All posts by Erik Kwakkel

I am a Professor at the iSchool (Library, Archival and Information Studies) at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, where I teach and conduct research on the History of the Book. My primary interests are book design and communication in the premodern world, in particular how information was disseminated and consumed in the age before the invention of the printing press. This blog is devoted to medieval manuscripts and their design.

Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts

Doodling is something we all do, from time to time, often without realising. Listening to someone on the phone or perhaps attending a meeting (or class), we scribble, rather haphazardly and spontaneously, squiggly lines, random words, and mini drawings. The practice is quite old. Doodled squiggly lines and mini drawings are encountered frequently in medieval books, mostly in the margins or on flyleaves. The one in Figure 1 was added to the lower margin of a manuscript with Juvenal’s Satires. Its style resembles our modern stick figures and it may just be the artistic creation of a child.

Figure 1. Doodle in the lower margin of a medieval page (Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, 368 (15th century). Source

In spite of the parallel with modern times, the rationale behind doodling in manuscripts is usually very different. Exceptions such as the one in Figure 1 aside, the medieval practice of doodling has little to do with boredom or absent-minded pen movements. They are calculated products of the pen, executed with a particular goal in mind.

Why Pen Trials?

The answer to this question lies in the two tools wielded by medieval scribes more than any other instrument. In miniatures scribes are often shown with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other, such as the hermit seen copying text from an exemplar in Figure 2. (Note, incidentally, the handy paraphernalia he has at his disposal, like the slider that helped him keep track of the line he was supposed to copy.) Here we see the scribe using the tip of the knife to keep the parchment in place: using his hands would release oily grease onto the writing surface, which would subsequently prevent the ink from sticking properly.

Royal 14 E III f.6v
Figure 2. Scribe at work, pen and knife in hand (London, British Library, Royal 14 E.iii, 14th century). Source

An equally important use of the knife, however, was to adjust the nib; and it is here that the origins of the pen trial – and the doodle – are found. After some time, a few hours perhaps, the nib became dull and it needed to be cut again in order to produce crisp letters. After trimming the nib, the scribe tested his pen to check that it had the right width and to make sure there would be no streaks of white visible within the strokes of the letters. For this testing process he turned to an empty piece of paper or parchment and scribbled down some squiggly lines or short words. The process was quick and routine among scribes across medieval Europe (Figure 3).

BPL 111 I
Figure 3. Two flyleaves filled with pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 111-I, 13th-15th centuries). Photo by the author


Pen trials, which are most often encountered on flyleaves in the back of manuscripts, can be quite appealing. As it happened, scribes did not just write down squiggly lines or words when testing their pens, but they even produced modest works of art. In Leiden University Library some great “artistic” specimens are encountered. In the back of BPL 111-I, for example, we find a collection of large initial letters with faces inside them (Figure 3). It includes a letter B with two monks (note the tonsures), a D with a stern-looking lady wearing a pointy hat, a bearded person in a letter S, and a duck containing a long-nosed man. This page and the facing one are filled with dozens of pen trials. The shapes of the letters and the ink colour suggests that the doodles on these pages were produced by a limited number of individuals, perhaps two or three, which is in line with what we commonly see on flyleaves that contain pen trials.

The two pages in the back of BPL 111-I are also in line with broader European traditions regarding the kind of tests they contain. We encounter single letters and words, as well as nonsensical phrases (“e,” “egi de e,” “ego panne,” “autem”). Another popular theme is also found in Figure 3: musical notation (somewhat out of focus near the top of the picture). The square notes of the Middle Ages were perfect for testing the nib, because they naturally showed how wide it was, while the short square shape also invited the scribe to execute a series of quick test strokes. Common also are the little specks visible in Figure 3: you can vaguely see them in the white zone below the initial letters. These result from tapping the quill on the parchment, probably in an attempt to adjust the nib by “tapping” it into shape.

