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Human and insect bookworms


This article attempts to rethink what conservationists have seen as the damage done to manuscripts by insects from the insects’ perspective. We have learned so much in recent years about the agency of the ruminants whose skins make up the leaves of medieval manuscripts, but we have yet to hear much from the bookworm. Small wonder: the cow gives its skin for the conservation of texts, while the bookworm, the natural enemy of the librarian, steals our words like a ‘þeof in þystro’ [‘a thief in the dark’], in the words of the Exeter riddle. This article reconsiders this ancient rivalry between human and insect bookworms as a mutually constitutive partnership, and even as a co-authorship of the text or, in Barad’s words, an entanglement.

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Figure 1


  1. Thanks to recent advances in proteomic and genomic analysis, we now know how many and (to a certain extent) which animals (in terms of species, breed, and gender) gave their hides to which codices: for example, we know that 216 animals gave their hides to the fourteenth-century Messale Rosselli, 41% calves and 59% goats (Calà, 2019, 723–4).

  2. Here, my take differs from that of Zeb Tortorici, who emphasizes the battles lost by insects in the archive, which have indeed been many: ‘Pests,’ he stresses, ‘are killed within the documents, for the documents, and by the documents’ (Tortorici, 2015, 84).

  3. On the recent, alarming decline of insect populations, see Hallmann, et al. (2017).

  4. In the past, librarians attempted to deter Sitodrepa panacea with ‘a little fine pepper sprinkled on the shelves’ (Iiams, 1932, 376). Inadvertently, they were only spicing the bookworm’s meal.

  5. A survey conducted by researchers at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage found that subjects compared the smell of old books to that of chocolate, coffee, and burnt wood (Bembibre and Strlič, 2017).

  6. For another epigram that compares grammarians to bookworms, see Philippus (1916–18, 4.218–19).

  7. See Owen (2004) for an account of the collaboration between forgers, authenticators, and dealers.

  8. We have already seen that antiquarians kept collections of pet bookworms, a habit that, in light of these accusations, begins to look rather suspicious.

  9. The term ‘wormhole’ is often attributed to the physicist John A. Wheeler (1911–2008); see Kar, Lahiri, and SenGupta (2015, 319) and Misner and Wheeler (1957, 532).

  10. Our bodies leave both visible and invisible marks on what we read, such as yellowed or darkened splotches left by the oils in fingertips (or by kisses: see Amsler, 2001, 96–7), and microbial analysis reveals a teeming ‘biological palimpsest’ of microbes from human mouths, stool, nose, and skin imprinted on the leaves of medieval manuscripts (Teasdale, 2017, 3–7).


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My heartfelt thanks to Marieke Van Der Steenhoven at the Department of Special Collections at Bowdoin College and to Vanessa Wilkie at the Huntington Library for all their generous help with this project.

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Solberg, E.M. Human and insect bookworms. Postmedieval 11, 12–22 (2020).

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