Guest post from Dr. Tina Bawden
Everybody who still reads actual books has experienced this: You are caught in the rain while reading on a park bench and rain drops make your library book all wavy, you spill some coffee on a page of an often-consulted dictionary, a bottle of water leaks in your bag and the bottom edge of the cheap novel you keep there for travel-reading is soaked.
The interaction of paper and liquid varies depending on the type of paper and the type of liquid, and so do the results. Maybe you never need to look up the French word for “glove” again, for that is where the coffee stain is. Or you never finish the cheap novel because the pages are now stiff and wavy at the bottom and take away the last pleasure in reading it. In any case, the book and what it means to you changes, with repercussions for your memory of it, its appearance, feel and value. While other things integrated into books could have a similar effect – a squashed fly instead of the coffee stain making a word memorable in the dictionary, pulp from a squished banana making the cheap novel now unsavory to read – liquids more readily become a part of the book, the structural change of the page(s) having as much or more impact than the visual effect.
By the way, my personal favorite is my own second-hand copy of the Kulturgeschichte des Wassers (Cultural History of Water) edited by Hartmut Böhme, which arrived, irritatingly (the condition was described as “very good” by the seller) but very appropriately with stains made by some liquid both across the “W” of the title on the cover and in the introduction.
Hopefully, no medieval parchment codices are subjected to any of the types of incidents described above today. Many medieval manuscripts, however, do show medieval and/or post-medieval traces of interaction with water and other liquids, and humidity or dampness remains one of the biggest risks for the preservation of parchment manuscripts and documents. Water and parchment have a difficult relationship, just like water and paper, but on different terms (I am very grateful to my colleague Moya Tönnies for discussing conservation issues of paper and parchment with me). Essential to the animal in life, water is equally essential to turn its skin into a substrate for script and image. Water is needed to prepare the skin, as part of the solution to soak it and to rinse it. On the other hand, the biggest problems for conservation stem from the hygroscopic nature of parchment, which expands or contracts according to humidity levels in its surrounding environment (see here). Rising water has caused trouble for manuscript collections, for example the Florence flood in 1966, but water can also provide clues for provenance, as in the analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Viewed from the perspective of water damage, the empirical-scientific divide is quickly drawn. So why should a medieval art historian be interested in the interaction of water and parchment? My interest should ultimately be in the depiction, symbolism and iconography of water, which has nothing to do with water as a real substance, or does it? In fact it does, because as a physical substance, water itself blurs (dissolves!) this divide. For one, even without any deeper “scientific” interest, basic knowledge about certain properties of water is surely universal: Everybody knows what it is like to get wet, the liquid runniness of water, the way it behaves on different types of surfaces – pooling, running, evaporating – and the way other natural materials (bark, stone, sand, earth) soak it up to varying degrees, changing their appearance and feel in the process. Secondly, consider the following: Unlike holy persons, rocks or architecture, all frequent motifs of medieval manuscript illumination, the presence of actual water in the manuscript is possible, and rather than remaining an addition to the parchment, it would interact with it. Could this potentiality have influenced the way water was depicted? When you study depictions of bodies of water in medieval manuscripts, the Jordan of Christ’s baptism, the Deluge, the springs, seas and streams of the Psalms, you find yourself asking questions that are slightly peculiar, because they seem to be no different from the ones you would be asking if water were actually present:
Does water run down the page?
Does it dissolve the edges of the parchment leaf?
Is it contained by frames or can it flood or dissolve these, too?
Can we go one step further and assume that everybody involved with the production of medieval manuscripts would have known from their own experience or that of others what water does to parchment, for example the way moisture can wick onto the leaves of a codex from its edges, when the binding gets damp or the edges touch a damp wall? Could this in turn have influenced techniques or patterns of depiction of water and maybe other liquids spilled in medieval art, blood and wine? And how would something we would now class as damage have been perceived in the Middle Ages?
Despite its primarily positive, religious significance, bodies of water in the Middle Ages were also perceived as a potential danger to people and, of particular interest here, to valuable objects such as books. Medieval miracles such as those recounted of the gospel book of St Margaret of Scotland around 1100 certainly show that the destructive power that water posed to the contents and body of a manuscript were known, and the miracle centers on the fact destruction did not result (one recounted on folio 2 recto of the gospel extracts Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Lat. liturg. F.5, the other in Turgot of Durham’s Life of Margaret). While in transport and insufficiently protected, the book falls into the river and is later salvaged undamaged (inviolatus) with the letters and pigments intact, but with the leaves at either end contracted by the waves (ex undis paret contractio). The accounts support the idea that certain effects of water on parchment were known such as the mobilization of media such as inks and pigments and the hygroscopicity of parchment itself. While leaving inks, gold and parchment largely untouched, the river water does remove one or several protective sheets of linen or silk (the accounts differ here) from within the codex, which is interpreted as a sign of Christ’s intervention and in turn enhances the miracle. Water in this example is deeply ambivalent, materially destructive and salvific at the same time. And, interestingly enough, just like the books in the first paragraph above, the fact that its encounter with water further individualizes St Margaret’s gospel book physically is important to the miracle accounts, though this should be negligible in the age of exclusively handwritten books. Is it possible that water stains have a silver lining? The relationship between medieval manuscripts and actual and pictorial water is full of surprises; dive in!
Dr. Tina Bawden is based at the Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. She welcomes your feedback!