After the invention of the printing press, old handwritten books and documents were commonly recycled as reinforcements in new bookbindings made in the 15th through 18th centuries. Now, thanks to an x-ray technique developed in the Netherlands, these hidden manuscript fragments are readable without destroying the book they’re a part of.
It’s all possible with macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF), which allows even pages glued to each other to be read. Dr. Erik Kwakkel at Leiden University, one of the academics behind the Hidden Library project attempting to uncover more of these fragments, has both been interviewed and written about the process.
“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings. So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”
He blogs about his projects and findings at Tumblr and at medievalbooks; see the latter e.g. for the exclusive behind-the-scenes post on the Hidden Library project.
Now I’m hoping we will eventually find a wealth of medieval texts in bookbindings. It’s really fascinating what we can discover with modern technology!
Image: A printed book with medieval manuscript fragments inside the spine, photograph by Erik Kwakkel (Leiden, University Library, nr. 583; 16th c. with 12th c. fragments)