There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.
Bad And Good Dirt
Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:
He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.
Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.
But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images. One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.
Medieval Bread and Books
Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.
I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).
ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged
Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt
Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?
Modern Books and Wonder Bread
Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:
Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies
Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.
This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.
Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.
I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.
The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).
 Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).
 See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.
 ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.
 V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).
2 thoughts on “Of Dirty Books and Bread”
One can always spot the well-loved book from its less enjoyed cousin. The well- loved book shows its passage from hand to hand, while the less enjoyed book looks newly printed. Not that the lesser loved book has not been used, or was better taken care of (which might well be the case), but humans tend to do the things they love (like reading) combinded with other things they love, like tea or coffee, a danish… you get the picture. The more love over time, the more soiled the book. Makes one wonder how a classic would appear if not periodically reprinted, ha, ha, ha.
Love this blog!