Manuscript Stowaways: Binding Waste in the Klau Library

assortment of books bound in manuscript waste

“Life hacks” are viral trends where people share tips on how to do things more easily or efficiently. Some of these tips include using available materials in unusual ways, like using bent sticky notes to catch debris from drilling holes in drywall when hanging framed art. Medieval and early modern bookbinders had their own life hacks, and they made do with the materials available to get their work done efficiently and beautifully. One example is the use of manuscript waste in binding. “Manuscript waste” refers to discarded manuscripts which were cut up and repurposed as materials for bookbinding. Use of manuscript waste became especially common in Europe in the sixteenth century, but it continued to be used in later centuries.

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 1

Several factors contributed to the expansion of manuscript waste binding in the sixteenth century. For the first time, print copies were replacing manuscript copies in institutions of learning. Additionally, the Protestant Reformation tore through northern Europe, leading both to the closure of some monasteries and to a rapid shift in liturgical practice, resulting in a flood of discarded Christian manuscripts.

As more and more books were printed, manuscripts that had outlived their utility began to be broken up into pieces for bookbinding. Since parchment is strong and flexible, it is well suited for use in binding. Used parchment is also less expensive than new parchment for this purpose.

The most common use of manuscript waste was in the spine. The parchment was typically cut with narrow strips called “tapes” used as part of the structure of the spine and to help secure the boards. Manuscripts were also commonly used as flyleaves, the sheets placed by the binder between the text block and the boards. It was also occasionally used as the full cover.

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 2

Most of the manuscript waste in our collection is Latin, but we also have waste in German, Italian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. The rapid changes in Christian Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth century which happened alongside the expansion of printing affected Jewish and Hebrew manuscripts less, though Hebrew manuscripts began to be replaced by print copies only shortly after a similar fate befell Christian Latin texts.

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 3

Our first example (Fig. 1) is a beautifully illuminated manuscript used for the cover of Petri Bruti Veneti episcopi Cathare[n]sis…uictoria contra Iudaeos (Vicenza, 1489). The manuscript is a fragment of the canons of the Council of Chalcedon, an early ecumenical council of the Christian church. The parchment is folded into the size of the book, but the binding has no reinforcement and is quite limp.

Our second example (Figs. 2-3) is known to us only because the spine has been damaged or removed. Such is the case for many manuscript fragments that were used in the inside construction of book bindings. This copy of Philosophie d’amour de M. Léon Hébreu (Lyon, 1551) was bound using tapes cut from a medieval Latin manuscript which were pasted to the spine and the interior of the boards.

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 4

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 5

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 6

Music manuscripts were especially common victims of this practice since their usefulness was dependent on the stability of liturgy. These communal-use manuscripts were often quite large and thus provided a great source of material. In our third example (Figs. 4-5), a copy of Fortalicium fidei contra fidei christianae hostes by Alphonso de Espina (Lyon, 1487) is bound in a manuscript which sets John 8:18 to music, reading “Ego sum qui t[e-] / stimonium perhib[eo] / me ipso et estim[monium].” The back cover contains the column preceding this one, with an arrangement using parts of John 6:6 and 6:11.

book bound in manuscript waste

Figure 7

Our next example (Fig. 6) is a copy of Dictionarium Ciceronianum (Venice, 1662), bound in a Hebrew manuscript. The manuscript contains a fragment of the Malkhiyot section of the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah. As we can learn from this and our other examples, the manuscripts used for binding rarely had any relation to the text being bound.
These books show that there is rarely an effort to preserve the manuscript’s text by positioning it strategically, though occasionally a blank area between columns will be used for the spine to allow for spine labels, as in the case of our musical example.

Our final item (Fig. 7) is Ḳinot ṿe-tsiyunim, (Venice, 1599). The endpapers and flyleaves are fragments of a Yiddish manuscript, probably from the 1600s. Its content is difficult to decipher, but it is likely a letter.

These are only a few examples of the manuscript waste in our collection. The Klau Library holds about forty-seven identified bindings containing manuscript waste. If you are interested in conducting research on these bindings, you may contact Dr. Jordan Finkin, our Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian and Deputy Director of HUC-JIR Libraries, or our student worker Thomas Carroll, who researched the Klau’s manuscript waste items in preparation for this post.


By Thomas Carroll, Second-Year Pines Graduate School Student and Library Student Worker