Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Use of the Word "Fragments"

The purpose of language is to convey a concept from the writer or speaker to the reader or listener. The more precise the terminology used, the more accurately concepts will be conveyed.

Thus, if you want to convey to your reader/listener the concept of a poodle, it is better to use the word "poodle" than "dog", "quadruped", or "animal", which -- although they are not wrong -- are increasingly less precise than "poodle", and therefore convey diminishing amounts of useful information.

"Canine" (as a noun) could also be used, but this word is open to misinterpretation, because it has a completely different meaning: a "canine" can refer to "a pointed tooth between the incisors and premolars of a mammal".


"Fragmentology" is a word that is increasingly used as a term to refer to the study of parts of incomplete codices. While it can serve a useful purpose as an umbrella term to refer to a whole range usually very different types of study [1], I think the use of this term has an unfortunate effect: it implies that all the objects of those studies can, or should, be called "fragments". In fact, there are several distinctly different types of object which are all "parts of incomplete codices", and it is unhelpful to label them all with the same single term, just as it is unhelpful to indiscriminately refer to a poodle, a labrador, and a terrier as "quadrupeds".

As suggested above, another issue is that some words have meanings in everyday language, and very distinct meanings when used as technical terms in particular fields of study: the way in which the word "canine" is understood depends on its context, and it is not always clear whether it is being used as a noun or an adjective.

In the field of manuscript studies there are very specific meanings for technical terms such as "signature", "autograph", "page", and "illumination", which are quite different from the meanings of those words in everyday language.

An "illuminated manuscript"?
In a specialist field, such as manuscript studies, it is therefore helpful to use words in their technical sense, not their everyday non-specialist sense: the use of terminology should be appropriate to the context in which it is used. For example, when speaking or writing about medieval manuscripts it causes unnecessary and easily-avoided confusion to use the word "pages" (as used in everyday language) to convey the more accurate concept of "leaves". Similarly, it is appropriate to use technical terms like "recto" and "verso" instead of imprecise everyday equivalents such as "front" and "back".

Likewise, "fragment", as a word used in everyday language, I suggest, should be clearly distinguished from a series of different concepts that can be more accurately conveyed using more precise terminology.

The Wikipedia article on Fragmentology does not distinguish between cuttings, leaves, etc., treating them all as "fragments". The problem of using the ill-defined everyday word "fragment" has been touched on by T. Heikkilä and Å. Ommundsen, Nordic Latin Manuscript Fragments: The Destruction and Reconstruction of Medieval Books (2017), pp. 1-2:
"The term 'fragment' is a difficult one ... in general terms a 'fragment' can mean a manuscript with less than half its leaves left or it can refer to detached leaves or pieces of parchment from a manuscript. In the context of this book, 'fragment' is used in the latter sense ... But even then, the items in question can seem to have little in common ... a 'fragment' can -- sizewise -- be almost anything from a thumbnail-sized piece of parchment to a bifolium".

There are inevitably grey areas, but I think that "parts of incomplete codices" can usually be described using the following terms:

fragment. A part of a leaf or bifolium that has survived by chance, e.g. as binders' waste: re-used for pastedowns, flyleaves, spine-linings, reinforcement-strips, etc.
[This fragment was formerly a pastedown, as can be seen by the spine-fold at the right, the traces of paste, and the ragged edges. The fact that this fragment preserves a decorated initial is largely accidental].

cutting. A part of a leaf that has been deliberately cut to preserve a portion of decoration and/or text.
[Although superficially similar to the fragment above, the top edge clearly demonstrates that this cutting has been deliberately cut from a larger leaf in order to preserve the decorated initial and a section of script]

leaf. Not "folio", which in most cases is incorrect Latin or ambiguous English: in the words of Wikipedia, "The term "folio", from the Latin folium (leaf), has three interconnected but distinct meanings in the world of books and printing."

bifolium. Not "bifolio", "bi-fold", etc.

bifolia. Not "bifoliums", "bifolios", etc.

quire. Not "gathering" or "booklet": "quire" is a technical term with a specific well-understood unambiguous meaning within manuscript studies, whereas "gathering" and "booklet" are everyday words with a variety of different meanings.

portion/section, etc. An incomplete manuscript -- such as a series of quires, or a volume with all the decorated leaves removed -- is often described as a fragment; but to avoid confusion words and phrases such as "incomplete codex", "sequence of quires", "portion", "section", etc. can be used instead.


