(National Catholic Reporter) Some medieval recycling was guided by spiritual symbolism

Walters Mirror of Human Salvation

Detail of a German manuscript formerly used as a book cover. There are two leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation, late 14th century, ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment. (Walters Art Museum)


My article “Some medieval recycling was guided by spiritual symbolism” appears in National Catholic Reporter. Here’s a selection:

To begin to understand the contours of recycling in the Middle Ages, it is necessary to forget a great deal about modern products and packaging. Many of today’s goods are designed for single use: When milk, medicine or tissues are finished, one pitches the container in the trash with nary a second thought.

The contrast between present-day and the Middle Ages may be starkest with respect to paper, which runs less than a penny per page today. Before the birth of the printing press, scribes created books by hand on parchment; the manuscripts could be worth nearly their weight in gold. So when a manuscript outlived its usefulness to its owner, or when a better copy of the text was available, medieval people — who had to be extremely wealthy to own even one book — would recycle the book rather than toss it.

Scribes would scratch out text and illustrations from the parchment, and they would write another book on top of the old text. That collage formula, called a palimpsest, was a typical practice in the Middle Ages, which ran somewhat perpendicular to, and at times parallel to, contemporary notions of recycling. And it was often a combination of texts that carried specific religious implications.

“This is something that I think, to us, may be a little bit jarring that they would do that — that they would have all of these time periods smushed together visually,” said Lynley Anne Herbert, the Robert and Nancy Hall assistant curator of rare books and manuscripts at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. “It’s something that didn’t bother people in the medieval period at all. They didn’t mind having this amalgamation. Actually, it enriched things to have so many layers of history together.”

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