By Nicole Gilroy
The New Bookbinder, Vol. 29 (2009)
Abstract: ‘The Pilgrimage of Human Life’ is an illuminated medieval manuscript belonging to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The article gives a step-by-step description of the repair and rebinding project which, along with digitization, was funded by a donor to the library. As well as technical details, the ethical framework for this conservation work is discussed.
Introduction: The Bodleian Library’s The Pilgrimage of Human Life is a medieval illuminated manuscript on parchment, made in England in the early 15th century. The production is clearly of the highest class: the calf-skin parchment is of beautiful quality, and the text is accompanied by twenty fine gilded and coloured miniatures. The book contains the Middle English prose translation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s Pélerinage de la vie humaine, an allegorical romance in which the narrator dreams that he sees the New Jerusalem and resolves to travel there. He first requires the pilgrim’s staff of hope and satchel of faith, which are presented to him by Grace Dieu, who becomes his guide as he journeys toward his heavenly destination through the hazards of doubt and sin.
The manuscript is one of only two surviving illuminated copies of this text in English, the other being held by the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. It has been suggested that these two manuscripts shared a common exemplar. By coincidence, the Australian manuscript underwent conservation work and rebinding at the same time as the work I will describe, and though the two conservators were at the time unaware of each other’s work, the treatments carried out were remarkably similar.
The manuscript was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1635 by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of Oxford University. The book was acquired by Laud in 1633 in a 17th century pasteboard binding. The loose leather cover is a flesh-split, possibly sheep skin, in the style of a chemise covering. One set of earlier sewing holes is evident, which we may assume to be from the manuscript’s first binding. The sewing stations of the 17th century binding were shifted towards the head of the text-block, as is usual with later bindings. The original holes were evenly spaced along the spine as would be expected in the early 15th century when the manuscript was produced.
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