Gems of History


[music plays] I don’t know about you but one thing that really annoys me when I open a modern book and I find that someone has written all over it. This person leaves you in no doubt about what they like and don’t like and what they think to be important. Yet when it comes to manuscripts or books that are several hundred years old it’s these scribbles and opinions that make a manuscript or book all the more interesting. We can trace a book’s ownership, shed light on its passage through time where it has been and the use to which it has been put. these layers of history, laid out in the hands of men, women and children long-dead can be fascinating things to explore right here, at the National Library of Australia. [music plays] A Psalter is a book of psalms. They were particularly popular in Europe as private prayer books until about the thirteenth century, when Books of Hours took over in popularity. Psalters often included not only Psalms but also other texts, such as a calendar and a Litany of the Saints. They were often lavishly illuminated. Recent examination show that there’s a fifteenth century list of Welsh names in the volume. We’ve been told that it’s extremely rare to find Welsh in English manuscripts. It’s thought that a school-boy called Thomas made the annotations. He has written his name in the back of the volume. Of great interest to us is that there is a similarity between the names in the Litany of Saints in this volume and those included in another volume in our collection of unrelated provenance. It’s very rare to have two books with the same Litany of Saints within the same collection. The unique things about these manuscripts is that they are quite rare, and we wanted to do very little as possible to them because we didn’t want to be invasive in treatment. Fortunately the ink used is iron gall ink, and it reacts very well with parchment. We found that gelatin is a neutraliser in stabilising the deterioration of the ink, as well as the parchment itself. So, it’s a natural preventative. The pigments themselves are in good condition. Luckily, the green is usually made of verdigris, and the green doesn’t seem to, or the copper in the verdigris doesn’t seem to be affecting the parchment. There are tears, there are losses and they’re quite dirty. So I think, the first thing we do is probably try and clean that up, which is, involves brushing off, light brushing or cleaning some of the single sheets. The Psalter has had some mould damage but we can’t use our usual mould approach because parchment is quite hygroscopic. and is quite, it needs a bit of moisture to be relaxed and, putting ethanol, which is one of the solvents we use to treat mould does dry out the parchment so we’re in the middle of trying to get a sample and see if we need to proceed with another mould treatment yeah, they are very well made, as well as that they have been kept in good conditions. and that could be because we have housed them in archivally-sound boxes that we’ve made, custom made boxes, as well as the environmental conditions. The Book of Hours was the prayer book of the lay person, and particularly popular between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries in France, England and the Netherlands. It allowed people to perform their devotions at home by themselves. Books of Hours are often called the best-sellers of the medieval period, while they could be simple, many were sumptuously illuminated. The most skilled artists of the time worked on them. Like other luxury goods, Books of Hours were objects of desire, as well as reflections of the taste, piety and ambition of their owners. Inside this Book of Hours are 26 full-page miniatures, that is, full-page illustrations. each is surrounded by broad borders on two sides and tendrils on opposite sides, with scrolling stems of flowers and fruit, in red, blue, pink and green, heightened with gold. This example was made in the Low Countries, possibly for English use, in the second half of the fifteenth century. It has certainly been used by English speakers. You can see there are centuries-old English annotations within it. For centuries, this Book of Hours was owned by the Clifford family of Ugbrooke Park in Devon. The National Library of Australia acquired the Clifford Collection, a country house library in 1963. The medieval manuscripts pose a number of difficulties. The books have extremely small text and we have to use high resolution cameras to capture that text. They also have very tight spines, so to get in and see, basically, into the gutter of the book the operator has to be able to maneuver the camera into position to see into that spine. This is done with an old-fashioned bellows camera in which you can move the back standard forward trying to capture any text that is actually almost written into that spine. Also the fragility of the item is an issue, so a photographer would have to be very careful turning the pages, and use a septum lifter to turn each page individually. one-by-one. A photographer would use a specially made book-cradle, and would turn each page individually, and each page has to be pressed down with glass just to flatten out the object and take out any creases. A photgrapher would then check each file individually for the colour to see if it accurately matches the original. This is particularly important with some of the illustrations. Gold leaf can look very different under different lighting so checking against the original is a very important step. [music plays] The Chertsey Cartulary is one of the most important manuscripts in the National Library’s collection. A Cartulary is a collection of historical and other business records, a compendium of transcriptions of charters and other offical documents, recording property and other rights of owners. It is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It came to the National Library with the Clifford Collection, acquired in 1963. Incredibly, five Chertsey Cartularies still exist, one each from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and three from the fourteenth century. The other four surviving manuscripts are held in British libraries. In documenting the activities and transactions of Chertsey Abbey, the fourteenth-century cartularies give us a privileged understanding of the economic, social and spiritual activities of those who lived at the Abbey. [music plays] Thanks to the generous support of donors to our 2014 tax time appeal, we can now preserve, digitise and display these rare and exquisite treasures for everyone to see.

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