases with seats and desks from its inception, rather than lectern-desks. The presses are arranged alphabetically, and the shelves on these presses are numbered from bottom to top. In the foreground of the image below, you can see a press labelled Z (the reverse labelled Y). The top shelf is Z.4, and working down the remaining shelves are Z.3, Z.2, and Z.1. The shelfmark X.3.14 belongs to the next press along.

The Old Library, St John’s College Oxford

The shelfmark X.3.14 belongs to a copy of Stephanus Bodeus’s In quatuor Institutionum imperialium libros, commentarii nuper divinitus ab interitu vindicati printed in Paris in 1555. A note in the book indicates that it was bequeathed to the college in 1607 by John Whicksteed (sig. Aiir). Whicksteed matriculated in 1602 and is buried in the college chapel.

Oxford, St John’s College, X.3.14 sig. Air (title page)
Oxford, St John’s College, X.3.14 sig. Aiir

The book he donated survives in a sixteenth-century calf binding, but it has been rebacked. This is a repair process that involves replacing the spine. In this instance, some of the original spine was retained, as you can see in the photo below (right). It might have been during the rebacking phase that two medieval manuscript fragments were removed from the binding (now fragments 95a and 95b). In any case, the fragments must have been removed prior to 1954 because they are recorded as being part of MS 235 in Neil Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, published in that year (see nos. 445 and 446). 

Oxford, St John’s College, X.3.14
Oxford, St John’s College, X.3.14

What role would fragment 95b have played in the binding of X.3.14 before being removed? Conspicuously, the shelfmark and the medieval text have opposite orientations on fragment 95b, which strongly suggests that the fragment was once used upside down in the binding of X.3.14. Once again, we have evidence of a bookbinder privileging the materiality of the fragment over its textuality. Indeed, the Aquinas fragment bears no obvious connection with Bodeus’ text, the former belonging to a theological work and the latter being a law text. Another important clue to fragment 95b’s history is offered by the elongated stain and two holes at one corner, which is a chain staple mark.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 95b

Medieval and early modern institutions often chained their books to library furniture in order to prevent theft, and in fact St John’s College was still buying chains for this purpose as late as 1744 (Stevenson and Salter 1939, p. 302). For comparison, the image below shows some of the shelves in Hereford Cathedral Library, the largest surviving chained library in the world.

Chained Library, Hereford Cathedral
(image reproduced here under a creative commons licence, CC BY 2.0)

The chains would have been attached directly to the boards, and sure enough there are tell-tale holes on the front board of X.3.14. These holes match those on fragment 95b: both sets of holes are 2.7 cms apart, and both are in approximately the same vertical position. This suggests that fragment 95b was formerly adhered to the inside of the front board; in other words, it would have been a pastedown.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 95b
Oxford, St John’s College, X.3.14

Of course, 95b is just one of many medieval manuscript fragments in the MS 235 collection, each of which has its own story to tell. The majority of these fragments date to between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries, though there are a few earlier examples. The oldest item in the collection is fragment 70, a series of prayers dating from the beginning of the eleventh century. Each prayer begins with a two-line capital in gold:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235, fragment 70

From a textual point of view, some of the more unusual and intriguing items include fragment 29 (from a dictionary covering different items of jewellery) and fragments 25 and 26 (‘Medicine, including materials on regimen for sea voyages, the use of baths, and recipes to restore flesh’; Hanna 2002, p. 315).

While this blog post has focused on the manuscript fragments in MS 235, the collection also includes binding fragments taken from early printed books. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is fragment 77, which preserves not just the recycled printed material but also the board to which it was attached. The initials T.H. that can be seen below might belong to a former owner of the book.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 235 fragment 77

Many of the fragments in MS 235 are relatively unassuming in appearance, especially when compared with lavishly decorated manuscripts in St John’s Library such as MS 82 (discussed in this blog post). Nevertheless, these loose pieces of parchment and paper have fascinating stories to tell us about the history of the library and how early books were put together—and indeed taken apart. As part of our ongoing digitization project, you can now find detailed descriptions of all the manuscript fragments in MS 235 on Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries.  

Further Reading

Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Coxe, Henry O., Catalogus codicum MSS. qui in collegiis aulisque Oxoniensibus hodie adservatur, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1852), vol. 2.

Hanna, Ralph, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Ker, Neil, Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings (1954; repr. 2004).

Pearson, David, English Bookbinding Styles 14501800 (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2014).

Pearson, David, Oxford Bookbinding 1500–1640: including a Supplement to Neil R. Ker’s Fragments of Manuscripts Used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 2000).

Ryley, Hannah, ‘Constructive Parchment Destruction in Medieval Manuscripts’, Book 2.0 7 (2017): 9–19.

Ryley, Hannah, Re-using Manuscripts in Late Medieval England: Repairing, Recycling, Sharing (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2022).

Stevenson, W. H., and H. E. Salter, The Early History of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

Online Resources

Fragmentarium: Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments

Language of Bindings (Ligatus)

Lost Manuscripts [a searchable edition of Ker’s Pastedowns with the supplements]

Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries

‘Mundus Inversus in a Chained Library’, Leiden Special Collections Blog (15 August 2018)

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