Figure 4. Pen trials by a high volume of individuals (Cambridge, Parker Library, MS 223, p. 338, twelfth century). Source


While the pen trials in Figure 3 were executed by perhaps two or three individuals, there could be far more scribes involved. Figure 4 shows a page in a ninth-century manuscript. Present in the back of the last quire, it was left blank because the text had already ended. Some three centuries later, likely in the second half of the twelfth century, the page was filled with pen trials by least fifteen scribes. We are probably looking at a group of individuals in the same scriptorium, who favoured very different “doodles” for testing their pen, from alphabets to a small portrait. And the musical notation appears as well, at various locations. A similar case where a large group of individuals share the same empty page is found in a set of manuscripts from Rochester Priory in Kent, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Bodley 340 and 342 (Figure 5). Several individuals from the early twelfth-century wrote down short passages on their flyleaves, including – with a peculiar sense of appropriateness – the phrase probatio pennae, “I test my pen” (near the top of the detail shown in Figure 5).

Oxford_Bodley 340
Figure 5. Pen trials by several twelfth-century scribes in Rochester Priory, Kent (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 340, f. 169v, detail).

Groups of pen trials from a medieval scriptorium can be important sources of information about scribal practices and the backgrounds of scribes. Those in the back of Bodley 340 and 342, for example, show that the scriptorium of Rochester Abbey was filled with individuals who were trained across the European Continent, including in Germany, Holland and Italy (see Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight”). This verdict is based on the letter shapes of the pen trials, which reveal where their makers are from: scribes were trained to produce slightly different letter shapes all over Europe, which shows in the pen trials. By proxy, the page in Figure 5 highlights the ethnical diversity of the monks in Rochester Abbey.

Test Sheets

Sometimes one encounters truly special collections of pen trials. Leiden University Library holds a loose double-leaf filled with an unusual amount of them (Figure 6). Its existence adds significantly to our understanding of medieval pen trials. One may be inclined to think that scribes always turned to empty pages in the back of existing manuscripts and filled them pen trials. While this happened, as the previous cases show, there is also another practice at play. The Leiden sheet suggests that scribes also used loose – i.e. unbound – sheets, which likely lay on their desk. Some of these “test sheets” were repurposed and turned into flyleaves, making it look, to somebody observing the pen trials today, as if they were directly written into the book.

Figure 6. Upper half of a flyleaf filled with dozens of pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3327, 22, 15th century). Photo by the author

This particular test sheet was filled to the brim with several hundred pen trials: there are more than I have ever seen in one location (note that Figure 6 shows only a detail). When one looks carefully, running themes can be observed across the page, sometimes clustered in the same location. There is the large capital letter H that is frequently drawn, especially near the top of the page; and there are recurring human figures as well, such as a grumpy lady, a man with curly hair, and a few bishops. Another theme is the nota sign, the attention sign that is encountered in the margins of manuscripts: quite a few are observed under the two red arches (they look like “nt” with a curly line over top). There are as many as ten individuals at work on this sheet, which suggests this sheet, too, was used in a scriptorium.

Figure 7. Fifteenth-century test sheet used as flyleaf (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, PER 16). Photo by the author

Another test sheet is seen in Figure 7. It was used by a single scribe, who used the crumbly sheet to write down letters, parts of religious verses, and non-sensicle expressions. Here the earlier purpose is clearly visible through the rough and well-used appearance of the flyleaf. It concerns a piece that was ripped off of a larger paper sheet and subsequently used for testing the pen. At a later stage it was repurposed as a flyleaf. Figures 6 and 7 show us the far ends of the spectrum of medieval test sheets: some were inhabited with words and doodles by a group of individuals, as indicated by the variations in ink color, letter shape, and nib width, while others were tools used by single scribes.

This is an expanded and modified version of a post that first appeared on Leiden Medievalists Blog.

Read more about pen-trials:

Erik Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Continental Scribes in Rochester Cathedral Priory, 1075-1150,” in Writing in Context: Insular Manuscript Culture, 500-1200, ed. Erik Kwakkel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Book Culture (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2013), 231-61.

