Medieval Manuscripts in Law Book Bindings: Introduction

February 15, 2010

In 15th- and 16th-century Europe, reusing and recycling was second nature. Linen rags were turned into paper, human urine was used to create lye, iron was melted down and refashioned. Bookbinders, for their part, cut apart discarded medieval manuscripts and reused the strong, flexible parchment in their bindings. Untold numbers of these fragments have survived until the present day, some completely hidden and others strikingly obvious. Each of these slips of parchment can help historians recover a bit more information about the distribution and popularity of medieval texts, the evolution of scripts, and the history of printing and binding.

The Yale Law Library houses nearly 150 early printed books whose bindings incorporate visible pieces of medieval manuscript. These fragments range in size from tiny scraps that can barely be seen, to entire sheets used to cover large volumes. Regardless of their size, each fragment offers both a keyhole peek into the medieval world, and a glimpse of Europe as it encountered the power of print.

In this exhibit we have tried to display books that reflect the diversity of medieval material that can be found in the Law Library’s bindings. As you explore, note the many styles and grades of medieval script, and the way scribes organized information and decoration on the page. Also, mark how bookbinders used the fragments, and the range of medieval texts to which they had access. (Bear in mind that books were often bound far from the city where they were printed.)

Only a small portion of the Law Library’s medieval material is featured in this exhibit. In addition to the many fragments, the Rare Book Collection holds 21 complete medieval legal manuscripts, and 136 books printed before 1500. If you would like to make use of these materials for your own research or teaching, please contact the Rare Book Librarian.

     – Notes by Benjamin Yousey-Hindes, Stanford University

Fragments from a liturgical service book, ca. 1225-1325, bound in a volume of Year Book reports for the reign of Henry VI (London, 1500?-1547?). Larger versions of this and other images are available from the Medieval binding fragments gallery of the Rare Book Collection’s Flickr site. If you can provide additional information about the manuscript fragment displayed here, you are invited to send an email to .[at]>

“Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings” is curated by Benjamin Yousey-Hindes and Mike Widener, and is on display through May 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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