The mental process of considering which term is most appropriate is itself a useful exercise in understanding a manuscript, especially when confronted by an item that does not neatly fall into one of these categories. For example, is a leaf of the Beowulf manuscript, salvaged from the Cotton fire, a "leaf" or a "fragment"? (Arguably, if it is complete then it is still a "leaf", but if it is incomplete it should be considered as a "fragment").
Beowulf: a series of fragments bound as a codex?
Similarly, if a leaf has been used as a pastedown, flyleaf, or wrapper, should we think of it as a leaf or a fragment? (If the leaf appears to be complete, then it is arguably still a leaf, but if it has been trimmed in order to serve its new function, then it has become a fragment).

I cannot claim that the current widespread use of the word "fragment" is wrong, but I hope to persuade readers that its current usage is often unhelpful and imprecise, and that better alternative words should be used.

Usually there is no consensus about which of two alternative words is preferable ("leaf"/"folio", or "quire"/"gathering", for example), but it should be obvious that we will all benefit -- online searches will become easier and more accurate -- if terminology becomes more standardised. I suggest that the least ambiguous word is preferable: thus "leaf" and "quire" are preferable to "folio" and "gathering".

I was prompted to write this post by the numerous occasions on which I have had trouble finding material online, due to imprecise use of terminology. On the website of the Beyond Words exhibition, for example, which usually distinguishes accurately between leaves and cuttings, there are a fragment, some cuttings, and two documents, all described as leaves, and leaves described as fragments. Other online collections use terms such as "partial leaf" to describe a cutting or a fragment. One website refers to some cuttings as "detached leaves". I have also recently read an article (by a manuscripts specialist) in which leaves with full-page miniatures are indiscriminately referred to as cuttings and as fragments.

The Fragmentarium project uses a variety of unconventional terms such as "double leaf" and "doubleleaf" (i.e. bifolium). Buried deep in the list of search filters is a rather precise list of "range types":
but these have been applied erratically. The only item tagged as a "cutting", for example, is in fact a series of 13 leaves.


[1] Arguably, there are three main sub-fields within "fragmentology", which correspond to my definitions of fragments, cuttings, and leaves, respectively:

-- fragments were typically used by binders as waste material before the 17th century; unless the binder worked for an institution (monastery, university) whose library survived until recent centuries, it is rare that other fragments from the same parent volume have been identified. Study is therefore usually centred on the script and text/music of individual specimens; it is therefore often primarily palaeographical / musicological.

-- cuttings are typically illuminated initials and miniatures cut from their parent volumes in the 18th and 19th centuries; other cuttings from the same parent manuscripts are likely to exist, but the parent volume has often not been identified or no longer exists. Study is usually based on the iconography and style of more than one item, which often allows greater understanding of the parent volume; it is often primarily art-historical.

-- leaves are typically from books that were broken up in the 19th century or later (Otto Ege MSS are an obvious example); there is usually a good chance that text leaves as well as decorated leaves survive, and thus the parent volume can often be well understood. Study may be based on the text, script, mise-en-page, and other features of a comparatively larger number of leaves; it is often art-historical, textual, and codicological.


I was originally going to title this post A Proposed Typology of "Fragments", but I later couldn't decide if "Typology" or "Taxonomy" was the more appropriate word, so I decided to use neither. As I understand them, a Taxonomy is a classification system, often with a hierarchical structure (e.g. in Biology), and this is apposite in the present discussion insofar as there is a hierarchy from codex to quire to bifolium to leaf/cutting/fragment. Where Taxonomy deals with physical entities, Typology often deals with concepts (e.g. linguistic or anthropological). What makes the terminology proposed above problematic is that the crucial distinction between a "fragment" and a "bifolium" / "leaf" / "cutting" is conceptual: it depends on an interpretation of how the physical object has been used, rather than its intrinsic physical features. The Fragmentarium terminology has the great benefit of being less subjective. But I would argue that within fragmentology, i.e. the study of these objects, the conceptual distinction between leaves, cuttings, and fragments (as I define them) is absolutely fundamental, and therefore a distinction worth making.

EDIT 31 July 2018:
For some reason the Comments system does not work well. The first comment below is from Consuelo Dutschke, though her name does not show up. In response:

I completely agree, of course.

The same principle (deliberate vagueness) applies to dating and localising MSS: one should only be as precise as is appropriate. It is better so say "France, 13th century", than "Paris, 1225", if the city and date are unreliable. I always try to impress upon students the distinction between accuracy and precision: "Paris, 1225" is very precise but can be 100% incorrect, whereas "France, 13th century" is rather imprecise, but can be 100% correct.