Me, Myself, and I: The Story of Two Medieval Selfies

Cologny_Bodmer_127_244r_detailSelfies are by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. As shown in a previous post on medieval selfies, some decorators made self-portraits in manuscripts, showing that the practice predates print – albeit without the use of a camera. They did so to identify themselves as the creator of a miniature or historiated initial, or even to exhibit their accomplishments as businessmen, as the early-sixteenth-century commercial illustrator Nicolaus Bertschy appears to do. Other medieval examples of selfies are those by Matthew Paris, the thirteenth-century monk from St Albans, painted in the lower margin of his Historia Anglorum (see here).

That earlier blog post includes two intriguing selfies made by the same person, a monk who calls himself Rufillus. One is found in a copy of Ambrose’s Hexaemeron kept in the Bibliothèque municipale in Amiens as MS Lescalopier 30 (Figure 1). The text discusses the six days of the Creation and Rufillus displays himself inside a green – and rather confined – initial letter D at the outset of the section on the Third Day. Why he shows himself here, when the Hexaemeron is about to discuss the creation of plants and material forms, is unclear.

Amiens, BM, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v
Figure 1. Rufillus inhabiting a letter D (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v, late 12th century). Source

His other selfie is encountered in Cod. Bodmer 127, a collection of saints’ lives kept in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in the Swiss city of Cologny (The Passionary of Weissenau, Figure 2). Here, Rufillus created a more roomy environment, painting himself inside a very large letter R at the outset of the passion of St Martin of Tours (d. 397). Selfies are not frequently encountered in medieval manuscripts, which makes the Rufillus case quite special, given that it entails not one but two “snapshots” of the same person. This post explores what we can learn from the two self-portraits of a monk who is a bit of a showoff – and who is not shy about using the selfie-stick.

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 127, fol. 244r
Figure 2. Rufillus inside a letter R (Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 244r, late 12th century). Source

Rufillus the Illuminator

Helpfully, Rufillus identifies himself by providing his name: in the Cologny manuscript he painted it in white above his brush (accompanied by “Fr.” for frater, monk), while in the crowded Amiens initial the name is written right above the decorative letter with pen and ink. Based on the origins of the two manuscripts, scholars place Rufillus in the late-twelfth century Premonstratensian abbey of Weissenau near Ravensburg in the South of Germany (get up to speed on Rufillus in this article by Solange Michon; a useful enumeration of manuscripts from Weissenau is found here). In secondary literature he is commonly regarded (and explicitly labeled as) an illuminator (see for example here and here). Judging from the decoration in the two manuscripts, which include numerous decorated initials and even some full-page miniatures, he was quite accomplished. In his article Michon shows, by highlighting iconographical – design – parallels, that it is the same person who produced the decoration in both manuscripts.

The Cologny manuscript shows the artisan “in the moment,” hard at work decorating the manuscript (Figure 2). The scene is unusually rich in detail and shows us, among other things, what tools were used by medieval illuminators. In one hand Rufillus is holding a bowl filled with red paint; in the other a brush. Cow horns filled with all kind of paints are placed behind him, while a mortar and pestle are placed nearby for preparing additional pigments. In what is a familiar pose for painters today, his right hand is leaning on his left for stability. That hand is in turn supported by a stick placed on the ground – a selfie-stick! With a healthy dose of irony, Rufillus allows us to observe him as he is painting the initial he is inhabiting. In a rather unusual twist, we witness both the artist at work and the result of his toils. By showing himself applying red paint on the letter R he invites the beholder in his atelier, which is a powerful gesture.

Figure 3. Rufillus’ name in Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v. Source

Rufillus the Scribe

While the common designation given to Rufillus by scholars is illuminator or decorator, the second selfie suggests that he was also a scribe. After all, in as much detail as he presents himself as an illuminator in the Cologny manuscript, he shows himself as a scribe in the Amiens codex (Figure 1). In this depiction, too, the paraphernalia of the trade are clearly identifiable, this time the scribe’s: a sheet of parchment, a reed, and a knife to hold down the parchment as well as to cut the nib of the pen. While Rufillus placed himself on a bench in the Cologny painting, the Amiens scene shows him seated in a scribal chair, one that supports his behind as well as the parchment sheet he is writing on. It seems appropriate, in this light, that Rufillus signed his name with pen rather than brush: he stayed in his role. The key observation to make here, however, is that our monk appears to have been active both as illuminator and scribe in the scriptorium of Weissenau (more about such a combination here).

