Harvard’s books on skin: reporting results at the Hofer Lecture

Almost a year to the day, it was a pleasure to return to the Houghton Library at Harvard University to give the Philip and Frances Hofer Lecture entitled ‘Printing, Parchment, and Protein: the Bioarcheology of Harvard’s Books on Skin’.Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 19.08.04

The lecture provided the perfect forum for reporting back on the findings of the research and sampling undertaken during a Pantzer Fellowship in March 2015. The lecture was preceded by the presentation of the Philip Hofer Prize in Collecting Books and Art which is awarded annually to a student whose collection of books or works of art best exemplifies the tradition of Philip Hofer, founder and first Curator of the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts at the Houghton Library. The ceremony was overseen by Hope Mayo, the current Curator. Hope introduced the Lecture to the expectant audience having been kind enough to allow us access to the Houghton’s printed parchment editions in consultation with colleagues in Conservation and Collection Care.

IMG_7261We were able to identify and sample some forty-one individual editions which spanned the period 1467-1551 and represented printed parchment book production across the European continent from Italy, France and Germany to England, Sweden, Holland and Spain. In addition, we also sampled a series of limited edition parchment texts produced closer to home by the University Press, Cambridge MA in 1902, adding to the data regarding the revival of parchment printing as inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 19.37.47The results conformed with emerging patterns as observed through the growing dataset, showing the Italian preponderance for goat, especially in Venice, and the German and European use of calf. The use of sheep in both Naples and Spain conforms with other tests undertaken, whilst the data for England is suggestive, showing Richard Pynson in London using both sheep and calf in the text block. The exclusive use of calf in the production of Harvard’s missals is noteworthy, and adds to the discussion concerning the relation of animal to text type, skin size, and parchment costs. The second half of the lecture focused upon the implications of the rapid development of scientific techniques for the interrogation of animal skins for material book history, from the derivation of aDNA from parchment to the identification of microbial data present on the printed page. The scientific expertise of Matthew and the team at York, who were simultaneously presenting their work at the Conservation conference in Copenhagen, was successfully channeled during the Q&A session which followed the lecture.

IMG_7265.jpgAs an appropriate epilogue to the visit, it was pleasing to be able to sample two texts which we missed on the first visit, and both relevant to the work on the Aldine press in particular: two rare counterfeits from Lyon from 1501-03 by Balthazard de Gabiano of the Aldine Le terze rime of Dante and the Juvenal and Persius.Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 21.40.26Thanks to Hope Mayo, Bill Stoneman, the Director of the Houghton, Tom Hyry, and to all the staff for making us so welcome and for engaging so fully with the project.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s