Early Manuscripts of Anselm: conservation begins

Conservation work has recently started on two manuscripts containing the works of St. Anselm dating from the twelfth century. St. Anselm is arguably the most significant theologian and author ever to hold the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. He died on 21 April 1109, and 900 years later the Bodleian Library held a colloquium on the production and early circulation of manuscripts of Anselm’s works in April 2009.

MS. Bodl. 271 is an important early copy of his collected works from Christ Church, Canterbury; it includes the Monologion, Proslogion (famous for its ‘ontological proof’ of the existence of God), Cur Deus Homo, and other texts, and was probably compiled shortly after Anselm’s death. A second part, also Anselmian, was added in the 15th century, when the manuscript gained its current blind-tooled binding. It was given to the Bodleian in 1616.

MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 is a composite volume, containing three separate 12th-century illuminated texts: a liturgical calendar from St. Albans, a Psalter from Winchester, and a copy of Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations (read today by a wide public in the Penguin Classics translation by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG), with an important series of illustrations. The three parts seem to have been combined by the time the manuscript belonged to the Benedictine nunnery of Littlemore in the later Middle Ages. It was given to the Bodleian in about 1672.

Following the colloquium the Conservation & Collection Care section were approached about two of the manuscripts whose condition and importance indicated the need for conservation. Treatment proposals were drafted and the Bodleian was able to secure funding for the work from generous private donations. Treatment began in January 2010, and is being undertaken jointly by Nicole Gilroy and Andrew Honey.

MS. Bodl. 271 survives in a fifteenth-century Canterbury blind-tooled binding using four as yet unrecorded tools and which incorporated fragments of a fourteenth-century polyphonic music manuscript used as spine linings. Some of the linings were removed in the past, and combined with other damage this has had a detrimental effect on the sewing structure and board attachment. The binding is being repaired in-situ, by consolidation of the weakened sewing and re-attachment of the boards.

MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 was rebound for the Bodleian, probably in the early eighteenth century. The earlier binding history of the three texts, and in particular the question of when they were brought together, is of significant scholarly interest. The current binding, which had previously been repaired and rebacked, is entirely broken down and the opportunity to disbind and record all evidence of previous sewing is a valuable one. What is discovered during this process will determine the eventual rebinding of the three texts.

Both manuscripts pose interesting conservation dilemmas, and as work progresses we discover evidence left by craftsmen who worked on these manuscripts in the past and are faced with questions about the production and binding history of these volumes.

See the report of Anselm Day at the Bodleian Library, April 2009, Early Manuscripts of Anselm: a discussion with five manuscripts.