It is easy to overlook. Really, the easiest thing in the world; after all, the Harry Potter books hardly mention it and the films skirt by it. No, I am not talking about the restricted section proper but rather the books; specifically, how they are chained to the bookshelf. Weird, right?
A curious Muggle might be intrigued why books have been chained to the shelves. Are they dangerous and semi-conscious like the Book of Monsters? Is this an odd magical tradition? Surprisingly, the answer is “no” to both: why Hogwarts has chained the books to the shelves hasn’t a shred to do with the magical world and instead everything to do with the non-magical.
As any stalwart fan of the franchise knows, technology does not work at Hogwarts. Sure, in the magical world, witches and wizards have invented ways to make textual reproduction easier, but, since these technologies appear to be recent and only surface later in the Deathly Hollows, we can muse that for most of Hogwarts’s history, the old-fashioned way was the only way to create a book. Since the old-fashioned way means the medieval way, such as a protracted process.
To understand why we must consider what it took to create a manuscript.
As Alexandria Gillespie recounts, “Parchment. . . was animal skin, treated to make a smooth surface suitable for writing” (59). Any medieval parchment maker to be “needed to be choosy. The hides could not be too blotchy, nor could the animals be infected with many ticks or parasitic flies, because insect larvae leave holes in the skin”. Of course, this was not the end as the parchment needed further treatment and refinement; “Once selected, the skins were washed in running water, soaked in a solution of lime in great wooden tubes for ten days or so, and rinsed”. From here on out, the parchment maker would scrap the remaining hairs from the flesh and skin before attaching it “to a wooden frame called a circulus;” from here, the parchment-to-be would dry and once more raked with a sharp knife as it dried before “its surfaced [was] buffed with chalk” (60). Finally, at this point, the parchment was ready to be used with the appropriately made feathers quills and ink made from vegetable matter.
Quit the process!
Making medieval manuscripts were hard and so was maintaining them. “If a manuscript became at all damp, the parchment would begin to spring back to its three-dimensional, beastly shape”. Hence “why most medieval manuscripts have clasps, ties, or straps and pins on their bindings to keep them restrained”. Under such an immense need for maintenance, it is no wonder that Hogwarts would choose to keep the books under careful eye and why
The library at Hogwarts is very much like one at a medieval monastery or a medieval university college. Special rooms for books were first set aside in English monasteries in the fourteenth century, but the books were stored in chests. During the sixteenth century, a system arose for storing books on shelves. These were arranged in the sort of ‘narrow rows’ through which Harry must make his way by lamplight during his first illicit nighttime visit to Hogwarts library. (61)
Under such conditions, no wonder it is deemed right to physically chain the books to the shelves: when kids can conjure up all matter of elemental matter, all of which would be extremely harmful to parchment, it simply makes sense that those old, musty tomes be kept under carefully guarded key.
Provided, scrolls and not merely books were important to the medieval world as well. Scrolls were effective at displaying brief proclamations and so were used widely by Popes and royalty (67). An additional strength which scrolls possessed was that they had a “special cultural significance” by virtue of their important contents (something professor Umbridge certainly knew since she was fond of issuing proclamations in scroll form!). But perhaps the most powerful advantage medieval scrolls had was in their brevity: because scrolls dished out concise, important information, scribes often used scrolls for use in scribal exercises; while making enough parchment for a whole book was an exasperating task, curating enough parchment for training exercises was much simpler. So, to say that books predominated in the medieval world is simply not true: both had their strengths and weaknesses.
There you have it! Now when you re-watch the films for the umpteenth time, you will gaze upon all those books in the restricted section and marvel at how much labor was channeled into the choosing, refinement, and rectification of so much parchment, so much ink and binding. You may even find librarian Pince’s harsh tone all the more understandable.
Gillespie, Alexandra. “Beastly Books and Quick-Quills: Harry Potter and the Making of Medieval Manuscripts.” P. 55-72. Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancey R. Reagin.