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Diversity in the Stacks: Culturally Sensitive Conservation of Ms. Codex 1950

Learn how stabilizing and repairing a Persian manuscript to facilitate access relates to the larger goal of performing culturally sensitive conservation work.

A codex is open on a screen over a scale of colors. Both pages feature Persian text and the left page includes a richly covered decorative image.

Over the past year, I have been working on the conservation treatment of Ms. Codex 1950, a Persian manuscript from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts which is tentatively dated to between 1474 and 1650. While A New Chapter for a 16th Century Codex describes much of the treatment, in this post I will expand on the treatment decision-making process, how this process relates to the larger goal of performing culturally sensitive conservation work, and the importance of this manuscript as a research object.

Ms. Codex 1950 is an illuminated manuscript that contains two epic poems, Yūsuf va Zulaykhā and Mihr va Mustarī, which are written side by side in Persian on every page throughout the book. Of the two texts, Yūsuf va Zulaykhā is perhaps the most well-known, and there are other extant examples from this time period of these two texts appearing alongside one another in the same book, including a manuscript at the Walters Art Museum. My role as Conservation Librarian is to stabilize and repair the manuscript in order to facilitate access so that other scholars with more expertise can help to better answer questions about when and where this book was created in the future. At the time Ms. Codex 1950 was likely created, texts were read and written in Persian across many cultures outside of modern-day Iran. This can make the location of Persian manuscripts’ exact origins a challenge to pinpoint and define by today’s cultural and political boundaries.

Ms. Codex 1950 serves as an important surviving example of a persistent Islamicate manuscript tradition during a time when book production in the Western world was undergoing massive changes. This manuscript has many features that are considered typical for illuminated Persian manuscripts from this period, including 19 miniatures scattered throughout the text, as well as highly decorated title pages. Most pages in Ms. Codex 1950 are composed of two pieces of paper, including a central panel made of an off-white paper, which is inset into a more colorful border paper. Many of the border papers are also embellished with silver and gold leaf flakes. When considered together, these features make Ms. Codex 1950 the most highly decorative Persian manuscript currently in the Penn Libraries’ collections. By contrast, the European world experienced a massive change in book and print culture between 1474 and 1650, due to the invention and adaption of the printing press. While European book structures were adapting to the wider use of paper instead of parchment, and the more widespread use of printed text was slowly displacing manuscripts, manuscript culture persisted in the Islamic world for centuries.

It is likely that Ms. Codex 1950 once had a binding with features considered typical for Persian manuscripts, but most features of the manuscript’s original binding are lost, due to a long history of repair. There are instances when historic repairs are important to preserve, and further details about the tradition of repair in Islamicate manuscripts can be found in Eyvn Kropf’s essay “Historical Repair, Recycling, and Recovering Phenomena in the Islamic Bindings of the University of Michigan Library: Exploring the Codicological Evidence” in Suave Mechanicals Volume 1 (2013). For example, Ms. Codex 1950 was resewn at least two, possibly three, times.

A diagram of a book with aspects of bindings identified with arrows.
A diagram showing possible features of Islamicate bindings, from page 38 of Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking by Gulnar K. Bosch, John Carswell, and Guy Petherbridge (1981).

During one of these repair campaigns, the pages were trimmed in a casual, uneven manner, and the text block was rounded and backed, which is a key feature of a Western/European bookbinding style. Backing,a bookbinding technique in which the rounded curve of the spine is reinforced with a hammer, became more widespread in Europe in the 17th century. A central, distinguishing feature of Islamicate manuscripts is that they typically have a flat, not rounded, spine. In addition to the flat spine, the mechanical qualities of Islamicate bindingshow they open and closewere often controlled and supported by structural endbands, whereas Western bookbindings traditionally relied more on supported sewing, or sewing that included cordslaced on to heavier boards. The European-style cover that Ms. Codex 1950 was bound in also included squares, or a slight gap where the covers extend slightly beyond the text block, while Islamicate manuscripts typically have covers that are flush with the text.

Four book spines shown in diagram form and labeled. Text below says the images show the evolution of spine shape and board edge profiles.
A cross-section diagram showing the evolution of spine shapes in Western books over time, from page 271 in The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding by J.A. Szirmai (1999). The small dots indicate sewing threads, which are in the center of each folded gathering of paper.

Other features are more challenging to observe, and are more challenging for conservators to approach and reconcile within the learned framework of which features we believe will make a book last longer over time. Many foundational book history resources in the Western world, such as The ABC of Bookbinding, reinforce a Eurocentric view of book history, which, in the past, created bias toward fitting book structures from non-Western cultures into an “evolutionary” timeline. In the history of Western conservation practice, these differences often resulted in the dismissal of Islamicate binding structures as weak, inadequate, or structurally inferior and in need of “improvement.” For example, Islamicate books are typically sewn unsupported, or without cords, regardless of the size of the book, while Western books often include more sewing supports and more sewing stations for larger books. The temptation to add further supports, and therefore new, non-original, sewing holes and a different kind of sewing to “improve” how the book opens and how the pages are supported, is real and persistent in Western conservation practice. Karin Scheper expands on this in detail in her 2019 book The Technique of Islamic Bookbinding: Methods, Materials, and Regional Varieties, and advocates for conservation professionals to question their Eurocentric biases in the conservation treatment of Islamicate manuscripts. Working with Ms. Codex 1950 has given me the opportunity to revisit Scheper’s research and the work of many other conservation colleagues, while trying to strike a balance between improving accessibility and preserving cultural context.

Once conservation treatment is completed, Ms. Codex 1950 will be able to withstand handling with much less risk of causing further damage and loss. While the Penn Libraries’ collections contain a significant number of Islamicate manuscripts, Ms. Codex 1950 was identified as a high priority for treatment by Mitch Fraas, Director of Special Collections & Research Services, because it is currently the only example of this style of illuminated Persian manuscripts in the collection, and he collaborated closely on the treatment. The Penn Libraries acquired Ms. Codex 1950 in the year 1900, and it has spent most of its years in our collections rarely accessed or used due to its vulnerable condition. A few years ago, it was excluded from the grant-funded Manuscripts of the Muslim World digitization project due to its poor condition. Our hope is that when Ms. Codex 1950 is more accessible, it will remain of interest to students and scholars for many years to come.

Featured photo: An example of a miniature on the front of page 10 in Ms. Codex 1950, during treatment.