In preparation for the rotation of the CBL’s permanent collections, I have been working on a large 12th century Syriac manuscript. This beautiful manuscript will shortly go on display in our Sacred Traditions gallery.
This large parchment volume was produced in the Monastery of Tella, near modern-day Aleppo, Syria. It is a copy of the Harklean Gospels written in Syriac. The text is a 7th century translation of the New Testament by Thomas of Harqel. The Syriac language and alphabet developed from Aramaic and has been used by the Syriac Orthodox Church for liturgical purposes from the 1st century AD to the present day.
It is most likely that the manuscript’s large, heavy binding is contemporary to the textblock it houses but the structure has been repaired and the spine rebacked with new leather. It is likely that these repairs were carried out in the early 20th century, when such a treatment was a very common practice.
The textile spine lining and endband tie-downs are no longer attached to the textblock due to the previous repairs. This has weakened the binding and placed extreme pressure on the sewing thread which forms the board attachment; resulting in the breakage of the thread joining the textblock to the front board, leaving a very loose board attachment and a number of loose quires. The absence of a functioning spine lining and endband tie-downs has left the text-block with very poor opening characteristics, and a weak and uneven spine profile, making it extremely vulnerable to further damage whenever handled.
In order to allow the manuscript to be opened safely for display, it was clear that repair would be necessary. However, it was preferable that any treatment be minimally interventive to avoid further disruption to the historic binding.
Fortunately, the exposed spine granted easy access to the original sewing. I used an unbleached Blake linen thread and a curved needle to repair the damaged, unsupported link stitch sewing between the first three quires following the existing sewing pattern. Continuing the link stitch sewing allowed me to strengthen the board attachment by wrapping new thread around the weakened existing attachments.
As the last folio of the first quire was fully detached and its conjoint folio was missing, I re-inserted it using Japanese paper tabs. The tabs were adhered to the spine edge of the loose folio and slipped between the historic sewing stations. The tabs acted as a comb guard and were further secured by the new sewing which has reinforced the existing broken threads as it passes through the centre of the gathering.
These small structural repairs to the sewing and board attachment have greatly improved the opening characteristics of this manuscript. It now opens comfortably on a book cushion, and can be handled by scholars without risk of further damage, or loss of the previously vulnerable detached folio.
When the manuscript goes on exhibition in the Sacred Traditions gallery it will be mounted in a bespoke Perspex cradle which will fit the spine profile exactly and give the manuscript the best possible support whilst it is open on display.
Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator
The Chester Beatty Library Conservation team would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year!