The name “rufillus” written above the Amiens painting provides additional information. Let’s look at it again, this time from up close (Figure 3). The ink used for his name has a brown colour, deviating from the deep-dark black ink of the main text. In other words, main text and name were copied at different moments. The same is suggested by the observation that the pen used for writing the name was much thinner. Moreover, the nib used for the name reveals an imperfection not seen in the main text: the flawed nib produced a thin white line in the central stroke of the letter l. This is obviously a later cut or even a different pen. These observations make sense. In the production of a manuscript the copying of the text came first, followed by the execution of the decoration.

Evidently, Rufillus signed his name when he completed the painting, not while he was copying. This is telling, I think. Rufillus could have identified himself better and more explicitly through a scribal colophon, which is where copyists provide details about themselves (see this post). By contrast, he is far less traditional and added his presence not with pen but with brush. By doing so he inserted the motif of the scribe into the visual narrative of the book, even though its topic did not call for it. This somewhat inappropriate behaviour is amplified by the fact that he then identified this scribe as himself. Through his action, Rufillus squeezed himself into Ambrose’s text and climbed onto the podium of the Church Father. He purposefully attracted attention to his person.

Figure 4. The monk Rufillus in two historiated initials (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v, left, and Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 244r, right).

Rufillus the Person

Each of the two manuscripts shows that Rufillus is not lacking in confidence and that he does not mind breaking with the monastic virtue of modesty. It is in the combination of the two selfies, however, that we learn things we otherwise would not have known about him. For example, with Amiens alone we could not be sure that Rufillus produced the decoration in the manuscript as well. After all, the decorator could have produced a portrait of his colleague the scribe, in praise of his activities, or even a generic picture of a scribe at work. Had Cologny been by itself, there would not have been a reason to infer that Rufillus was also involved in scribal activities. Where the two selfies really become quite telling, however, is in the realism they entail. There are striking commonalities that suggest the decorator aimed to provide a realistic depiction of himself, which fits the bill given his pronounced self-promotion.

Striking similarities in his appearance are for example the pronounced eye lids, the shape and colour of his hair (bright red and with recesses), and the sharp lines across the cheeks, starting next to the nose and giving his face a thin appearance (Figure 4). With only one selfie the red hair would have been striking, but the repeated occurrence suggests that Rufillus really was a red-headed monk. This is, of course, why our scribe-illuminator calls himself Rufillus, which is derived from the Latin rūfus, meaning “red-haired” (see also here). In other words, our scribe-illuminator is using a pseudonym, one derived from a pronounced feature in his appearance – his hair. For a person who should strive to be modest and for whom the monastic community ought to be more important than the individual in it, relating one’s identity to a bodily feature seems peculiar. Yet, in light of what we have learned about Rufillus, it is no surprise.

Figure 5. Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, shown as scribe (Bloomington, Lilly Library, Ricketts 20, fol. 1v, c. 1200-15). Source

Rufillus the Old Man?

A third manuscript exists that was copied and illuminated by our anonymous red-headed monk, although it is not usually mentioned in discussions about Rufillus and his self-portraits. The codex in question is Bloomington, Indiana University, Ricketts 20 (Peter Lombard, Commentary on the Psalms), which is assumed to have been produced in c. 1200-15, a few decades after Amiens and Cologny, and which was part of the library of Weissenau Abbey (Figure 5). In the description of the manuscript in his Gilding the Lilly (p. 60), Christopher de Hamel identified the scribe and illuminator as Rufillus (his assessment is quoted in this manuscript description). One can see from the handwriting that Rufillus was older when he made the Bloomington manuscript: his firm hand, with which he once produced such sharp and disciplined script, appears shaky and weak.

