Covering and Re-Covering: Exploring the Codicological Evidence for Historical Re

Much of the history of a book is reflected in its binding. Subject to the whims of users and environments, the binding may evolve a great deal in the life of a book. Damage or even changing owners’ tastes may necessitate restoration, replacement, or other modifications to prolong the book’s use or identify a new owner. Repairs will vary widely depending on the condition, the materials at hand, the taste and skill of the craftsman or layperson, the means of the owner, and even the owner’s personal taste.

A variety of repairs and replacements are attested in the Islamic bookmaking tradition. These range from the scarcely discernible restoration treatments executed by a skilled practitioner to the folk mends executed by an individual owner. The specialist literature in Arabic attests that practitioners gave thought to restoration techniques; in fact, Bakr ibn Ibrahim al-Ishbili (d.1230 or 31 CE) devoted a chapter of his Kitab al-taysir fi sinaʻat al-tasfir to work with worn or damaged codices. In the days of the voracious book collecting of Ottoman and Safavid literati, the need for the restoration of newly acquired books often arose, and various treatments were regularly carried out in the Ottoman palace workshops. Folk mends and replacements employing recycled material may be less attested in the specialist literature, but they are certainly observed in extant specimens. The charm and resourcefulness they display reflects the value of the book to its owner, despite his or her 'humble means'.

While it may be difficult to establish a dating and provenance for a particular binding and its repairs, the investigator with an inclination for forensics may find traces of the original production, the creative reuse and recycling of older materials, wear and damage in the course of use, travel or environmental exposure, and subsequent conservation treatments and repairs. In other cases, there will appear evidence that the original binding was fully replaced, that a decorated cover was overlaid with another cover material, or that a book was newly bound with a much older binding. 

Following a brief overview of the current state of knowledge of historical restoration practice in the Islamic context, this lecture will briefly survey creative repairs and replacements in the Islamic bookmaking tradition as they appear in codices of the Islamic manuscript collection at the University of Michigan. Case studies will shed light on the analysis of these phenomena with an eye towards determining the date, provenance, purpose, and materials employed in the treatments, as well as suggesting avenues for future research.

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