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Conserving Book History: The Sequel

By Henry Handley

What’s the oldest book you’ve ever held in your own hands? If you’ve visited the Marian Library for a class session on medieval Books of Hours in the past, chances are this book might be it: two manuscript works in a single binding — one a Book of Hours and the other an unfinished Office of the Dead, both produced between approximately 1480 and 1500. 

You might already know from the Marian Library’s Book of Hours exhibit, Mary in Miniature, that Books of Hours could be stunning works, objects of devotion and artistry that were status symbols for their owners. However, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary as an office itself was important to medieval Christians across social stations. This book, in spite of some lovely illuminated initials and elaborate penwork, probably wasn’t commissioned by someone of the highest rank of nobility: It doesn’t feature miniature illustrations common to Books of Hours, but it still required many hours of labor to create, from stretching the parchment used for its pages, to writing the text by hand, to illuminating spectacular initials in ornate penwork and gold leaf. It also saw a lot of use before it starred in the Marian Library’s instruction around medieval history and culture.

This is the second of two Marian Library rare books that conservator Gabrielle Fox treated recently, thanks to the generosity of donor Marylou Hipskind. Unlike the 1473 book, which was too fragile to teach with, this one was used relatively frequently in instruction sessions. However, even careful handling over time generated wear and tear. Fox resewed the loose pages, reinforced sewing where necessary, and added a tack for the clasp to attach to on the back board.

Because so many students and faculty have oohed and aahed over the manuscript, it was important to make sure it would remain accessible for many years to come. Stay tuned for a complete digitized version produced through the Peripheral Manuscripts Project in the future!

— Henry Handley is an assistant professor and collections librarian in the Marian Library.


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