Liber Pilosus: Cistercian bindings from Clairvaux Abbey bound in seal skin

Clairvaux Abbey, founded in 1115 and governed by the future Saint Bernard until his death in 1153, housed an exceptional library which was one of the most important in the western world. While the abbey enjoyed remarkable prosperity as early as the 1130s, the initial collection was formed from the donations of the first monks to arrive at Clairvaux and then from the Abbey’s own scriptorium, as well as from donations. At the end of the 12th century, Clairvaux library held around 350 volumes in different parts of the abbey, depending on their intended use. During the 13th century, the library expanded through purchases, attaining 1,000 volumes by the beginning of the 14th century. The collection continued to grow throughout the middle ages, as is attested to by an inventory drafted in 1472 for l’abbé Pierre de Virey by Jean de Voivre, the then librarian of Clairvaux, which recorded 1,790 works.

Fig. 1: Front cover of manuscript Ms 5, Médiathèque du Grand Troyes, Champagne Métropole. Pro Augustino responsiones ad excerpta Genuensium, twelfth century, 174 f., Parchment leaves ; 490 x 340 mm.

Of the 1,240 manuscripts preserved in the Médiathèque du Grand Troyes today, a series of 14 bindings, dating from the 12th century, are distinguished by the presence of covering material which retains hair. These bindings, all in large format, have structures that are characteristic of romanesque bindings: the text block, sewn on leather thongs, is held tightly between two oak boards and covered by alum-tawed skin. In Clairvaux during the romanesque period, alum-tawed skin is remarkably white, delicate and thin. But these Clairvaux bindings are distinctive, above all, because of their over-covers (or chemises), which provide a protective covering of the entire volume at head, tail and fore-edge, effectively guarding the manuscript against environmental damage. The over-cover, unlike the binding underneath, is made of thick, brown skin with hair intact.

Fig. 2: Detail of the over-cover fur, manuscript Ms 5, Médiathèque du Grand Troyes, Champagne Métropole.

In order to identify the species of animal and, in the hope of confirming the usage of wild animal skins such as deer, as mentioned in modern catalogue descriptions, a preliminary proteomics analysis was conducted on 6 of the 14 manuscripts (including Ms 5), using a technique developed by the Department of Archeozoology at the University of York in the UK. Since the heritage status of the collection requires the use of non-destructive analysis techniques that don’t require moving the manuscripts outside of where they are held, the non-invasive peptide fingerprinting technique ZooMS, developed by Dr Sarah Fiddyment (British Academy Fellow, York), was chosen. This method allowed us to identify the presence of sealskin on the first six samples. A detailed examination using a portable digital microscope helped to confirm the presence of sealskin on all 40 bindings in the collection.

Fig. 3: Hair examination under magnification (x 225), Ms 5, Médiathèque du Grand Troyes, Champagne Métropole. © the authors

Traces of skin with intact hair on a binding of smaller format, as well as certain indicators suggesting the presence of over-covers (now missing) on a very large number of manuscripts in the collection, leads us to ask whether the full collection of manuscripts may have been over-covered in sealskin in the medieval period. Unsurprisingly, the use of sealskin as a manuscript covering is common in Scandinavian countries and in Ireland throughout history, although their existence has also been shown in England on Cistercian bindings from the 12th century.

Whilst one can easily understand the usage of sealskin in regions where this marine mammal is indigenous, the question of its usage in Champagne in the 12th Century undeniably occurs. The presence of English and Irish monks at Clairvaux at that time suggests an external provenance. A comparative study of seven bindings from Clairmarais held at Saint-Omer (where the covering material is very similar) suggests a Cistercian practice rather than a geographical one. Current research, in partnership with a team of Danish scientists, should soon allow us to confirm the provenance of these skins.

Élodie Lévêque, in charge of the ‘Clairvaux bindings’ component of the Bibale Database (Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, IRHT / CNRS), financed by Biblissima.

Claire Chahine, created and directed the Leather and Parchment Department of the Centre de Recherche pour la Conservation des Collections (CRCC/CNRS).

A more in-depth article on the use of furskin for covering books is to be published in the next issue of the ARSAG’s annual journal, Support / Tracé.

We would like to thank the Médiathèque du Grand Troyes for facilitating this research and allowing the analysis of the Clairvaux manuscripts.



S. FIDDYMENT, et al. “Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting“. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1995, 112 (49).

L. HARMAND, Catalogue général des manuscrits, t. 2, 1855, pp. 9-10.

Ch. SAMARAN et R. MARICHAL, Catalogue des manuscrits en écriture latine portant des indications de date, de lieu ou de copiste. V. Est de la France, Paris, 1965, p. 447.

A. VERNET, J.-P. BOUHOT, et J.-F. GENEST, La Bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Clairvaux, Du XIIe au XVIIIe siècle, t. 2, 1997, pp. 445-7.

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