Some medieval manuscript fragments at Senate House Library

Manuscript fragments can be found in the archives and collections of many libraries, most commonly in the bindings of manuscripts and printed books. Fragments have great value for manuscript studies researchers revealing how manuscripts were recycled and parchment reused, what has been lost, and what texts and types of manuscript books fell out of use. The reuse of fragments reveals valuable information on binding practices in the early print period as well as more recent attitudes to manuscripts, particularly in the 19th century with the breaking up of manuscripts by dealers and collectors. Fragmenotology has developed as its own discipline, and some major studies have been carried out on collections with large numbers of manuscripts used in and as bindings. Neil Ker’s Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts Used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings (1954), supplemented by David Pearson in 2000, examined both fragments and binding practices and the National Archives of Sweden and Norway, where official records were often bound in manuscript scrap have provided material for several studies.  Digital fragmentology has allowed researchers to reconstruct manuscripts virtually and create online catalogues and repositories. Recent projects include Fragmentarium an online platform/laboratory allowing institutions and researchers to share, catalogue and work with fragments and the Lost Manuscripts project at the University of Essex – a pilot for a national catalogue of manuscript fragments.

Such projects have inspired me to look at how we can make Senate House Library’s own collection of manuscripts more accessible to researchers.  The collection reflects the Library’s role as a centre for the study and teaching of Palaeography since the 1920s and comes from a number of different sources: 15th and 16th century bindings in Special Collections, parts of larger archive collections, donations and from a period in the 1950s and 1960s when the Library was actively purchasing manuscript material to support manuscript studies teaching in particular. The collection of fragments was catalogued by Rowan Watson in 1976 and medieval holdings are listed in a separate finding aid as well as on the Library’s Archive and Manuscripts catalogue.  I am currently working on an enhancement of this finding aid to include images and extra descriptive information that will be searchable and will assist teachers and researchers in exploring the collections.  This will be available on the Library website next year.

The collection includes many very interesting fragments, here are just a couple of examples. MS593 is a bi-folium in Middle English of the romance of Kyng Alisaunder from the Auchinleck manuscript, National Library of Scotland, Adv MS 19.2.1. Produced in London in the second quarter of the 14th century, the manuscript is an important in Middle English literature and language, and is the sole witness to several texts and versions of texts. This fragment was donated to the Library in 1963, and shows signs of use as a wrapper, complete with what appear to be sums. It is one of several fragments of the Auchinleck that found their way into other collections and have been digitally reunited with the original manuscript.

Detail of MS593


MS639/1 is a leaf of a Noted Missal of Hereford Use from the second quarter of the 12th century. The Use of Hereford was a variant of the Roman Rite local to Herefordshire. These local Rites were replaced during the reformation, ultimately by the Book of Common Prayer.  This leaf has had at least two reuses: as the cover for a manorial extent for Much Marcle in Herefordshire, and as the pastedown in the English 17th century binding of Poliziano’s Omnia Opera, printed in Venice in 1498.  It was lifted from this binding along with two leaves of a 14th century Antiphoner, also used as pastedowns. According to a recent study of the Use of Hereford by William Smith, this is one of the earliest surviving fragments recording the rite.

MS639/1 verso


And finally, a possible example of 19th century book breaking: MS620 is a collection of eleven miniatures probably cut from the first leaves of Psalter. They were probably produced in the second quarter of the 13th century in Paris and depict scenes from the life of Christ. The miniatures were purchased by the Library in 1964, originally enclosed in a late 19th century edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern.