incunable collection


Holy Books, Hole-y Books

Just like marginalia, holes in the pages of books come from diverse sources. However, it seems that insect actions in some form or another are the cause of the majority of the damage!

In the first set of images, the holes in the vellum actually come from bug bites that occurred before the death of the animal. Such holes wouldn’t become visible until the animal’s hide was stretched, and as vellum was (and is!) such an expensive commodity, some late-presenting holes wasn’t always enough to put off medieval bookmakers. The holes in the 5th image probably come from a similar source.

The 3rd and 4th images show holes made by a human hand. It’s unclear why this manuscript was so thoroughly mutilated, although it’s likely that it fell victim to an illumination collector from the Victorian era or earlier. Such collectors had no qualms about cutting up an manuscript to extract illuminations and decorative initials, sometimes pasting them into scrapbooks. This kind of mutilation can also occur when teachings or sentiments within the text fall out of favor, and owners want to make sure their books don’t contain anything offensive.

The final image shows holes from the librarian’s old nemesis, the bookworm. A whole family of bookworms had quite a good time chowing down on the paper of this Incunable page! These holes were clearly made after the book was made, as the bookworms managed to tunnel through about half of the book before giving up.

(MS Hunter 85, MS Hunter 279, MS Hunter 366, and MU7-x.5 from the University of Glasgow special collections)