43rd Annual Meeting- Book and Paper Session, May 14, "The Brut Chronicle: Revived and Reconstructed by Deborah Howe"

In her talk about the treatment of Dartmouth College Library’s Brut manuscript, Collections Conservator Deborah Howe addressed the history of the manuscript, its condition and intended use, and the process involved in determining an appropriate binding structure. The major challenge she encountered was that the Brut was bound in a historic binding in poor condition that was not contemporary to the text block.

Dartmouth Brut Before Treatment

Deborah began her talk with an overview of the Brut text and its historic significance. According to Deborah, The Brut text is a chronicle of both English history and mythology, and covers the history of England from its settlement until 1461; it contains records of battles and histories of rulers, as well as tales of Merlin and King Lear.  While variants of the text were written in Latin, French, and Middle English, 181 of 240 existing Brut manuscripts are written in Middle English, including Dartmouth’s Brut manuscript.  Dartmouth’s Special Collections Library acquired their copy of the Brut with the intention that the manuscript would be used heavily for research and teaching.  Dartmouth’s Brut is of particular interest because it has a significant amount of marginalia which is now available for scholarly research.  Prior to being acquired by Dartmouth, the Brut was in a private collection, and was not available to scholars.
This manuscript was unusual in that it was bound in a stationers binding that was in poor condition and was no longer functional.  As Deborah explained, this created a dilemma, because while the binding dated to around 1600, it was not contemporary to the text block, which dates to about 1430.  In making her treatment decision, Deborah consulted with conservation colleagues who suggested stabilization of the stationers binding in conjunction with limited use.  Because this book was intended to be used frequently, Deborah felt that a different solution was necessary.
First, the Brut was disbound, surface cleaned, mended, and digitized.  In the process of disbinding Deborah found evidence of a previous binding, which she conjectured might have included wooden boards.  Prior to determining an appropriate new binding, Deborah created a model of the stationers binding.  She also had the opportunity to consult with a group of Brut scholars who were visiting Dartmouth for a conference, and asked for their opinions regarding binding possibilities.  Through this consultation, Deborah decided that a binding was needed that would reflect the history of the book but would also suit its current needs.
Deborah chose to resew the Brut on tanned leather supports which were left long.  She created new boards from multiple layers of handmade flax paper, and three slots were left in the boards where the supports could be inserted.  Later, in response to a question, Deborah also mentioned that she attached strips of parchment to the supports as stiffeners in order to facilitate putting the leather supports into the boards.  She then created a chemise of alum-tawed leather to cover the book as a whole.  This created a reversible binding; there are no linings or adhesive present on the spine, and the cover can be easily removed to show the sewing.  The stationers binding and sewing materials were saved and are stored with the Brut.  In conclusion, Deborah emphasized the practical nature of this solution, in that the new binding references historic materials while making the book accessible and stable.
Dartmouth Brut After Treatment: showing supports inserted into boards

Dartmouth Brut After Treatment

In the questions session, Deborah elaborated on how often Dartmouth’s Brut is used and how the new binding was holding up. She mentioned that it has been a few years since the treatment was completed and that the book is accessed, either for teaching or research, at least once per week.  Despite this frequent handling, the new binding is still in great condition, and functions well.  One audience member asked Deborah to elaborate on her collaboration with scholars, and Deborah emphasized that this opportunity was both rare and essential.  Another audience member asked about the impact of digitization on access, and Deborah responded that digitization has increased access greatly, but that the digitized manuscript is mainly accessed by scholars, while the physical book is frequently used for classes.
Deborah’s talk tied in nicely with the two talks that followed, including Evan Knight’s “Understanding and Preserving the Print Culture of the Confederacy” and Todd Pattison’s “The Book as Art; Conserving the Bible from Edward Kienholz’s The Minister,” in that all three speakers devoted time to in-depth discussions of their treatment rationale and their inner debates regarding a possible range of treatment options.  Many thanks to Deborah for providing the images!