The word ‘palimpsest’ is not usually found in an eleven-year’s vocabulary, even a word-loving kid, as I was. I learnt it only because my family were living in England My mother had, with the idea of keeping her children occupied and also engaged with the history around us, got us brass-rubbing. Armed with heelball from the cobbler’s and Macklin’s Memorial Brasses, we descended upon the medieval churches of Britain. “St Giles,” I would say from the front seat of the car, Macklin in hand, “has a chrysom, an eccles, and a palimpsest. And it’s only 12 miles off our route.”
Translation? Chrysom is a baby who died in the month after it was baptised. Eccles is a cleric, ecclesiastic (I much preferred medieval ladies, with their elaborate headgear and long dresses). Palimpsest comes from the Green palimp, to re-use, recycle. The flat brass of the memorial has been turned over, and another memorial incised on the undorned reverse.
The term also applies to book history. For reasons of biblioclasm or mere thrift, the text of a book has been partially erased, with another text written on top of it. A modern example might be considered to be A Humument, justified by art. The practice is ancient, dating from when books were painstakingly inked onto parchment, prepared blank leather. It lasts longer than paper, but can be scraped clean, recycled, the original erased.
In my teens, I held an actual palimpsest book in my hand, the size of my palm. A … continue reading