Bloomington_Lilly_Ricketts 20
Figure 6. Bloomington, Lilly Library, Ricketts 20, fol. 45v (c. 1200). Source

Another initial letter in the same manuscript provides a bit of history about its origins (Figure 6). A person is shown holding an open book in which the following is written: “Rodolfus plebanus de Lindaugia. q[ui] nobis dedit hu[n]c libru[m],” “Rudolf, parish priest of Lindau, who gave us this book” (source, with minor correction in the transcription). The painting shows the person who “gave” the manuscript to Weissenau abbey. Because the maker of the book, our Rufillus, is commonly regarded as a monk of Weissenau, this inscription would suggest that Rudolf paid for the materials, which is a bit of stretch but possible. Had our anonymous monk not been so firmly tied to Weissenau abbey in secondary literature, this inscription could indicate that Rufillus and Rudolf were one and the same person: he first made the manuscript, then donated it to the abbey. If this speculative inference were true, it would place our red-headed scribe-illuminator outside the abbey of Weissenau – and turn the letter O in Figure 6 into a third selfie, showing Rufillus as an old man.

Rufillus and the Weissenau scriptorium:

  • Jonathan James Graham Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 16-17.
  • Walter Berschin, “Rufillus von Weissenau (um 1200) in seiner Buchmalerwerkstatt,” in: Walter Berschin (ed.), Mittelateinische Studien II (Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag, 2010), pp. 353-56.
  • Christopher de Hamel, Gilding the Lilly: A Hundred Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts in the Lilly Library (Bloomington: The Lilly Library, 2010), p. 60.
  • Solange Michon, “Un moine enluminateur de XIIe siècle: Frère Rufillus de Weissenau,” Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte 44 (1987), 1-7.
  • Solange Michon, Le Grand Passionnaire enluminé de Weissenau et son scriptorium autour de 1200 (Genève: Slatkine, 1990).
  • Elke Wenzel, Die mittelalterliche Bibliothek der Abtei Weißenau (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998).

Selfies and self-portraits:

The Architecture of the Medieval Page

It may seem a stretch to compare page design with architecture, but the comparison really works, I think. Looking at the medieval page, it is not difficult to regard it as an engineered construction: a convoluted space defined by columns and corridors, with rooms inhabited by thoughts and ideas (Figure 1). Nothing encountered on the medieval page is a coincidence. Everything is there for a reason and serves a specific purpose; and so, too, is the manner in which the text was spread out over the page. Like other material features of the manuscript, page design is usually reflective of how the book would be used, but in their choices scribes also responded to the preferences – demands, even – of the individuals who would ultimately use the manuscript.

Readers, in turn, preferred their books – and the pages in them – to be formatted in certain ways because they planned to use them for performing particular tasks: to educate or be educated (teachers and students), to entertain or to be entertained (minstrels and courtiers), or to gather a body of information and consult it (scholars, preachers, physicians, lawyers). How and where words were placed on the page – their size and script, and their location – were important considerations in this process of turning the book into a tool that was up to the task. Indeed, it can be argued that a page’s design was (and is) key to a book’s success. What are some of the variables in play? And how did the choice for a certain design affect, positively and negatively, the manner in which the medieval book could be used effectively?

Figure 1. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud lat. 9, fol. 16r (Commentary to the Bible, 1220-30). Source


If the page is a building, its foundation was laid in an early stage of a manuscript’s production. After the scribe had figured out how to tackle a particular book – he knew how it would be used, having had input from the patron or the monastery’s librarian – he would start designing the page by grabbing two tools that were fundamental for what the page would ultimately look like. The first was a pointy device that allowed him to punch holes in the parchment or paper leaves, which appear like dots along the long edges of the book. The second was a tool with which he could add ruling to the page. Up to c. 1150, a sharp object was used to produce gutters – indentations in the parchment – which created pathways for the lines of text flowing out of the pen. After that date a piece of lead or a pen and ink produced the ruling (this miniature shows a scribe using a ruler to produce the ruling; at the top of this post is another).

