In 1978, the Bodleian Library was given a curious piece of parchment (Broxb. 97.40). It is dotted with rectangular cut-outs, and eight thick, red rectangles and an astonishing amount of dirt and fibres cover one side. As Andrew Honey noted in his blog post about its conservation in 2011, its holes and ‘muck’ obscure the words, but they reveal that this object is actually three texts in one:
First, the parchment sheet was taken from a manuscript of Gregory IX’s Decretals written in Bologna around 1300, which was separated by c.1530.
Then, the skin was used by a printer, probably in France (François Regnault (d.1540–41) or Jean Mallard (fl. 1534–53)?). The red rectangles indicate that it was used as a frisket sheet, a mask inserted into the printing press to keep the paper in place and protect unprinted areas, for printing text and initials in red. There are eight rectangles, so the printed book was in octavo. The arrangement of the cut-outs (i.e., the red texts and initials) suggests that the book was liturgical. The thick layer of red printing ink shows how the frisket sheet blocked the rest of the type from printing on the paper in the many copies of the edition. (The red elements were removed, and the rest was printed separately in black.) The thickness of the ink film, from the ‘black’ text, hints at the number of copies printed. The text is illegible, but the indents of some letters can be seen.
Once cut up for a certain arrangement of red initials and passages, a frisket sheet could be used for only one project. Finally, this one was used by a bookbinder, who put in the pasteboard of a binding around a book. The ‘muck’ is from the binding paste.
It’s an extremely rare and important artefact of the history of the book. But it isn’t complete. Frisket sheets were often made of parchment pasted to paper, the better to resist the wetness of a print run (paper is dampened before printing). In an article in Printing History tracing the movements of the Bodleian skin layer and five others from the same manuscript/print job/binding, I tried to trace this paper layer. But I lost sight of it for the last 500 years, after c.1540.
That paper layer and an undescribed parchment layer from the same group has been discovered at Columbia University in the library of the American Type Founders Company, which Columbia purchased in 1942. Very few frisket sheet fragments are known, and each has much to reveal.
If the paper layer remained paired the Bodleian layer, it would have been in a group of sheets from this manuscript/print job/binding that was owned by the bibliographer E. Gordon Duff (1862–1924) and acquired after his death by the master printer George W. Jones (1860–1942). One of his skin layers was sold by Sotheby’s to Albert Ehrman (1890–1969) and donated to the Bodleian in 1978 as the Broxbourne Collection.
The paper layers described in Jones’ collection and sale catalogues can all be accounted for, so the Columbia paper layer was presumably separated sometime in the 500 years between c.1540 and Duff’s acquisition of his group before 1924. But Jones’ tallies of his frisket sheets’ skin and paper layers varied. Could the layers at Columbia and the Bodleian have remained together for centuries, before the paper layer was sold privately by Jones before his death in 1942? And could the newly discovered skin layer at Columbia have accompanied it? Research continues.
This blog post may be the first time the two halves of this frisket sheet have been reunited in over 500 years. Together, they illustrate the history of the book, from medieval manuscript to renaissance printshop to modern collecting. Much remains unknown, but digital research tools of the future may reveal where and how they were used over the centuries.
With thanks to Jane Rodgers Siegel (Rare Book Librarian, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University).
For more information
Andrew Honey, ‘Many uses of a piece of parchment’, The Conveyor, 25 Feb 2011, http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/theconveyor/2011/02/25/many-uses-of-a-piece-of-parchment.
Elizabeth Savage, ‘The Mystery of the “scrappy fragments”: Untangling Robert Steele’s Discovery of Frisket Sheets (1903), Printing History (2016), 16–32.
Elizabeth Savage, ‘Early Modern Frisket Sheets: A Periodically Updated Census’, Bibsite, Bibliographical Society of America, 1 May 2017, http://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/research-projects-archives/early-modern-frisket-sheets