I also personally use a variety of terms like "doubtless", "probably", "perhaps", and "possibly", to convey varying levels of (un)certainty.


  1. Peter proposes firmer definitions of these words, and yes, in academic writing, we should aim for precision.

    But I make a case here for the value of imprecision.
    We presently have here at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia 122 “items” (I’ll leave it that way right now). I catalogued the vast majority of them in a great rush in 1994 when we realized that there had been large scale thievery in the vault of our library; this group of items had never even been listed out before, and it suddenly became necessary to determine what was known, knowable, and possibly stolen from the group. To each item in the Hollinger boxes I assigned a sequential number, but in order to distinguish this series from our other series, all mainly of codices (Benjamin MS xxx, Lodge MS xxx, Montgomery MS xxx, Plimpton MS xxx, Smith MS xxx, Western MS xxx), I gave the group a prefix which was intentionally vague: Med/Ren (since they were shelved together, but the date of their origin was wide open, from Carolingian to early printed) and then the abbreviated form: Frag. (to shorten the length of these new call numbers). There was no time to think out the correctness of “fragment” or “leaf” or “cutting”; I could, I suppose, have called them all “Med/Ren Item xxx” but then one might have expected to find ink pots and binding clasps and paintings and ?? It’s not that now I find myself entirely pleased with that “Med/Ren Frag.” designation: no period to mark the abbreviated forms of “med” and “ren” while there is one to end “frag.”? Not a great decision. And that slash doesn’t translate well into computer-typing (as a file name I have to change it to a dash, as in “med-ren frag”). And then in 1997 we started Digital Scriptorium, so by now those “items” have acquired permanent names, Med/Ren Frag. xxx.

    Again, the point I make is that sometimes uncertainty and imprecision are intentional.

  2. I'm with you all the way on this, Peter! Thank you for this valuable piece. I always make the distinction between fragment, cutting, and leaf, and instruct my students to as well.

  3. Thank you for your interesting post. As you can imagine, I have a much longer reply as well. For the Fragmentarium comments, I will give my unofficial answer that there's a reason for everything, including the at times macaronic terminology, but it boils down to that 1) we are iterating with an international group of scholars, and standardization is part of that iterative process, as well as figuring out what they can and will do when publishing a document, and what they won't, 2) we are working on a typology and guidelines as well, 3) the different implicit typologies correspond to different questions asked, and 4) the "cutting" is actually this particular piece of parchment, (which is arguably binding waste).
    To say that “Fragments strictly speaking” are those that survive “by chance”, while cuttings are the result of “deliberate” action begs the question. When most of the manuscript material from the Middle Ages doesn’t survive, what is chance survival? How is selecting a manuscript based on size and aesthetic appearance, and choosing to use it to bind a precious addition to one’s library the mechanism of “chance survival”, while chopping out a finely decorated initial from a manuscript and applying it to a Christmas card a “deliberate” action for the few cases when the recipient doesn’t throw it away? Have historians managed to judge intent accurately, anyway?
    I praise the effort at a typology, and I agree that cuttings, leaves from broken books, and binding waste constitute very different classes of fragments that should be very high up. But no class of fragment should have privileged claim to the name, especially when scholarship applies it to all cases. I don’t think that we can draw the line at chance/deliberate action, since practically all the examples given come from reuse: reuse for the writing surface (palimpsests), reuse for binding (binding waste) and other situations that call for parchment (lampshades, organs, hats), reuse for the shape of their text (paleographical leaves), re-use for the pretty pictures (Cuttings and Art Historical leaves). The only fragments that don’t come from some kind of reuse are those where something horrific happened to the manuscript: fire, flood, war, and binding mishaps.
    But should we employ a typology based on usage? All manuscripts are the victims of their users, and undergo change at the hands of them (just look at any well-studied MS over time, if you have any doubt). It’s not just scholarly nature, it’s human nature to ask different things of our books at different times, and some of these uses are more radical and violent than others.

    I'm not sure we can get a satisfactory typology yet, but it's worth hypothesizing.

  4. Thank you, Peter, and I quite agree: we need a more nuanced language. As always, getting agreement and getting it to stick will be difficult. For my part, I'm not persuaded that a fragment used as 'waste' in a binding is 'accidental': I can think of many instances where it seems the binder made a conscious choice of what to keep. I suggest, instead, that for those we should qualify 'fragment' by its present or former use, ie 'binding fragment' and then sub-divide by its (former) use, eg flyleaf, binding strip etc. So, let's keep 'fragment' as the genus, and arrange the species within that (yes) taxonomy.