Connecting the dots in this fashion, the scribe placed a web of lines on the page (Figure 2). The resulting grid formed the outline of the future text: it defined – and confined – the number and location of the columns, the number of lines they would hold, as well as the dimensions and positioning of the four margins. Even the ultimate presence of reading aids was construed during this early production stage. An extra line was added in the upper margin to guide the running title, if one was planned, while in preparation for marginal commentaries extra ruling was added to the marginal space (both not present in Figure 2). In a way this grid of horizontal and vertical lines functioned as the blueprint of the manuscript: it defined the ultimate page even before a single letter was written down on it. The still empty lines, yet to be complemented with words, determined what the book would look like and how it could be used later.

Figure 2. Ruling pattern, showing two pages with horizontal and vertical ruling, and marginal prickings. Source

Rooms and Corridors

The quill would bring this blueprint to life: it placed words onto the ruling, thus producing text and meaning. The main text of the book could be flanked by commentaries, which in turn formed additional columns. When several commentaries were present, the design of the page can be quite daunting – and must have been a nightmare to produce (see for example Figure 1). However, this complexity is relative. The example in Figure 3 shows a central text column, written in a large letter and deep-dark black ink, which contains the biblical text (the page shows St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians). Around it, in equally dark ink, Peter Lombard’s commentary to St Paul’s letter is encountered. This part was produced in Paris during the second half of the 13th century and illuminated in the Du Prat workshop (source).

The margins around this text and commentary remained empty until 1412, when an additional commentary by Peter Tarentasia was added to the page in a smaller script. The result is a complex page, but also a remarkably organised one. After all, the information was placed in relatively isolated text compartments – “rooms,” as it were – which were separated by blank corridors. In other words, it was crystal clear to the reader what was what: the larger size of the letter identified the main text, while the smaller script of the commentaries as well as their positioning on the page, identified the occupants of the other rooms. Complex manuscripts like these, which present a textus inclusus or “square-bracket” glossing pattern, contain pages inhabited by a maze of corridors, which “snake” between the columns and sometimes even underneath or above them.

Figure 3. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 71 A 22, fol. 180r (Lombard, Glossa in epistolas Pauli, 1250-1300). Source


The manuscripts in Figures 1 and 3 are so complex that it is difficult to say how many text columns they consist of. Evidently, however, in both cases the main text is copied out in a single column, a firm pillar written in a bold letter. Most medieval manuscripts hold either one or two columns of main text. Three or four are occasionally encountered. Usually it concerns a dictionary or encyclopedia (read about an example of four columns here). A page with more than four columns is extremely rare. In fact, I only know of one such manuscript (Figure 4). It is kept in Amiens and holds a concordance of the Bible, a tool that enabled readers to identify where in the Bible certain concepts and figures were mentioned.

The entries in this manuscript – often a name followed by a bible book and a chapter number – are short, which is why the scribe decided to place five of them on a single page. The book measures 310×208 mm and is thus not even unusually large, which tells you just how small the script is. Equally remarkable, the page has room for a sixth column, which is crammed into the outer margin. Here the reader could add remarks; one was added on the spread seen in Figure 4, all the way in the top left corner. In the lower margins, too, there is room planned for comments. A grid of square boxes is seen here, produced by pencil lines. This is a popular design for university textbooks, which contain many such penciled squares, sometimes over forty of them on one page. They act as comment boxes in which the student could jot down his notes (this is an example of such a manuscript; more about this practice in this blog post).

Figure 4. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, 95 (Concordance, c. 1300). Source

The page as a house, the scribe as its architect: they are attractive comparisons, which highlight just how much an effective page depended on crafty design, careful planning, and meticulous calculations. Like an architect, the scribe made sure to create a comfortable home for future inhabitants.

More on medieval page design:

Raymond Clemens & Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 14-17 (“Preparations prior to writing”). Discusses layout and the preparation of the sheets.

