June 2016 | Nate Pedersen

New X-Ray Technology Reveals Medieval Manuscripts in Early Bookbindings

A Dutch team of scientists and academics are employing a new X-Ray technology to decipher fragments of medieval manuscripts that were used in later bookbindings. The technology, called macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF), allows these fragments to be read without removing the binding. A potential treasure trove of medieval fragments awaits researchers as the technology is deployed.

After the invention of the printing press and the rapid spread of print culture across Europe, early bookbinders frequently "recycled" medieval manuscripts to help strengthen new bookbindings. About one in five early modern bookbindings are estimated to contain fragments of medieval manuscripts. The ability to read these fragments - without destroying a binding in the process - is revolutionary.  Sections from a variety of previously considered "lost" manuscripts may be found in the bindings of later books.

The Dutch team originally invented the X-ray technology to use on paintings, and made the news in 2011 when they discovered a Rembrandt self-portrait beneath another work. 

Professor Joris Dik explained the technology in its application on early modern books, "A thin beam of X-rays is used to scan the object, charting the presence and abundance of various elements below the surface. That is how iron, copper and zinc, the main element constituents of medieval inks, could be viewed, even when covered by a layer of paper or parchment."

The only problem, at the moment, is the speed of the technology, which takes about 24 hours to scan a binding. Faster techniques, however, are being explored.