A book’s life in Norway

The medieval books which were made in or brought to Norway were once precious objects, cherished for their content. As the world changed around them, the situation changed. After the protestant Reformation in 1536/37, the Latin books used in Norwegian churches went out of date. Their wonderfully strong parchment, however, could still be used. The reuse of the parchment pages of medieval manuscripts led to their destruction, but also to their partial survival.

Thousands of leaves were used in bindings of Norwegian accounts for the royal Danish administration in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. When the National Archives of Norway were established in 1825, the accounts were brought back to Norway, and with them the fragments. The majority of Norwegian book fragments are today stored in the National Archives in Oslo.

A book is born

Most medieval books were written on parchment, which is made from the skin of animals. After the skin was cleansed, dried, and smoothed, the parchment was cut into sheets the size of two pages that were placed in stacks, folded along the middle and sewn together to form a “booklet”. A book could then be made by sewing these “booklets” together. One or more scribe(s) would write the text into the book by hand, leaving space for decorations if those were meant to be there.

Learn more about the medieval scribe in this video with Michael Gullick.

A book is used

Books were used in churches, monasteries, and schools, but also by individuals. Since parchment was expensive and time-consuming to make, and since everything had to be copied by hand, books were a luxury. A lavishly decorated and finely-made book would be a powerful symbol of the status of its owner. However, many books were quite simple and served primarily as vehicles for the texts they contained, whether liturgy, theology, or law.

See Associate Professor Alf Tore Hommedal explain and demonstrate the use of liturgical books. 

From book to fragment

When the textual contents of a book no longer were seen as useful, the parchment could be reused for other purposes. In Norway, especially after the Reformation in 1536/37, medieval books were cut up and the pieces used as binding material for tax lists and accounts. These accounts were then sent to the central administration in Copenhagen.

Not all book fragments are in the National Archives in Oslo. See Director Yngve Nedrebø of the Regional State Archives in Bergen explain how pieces of parchment from medieval books were reused on accounts in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries.  

Fragments in archives

After the union with Denmark was dissolved in 1814, most of the accounts were sent back to Norway and kept in the new National Archives. Towards the middle of the 19th century the fragments from medieval books, used as bindings for the Danish-Norwegian accounts, were discovered. During the following decades, most of the fragments, around 6,000 in total, were removed from the accounts and put into envelopes.

Director Yngve Nedrebø explains how modern archives, in this case the Regional State Archives of Bergen, have close to optimal conditions for medieval parchment.  

From fragment to virtual book

Removing the fragments from the accounts meant that much information concerning their use as bindings has been lost. But the removal also makes it easier for today’s researchers to pair up different fragments and identify them. When fragments from different envelopes can be placed next to each other and compared, it is easier to determine whether they were cut from the same book. We may then be able to puzzle the fragments together into parts of a whole - a virtual book.

Hear Åslaug Ommundsen, leader of the fragment project, talk about the challenges of fragment studies and the transition from fragment to virtual manuscript.