A post by Conservator Fiona Butterfield
I recently completed conservation treatment of a Book of Transumpt (1529-1553) that was started pre-pandemic. The Book of Transumpt (B of T) is a large volume of more than 700 pages each approx 320mm h x 220mm w. It is hand-inscribed (in Latin) in iron gall ink. The pages were bound in a limp vellum binding. It comprised 18 sections made up from 35 sub-sections. In the original binding sections were predominantly sewn with linen thread and then attached to the binding with parchment tackets.
Conservation aims to make archives and documents safe to handle and accessible whilst preserving all aspects of the original including evidence of its structure and composition. The extent of intervention is balanced against the potential outcome and involves discussion with the curator/ archivist. In this example, Book of Transumpt, both the limp vellum binding and the paper pages were in an extremely poor, fragile and vulnerable state and could not be handled without causing further damage. The condition of the book was as you might expect for something that is nearly 500 years old: damage such as tears, creases, dirt and signs of insect attack. However, added to that it had been saturated with water at some time causing severe staining and degradation of both the paper and binding. Part of the lower edge of the binding had cut marks and it seems likely that the badly saturated, water stained (and probably rotted) vellum binding (animal skin) was cut away.
Tackets are thin strips of parchment used to hold the section in position on the spine. The strips of parchment (2-4mm wide) are twisted and threaded like a lace through holes in the paper section and then through holes in the vellum binding spine. The ends of the tackets are knotted to hold them in place.
Before any conservation treatment was undertaken, the Book of Transumpt was thoroughly documented to provide written and photographic records of its original condition and structure, including sewing techniques and materials. This documentation was supplemented throughout conservation treatments.
Before any conservation treatments are undertaken all media (inks etc) and supports (paper, vellum) are tested to ensure proposed treatments would not adversely affect them. For example the iron gall inks were tested to make sure they were not water-soluble and surface cleaning would not remove the ink.
Removal of surface dirt
Surface dirt is removed using grated eraser crumbs (made using a nutmeg grater and is very time-intense) or a vulcanised rubber ‘smoke’ sponge. Surface dirt must be removed to prevent it from becoming further embedded into the paper fibres. In the image of page 673 (above) you can see a pale, roughly circular, spot where someone has erased an old graphite inscription leaving a ‘cleaner’ area. Therefore I did not need to test the surface dirt to know that it could be removed – someone had inadvertently done this for me! (A conservator would have done a similar ‘test’ but in a less conspicuous place and across a much smaller area).
If the iron gall inks are stable in water the next stage is ‘washing’. As a medium iron gall ink is generally stable in water (does not run or bleed) but it is inherently acidic and causes the substrate (paper) to degrade.
Watching the ‘wash’ water become yellow is always a satisfaction to a paper conservator! We know that the soluble products of acidic degradation are being removed from the paper and even after the first wash and drying the paper improves in flexibility and strength.
Aqueous washing is a risky conservation treatment but once tests have shown that the inks are stable the benefits to the paper are literally visible as the discolouration is reduced resulting in the paper looking ‘brighter’ and the tonal contrast between the paper and the inks is increased.
After surface cleaning, washing etc each page was repaired: areas of loss were replaced and tears repaired with a Japanese paper (chosen for its strength and flexibility) using a wheat starch paste as the adhesive. The repairs are designed to be obvious and not to ‘exactly match’ the colour of the original paper. The original damage remains clearly visible and is part of the history of the object.
There was great variation in the colour of the iron gall ink due to subtle differences in its formulation. Frequently these changes in colour of ink were observed in conjunction with differences in the characteristics of the hand writing suggesting different scribes had been involved.
Iron gall ink colour ranged from a pale orange-brown to an intense almost black colour. Differences in colour of the inks from fading, due to light, could be ruled out by assessing the overall condition of the paper, its past storage conditions and from the conservator’s experience with similar materials.
During conservation additional information may be revealed: for example I was fascinated by the various watermarks that were visible in the sheets of paper (two examples below). Watermarks can indicate the source and possibly the age of the paper. Variations of the gloved hand (gauntlet) were visible in many sheets.
Once the text block had been removed the lining of the limp vellum binding could be examined and it became evident that there was a foredge flap extending from the righthand end of the vellum binding (the foredge of the back board) which would have wrapped around the closed book rather like the flap on an envelope. Before conservation this flap was folded, compressed and scrunched up (left image below) hiding the size and shape of it.
Conservation treatment enabled this back flap to be opened out (right image). There were many small holes in the spine of the limp binding where the parchment tackets had been driven through securing sections. The top and bottom edges of the skin had been folded inwards to create a straight edge.
The individual sewing threads, parchment tackets removed during conservation treatment and any miscellaneous ‘found’ items, such as quill parings, were documented, saved and stored in archival boxes. The Book of Transumpt CCB B/33/33 is now accessible for consultation (for those of you who can read latin!)