A most expensive lining indeed

Mike Selby, Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library, on a curious Middle Ages trend

Mike Selby

It was the last thing they expected to find.

In 2011, German textile conservators were given permission to examine dresses made by Cistercian nuns from Wienhausen during the Middle Ages. These dresses — made of rabbit fur, silk, linen, and velvet — weren’t for the nuns themselves, but to adorn the statues which surrounded the Wienhausen Abbey. Besides the fact that these dresses have survived for centuries, the conservators were most interested in learning how the nuns were able to achieve the drapery-like folds.

Finally being able to handle and examine the dresses, the conservators were shocked to find that the nuns had used an extremely unique and unguessed at thickening agent to achieve the esthetic folds: Books.

In this ultimate recycling move, the nuns had ripped apart 13th century manuscripts (gasp), using the parchment to line the hems of the dresses. The books in question have been identified as devotional and legal texts — exactly what one would expect to find in an Abbey. The parchment (scraped animal skin) used for books appears to have made an excellent support for the dresses, while the dresses themselves have helped protect these still readable scraps of history.

While the conservators had not expected to find reading material, their find is not the first. The University of Copenhagen manuscript library holds a medieval Catholic Bishop’s hat, which was made from pages torn out of a book from 1270. It does not appear that anyone bothered to read the poem (a Norwegian translation of Old French), as it describes in detail two oversexed individuals chasing each other through the dark, while a bunch of knights hack away at each other over a field of naked virgins. The poor Bishop.

The ‘Sturlunga Saga’ — a collection of Icelandic clan sagas — has come down to us from the pages of a manuscript from 1375, which only survives as it was cut up into a vest pattern for seamstresses.

As great as manuscript parchment may have been for these uses in clothing, it is hard to conclude just why they were used in this fashion. Books were hardly common place in medieval times, and they certainly weren’t cheap. Constant religious upheavals may have rendered certain texts obsolete, but these could have been easily erased and reused (considering a single book needed between 100 and 400 separate animal hides).

The Cistercian nuns may provide some answers, as they were unique amongst European convents. The Wienhausen Abbey itself was more like an art gallery, decorated with vivid artwork, colourful stained glass, and intricate metalwork. The nuns themselves were also uncommon, being highly educated and hailing from the wealthiest and most powerful families of Germany.

If the nuns had enough time and resources to start dressing the statues of all things, ripping apart a boring old book may have seemed like an ordinary thing to do.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library.