Erik Kwakkel, “Decoding the Material Book: Cultural Residue in Medieval Manuscripts,” in The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches, ed. Michael Van Dussen and Michael Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 60-76. Discusses the rationale behind the choice of a manuscript’s materials features.

Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018), pp. 30-70 (“Filling the Page: Script, Writing, and Page Design”). Overview of page design through case-studies.

Elaine Treharne, “The Architextual Editing of Early English,” in A. G. Edwards and T. Takako (eds.), Poetica 71 (2009), 1-13. Architectural context used as a metaphor in the editing of medieval texts.

The Secrets of Medieval Fonts

One of the fundamental things in a medieval book is letters – those symbols that fill up page after page and that make up meaning. Each one of us human beings writes differently and considering that medieval books were made before the invention of print, it follows that the scripts they carry show a great variety in execution styles. This is perhaps the most amazing experience of spending a day going through a pile of medieval books in the library: the immense variation in the manner in which the text is written on the parchment pages.

No surviving artefact underscores this point of variation better than advertisement sheets of commercial scribes. The one in Fig. 1 was produced by Herman Strepel and through it he shows off his expertise – and in a sense his merchandise – to customers who visited his shop. The blank back shows that the sheet was hanging on the wall, like a menu in a fast-food restaurant. He even wrote the names of the scripts next to the samples, in appealing golden letters, like a good businessman (more about advertisements from the medieval book world in this post).

Writing Sheet
Fig. 1 – Advertisement sheet for scripts, c. 1450 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45) – Source

In this wild party of letter shapes roughly two categories of variation can be observed: first, the shape of medieval letters differs because they belong to different script families; and secondly, their precise execution varies because the scribes opted for a particular size, thickness, quality, and pen angle. Remarkably, this variation is still preserved in our modern notions of typefaces, which represent the families, and fonts, which express the variation within these families, for example concerning size (for their meaning, see here).

If we forget, for a moment, that letters themselves convey meaning, these two levels of variation – choice of script and of its execution – comprise perhaps the greatest value: letters show us when a manuscript was made. This information comes in extremely handy considering that the title page was not yet invented. But how do we find it? Welcome to the secretive world of handwritten letters from the Middle Ages.

Tick, tock
Medieval script tells time, although usually not very precisely. Take for example the three major script families from the medieval period: Caroline minuscule (Fig. 2, sample 1), Pregothic script (Fig. 2, sample 2), and Littera textualis or Gothic script (Fig. 2, sample 3).

script samples
Fig. 2 – Three medieval script families: St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 14 (9th century); Leiden, University Library, BPL 196 (12th century); London, British Library, Arundel 28 (13th century)

Despite the fact that these three families are relatively easy to distinguish and identify, they were used for extensive periods of time: Caroline (nr. 1) from c. 800 to c. 1050, Pregothic (nr. 2) from c. 1050 to c. 1250, and Gothic from c. 1250 to c. 1500. In other words, merely identifying the family of handwriting is not enough to pinpoint when precisely a book was made. To get that information one needs to do more – and this is where things start to get a bit more complicated.

To know when a book was copied, one needs to investigate where in the timespan of a script the sample in question can be placed. Does a style of writing fit better in the early stages of a script, is it representative of the end of its life cycle, or perhaps rather somewhere in the middle age? To be able to answer this question one needs to know how the font in question developed over time. This is the kind of research I have been doing over the last few years, called quantitative paleography because it uses a high volume of verifiable data. Thus it is possible to map how Pregothic evolved by tracking,for example, the letter pair de (Fig. 3, magnifying glass).

1156-57 BM Charleville BM 246 B, f. 138v (detail) (1)
Fig. 3 – Letter pair “de” in Charleville, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 246 B (dated 1156-1157).

