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When Siân Echard, Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, sent her undergraduate students to look at images of medieval manuscripts, she thought they would come back to her with typical questions about why the manuscripts looked the way they did. Instead, the students returned with angry about why these thousand-year old pages had been defaced by the institutions that owned them!
What the students were talking about was that routine practice that was used (and in some cases still used) by libraries, archives and other institutions of putting ink stamps on most pages of the manuscript. Professor Echard was curious about the use of these markings and found they had a long history themselves.
Earlier this month, she spoke at the University of Toronto on the topic of ‘Mine, mine, mine! Marking Medieval Manuscripts, Then and Now’. It dealt with an issue that many medieval historians have probably wondered about.
The use of stamping was widespread in both Europe and North America until the mid-twentieth century, as various institutions made sure to leave a mark claiming ownership of these medieval books. In some cases, every page of a manuscript will bare a mark.
The use of stamping at the British Museum, for example, dates back to at least 1757. While these images often do intrude on the manuscript, sometimes quite spectacularly, most of the time it seems the person who made the mark made some effort to make sure that it did not obscure the text or image.
The reason why we see stamps on medieval manuscripts is that it was believed that it deter theft of their pages. According to Echard, librarians and archivists still debate whether these measures are necessary, as more elaborate security measures become more affordable.
Echard also notes that by the sixteenth century we see that readers and owners of manuscripts often added ink themselves to the pages, usually in the form of signatures to explain who the book belonged too. They could also write notes about the manuscript, or explain who it was being given to, and even sometimes have a coat of arms drawn on it.
As manuscripts were passed down from person to person, and onto institutions like the British Museum, one can sometimes see that multiple markings have been made on some pages.
Today, some institutions will add a digital watermark to their online collections in order to keep them from being used, while places such as the British Library have been declaring their images to be in the public domain and giving readers full (and free of markings) access to their collections via the web.
Echard concludes that when looking at medieval manuscripts, “we need to see every mark they bare,” as they often can reveal new insights into the lives of these books over the last several centuries.