  5. Taking your first point: my wording of my definition of "fragment" was not meant to suggst that the fragment was necessarily *chosen* accidentally for use as binders' waste, but instead that its *survival* today is typically arbitary.

    This is in contrast to cuttings (which survive because someone very deliberately cut them out to preserve them, often discarding the rest of the volume), and leaves (which were typically removed from their parent volume deliberately for their intrinsic worth, and survive because they have financial value).

    1. Taking your second point: it would be good, for the avoidance of ambiguity, if we could reserve one word for use the way I have defined "fragment" above, and have a different, more generic, term for "fragments" in their broader everyday sense (i.e. parts of incomplete codices). I suspect that "membra disiecta" is too clunky, but this would have the advantage that it is obviously a technical term and a plural.

      Perhaps a better idea would be to abandon the narrow use of the word "fragments" that I advocate above, and use it instead as the generic term. And in order to refer to fragments narrowly defined, we should use much more precise descriptors such as "pastedown", "former pastedown", "spine-lining", "sewing-guard", etc. -- more in line with the Fragmentarium typology?

    2. I can agree that we need some sort of terminological distinction.
      One of the things I liked about your post was how you implicitly suggested several bases for a typology: not just intentionality, but also disciplinary (musicologists use these; art historians use these), and even straight physical appearance (“ if it is complete then it is still a "leaf", but if it is incomplete it should be considered as a "fragment"”).
      Fragmentarium's typologies are a work in practice, but you pointed at two different parts of the system that are answering two distinct questions. The section with "double leaves" and such is the Extent field of the basic metadata, which is supposed to answer the question: "What physical objects make up this document?", and the field is free-text entry, left to the individual editor's expertise.

      The typology you found applies to "ranges" - or series of images (actually canvases) - in groups of the type "physical structure". The idea is that editors can order images of a document in a way that describes the how the thing physically is put together (as opposed to its conceptual content), grouping together images of individual physical objects. The "typology", which includes several more types, answers the question: "What am I looking at?" So the top-level division is "detached' and "in situ", and the others after that. Ideally, the label is supposed to describe what the object is now, and not what it was: an obvious pastedown, if it's no longer in a binding, is a detached leaf (or detached bifolium); if the text block is not intact, it's trimmed, and so on.
      The system has two problems that you’ve encountered. First, editors have to create a “physical structure” range group, which takes extra time, and involves a procedure that we all agree needs to be improved. For single objects, moreover, this work seems superfluous. Second, the terminology could be further improved: fragments contained in fragment-volumes (like the “cutting” you found) are neither in situ nor detached. Our rules say that they should be described as “detached”, since they were, in fact, detached from bindings before being bound, but that does not describe what they are now.
      Should we generalize this typology from referring to individual pieces to whole documents? We would lose cases where grouped fragments (like the ones in the St. Gallen fragment volume, or the Frankfurt fragments, where the library has given discrete shelfmarks to manuscript material partially in situ and partially detached. But does it help that a search for a strip, cutting, and an offset all return the same document? Maybe we should just extend the typology to include such things as “bound in a volume” and reconstructions.

  6. Relating to fragmentation of medieval manuscripts as an independent science is well overdue. In Hebrew manuscripts, we Fragmentologists have been functioning for almost a century. Most of us have been serving the research of the Cairo Genizah, where manuscripts have been scattered, often as no more than bifola, among over a hundred institutions, libraries and private collectors.
    So too in relation to the thousands of folia of Hebrew Manuscript, much of it confiscated by the Christian Church, found in reuse as binding material throughout Europe. The survival of these fragments is thus, a result of historic trauma, yet their reuse is truly "by chance", or by virtue of circumstance- the need for parchent wrappers in the Civic Archive and Monastaries of Central Europe. see:
    Subsequently, much of the professional literature of Fragmentology is in the same language as the Manuscript Fragments- Hebrew.

    A pioneer website for presentaion of manuscript fragments, including interactive features for outsourcing:
    An example of a site presenting fragments collected to construct a specific work:

    The term "Maunscript waste" has been accepted in some bibliographic circles that require controlled vocabulary for a feild describing bindings:

    I’ll be glad to help those with specific questions to navigate this literature.

    Ezra Chwat
    Manuscript Bibliographer,
    The National Library of Israel, Dept. of Manuscripts