Ghost Bindings and The Book and the Silk Roads: Examining Early Book Substructures through micro-CT

With Alexandra Gillespie from the University of Toronto 

The Book and the Silk Roads is an international project based at the University of Toronto and supported by the Mellon Foundation. It seeks to produce a new world history of communication technologies, one powerful enough to replace popular Western narratives about the emergence of the codex, commercial printing, and mass media as triumphs of “Western Civilisation.” This paper focuses on one technique used by our team: x-ray microtomography (microCT). Recent high profile experiments within the medievalist community––in particular by Paul Dilley and Brent Seales––have shown that microCT has great potential for the study of fragile early books. However, BSR is among the first collaborative projects to employ microCT imaging to seek evidence of prior bindings, rather than to recover lost text. Since May 2019, in collaboration with Western University, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (UoT), and Grasselli’s Geomechanics Group (UoT) we have undertaken successful scans of ten European and Ethiopian manuscripts and early printed books, a modern Indonesian bamboo book, and (upcoming in December 2019) a neglected Kashmiri Sanskrit manuscript dating from a period of unusual cultural interchange in the early years of Mughal rule. In these scans, past binding structures—what we are calling “ghost bindings”—are often clearly discernible: in empty sewing holes and faint impressions left on gatherings. Given how many pre-modern books have been rebound, microCT’s capacity to uncover lost evidence of books’ structures is vital: we need it to flesh out the story of how books developed—separately but convergently in some regions, and through the transmission of objects, materials, and crafts in others. Ghost bindings can help us understand the multi-directional circulation and development of communication technologies around the network that is the Silk Roads


Alexandra Gillespie

Alexandra Gillespie is Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, where she directs the Old Books New Science humanities research lab. She works on late medieval manuscript and early printed book cultures. She is the author of Print Culture and the Medieval Author (2006) and Chaucer’s Books (forthcoming). She is currently Principal Investigator of The Book and the Silk Roads, a Mellon-funded project about the transmission of book technologies along transnational trade and travel routes in the premodern period.