Here the two elements of this letter pair, which was written down in 1156 or 1157, are touching one another, albeit only slightly. Just twenty years earlier these same letters would still have been written fully separated. This becomes clear when we gather data from manuscripts that bear a date (like the one in Fig. 3), which they do every now and then. When this data is gathered one can deduce, with statistical support, when certain features were born or when they died. Thus data shows, for example, that the touching of de is first encountered in the period 1150-1175. The process, which I dubbed “kissing” in this free downloadable book (which also shows how the method works), continues until the two letters fully overlap. This is called “biting” by script experts (Fig. 4, magnifying glass).

BL Arundel 28
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, MS Arundel 28 (1250-1300)

In fact, the pair highlighted in Fig. 4 has moved so close together that they share the central vertical pen stroke: the right side of d is also the left side of e. The two have literally become inseparable, because separating them would leave one of them incomplete. The data – gathered from 342 dated manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 – shows how biting emerged at different moments in different letter pairs: first in pp, then in de and do, and subsequently in some others. (Fig. 5). It shows how even a single script feature needed time to spread to all corners of the script.

Fig. 5 – Kwakkel, “Biting, Kissing and the Treatment of Feet”, p. 207 – Source

Secret – not
The average medieval scribe knew a number of scripts by heart. Commercial producers of books, discussed at the outset of this post, aimed to please a diverse clientele and will therefore likely have known more fonts than any other type of scribe, including the monk (Fig. 6). The latter was very conservative: he did not often have a broad palette of scripts and he was disinclined to adapt his manner of writing on command. Still, even within single scripts monks show variation in the style of execution. Interestingly, he poured into something from his cultural-historical background in the shape of letters, revealing to the attentive beholder when precisely he wrote a book, even when he did not give this piece of information away explicitly.

Fig. 6 – Scribe at work: London, British Library, MS Royal 4 B.i (Rochester, 1100-1125)

How the letters were formed may also reveal other things about the scribe, for example where he or she lived, or even that it was a hasty book project. Unveiling this hidden information in handwriting is difficult, because letter shapes do not easily give up their secrets. Still, the increasing popularity of Digital Humanities and the tendency of modern script experts to map the development of handwriting with the help of verifiable data makes it increasingly more difficult for scribes to hide their secrets.

Postscriptum – In response to some helpful remarks on Twitter, I am aware, of course, that scripts and fonts – as used in the title – are not the same thing. However, I like the comparison of the two, and used it here, because just like medieval script, a font relates both to the notion of family (Times New Roman) and its execution (e.g. a 12 point letter). More on fonts and typefaces here (via John Mulloy, @MulloyJohn).

Dirty Old Books

Most of us have said “I love this book!” at one point or another. However, what we mean by it may differ a great deal. If you are like me, this statement has little to do with how enjoyable a given read is. Instead, it is literally: what a great object I’m holding! The other day I was in Leiden University Library, my stomping grounds, looking at a ninth-century manuscript containing various school texts. I thumbed through its leaves and saw different individuals writing down different texts. I saw readers mumbling over worn pages, interacting with texts, crossing out lines and writing down notes in the margins. And I saw how even later readers had added their own pages with additions. And that is when I heard myself whisper: “I love this book.” To me, this quirky, millennium-old object, with its dirty and heavily used pages, was simply paradise. But what makes these worn manuscripts so attractive – and useful – for the historian of the medieval book?

Reading the Reader
Some medieval books look like they were made yesterday. The pristine page still breaths medieval air, as if its maker has just left the room. It’s not difficult to like this type of manuscript: the excitement when you open it is like entering your brand new car for the first time. Or rather, your brand new vintage car, as most medieval manuscripts are pretty worn. These are used books – and they have often been so for five hundred to a thousand years. Importantly, their wear and tear has a story to tell: medieval users were pragmatic and the traces they left behind tell us a lot about how they used a manuscript.

Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): string-bookmark – Photo EK

For example, a reader may sew a tiny piece of string in the corner of the page (Fig. 1). In fact, this particular manuscript contains many of these make-shift bookmarks, as if the reader was sitting behind the book with needle and thread ready at hand. Bookmarks are great little devices, smart even, as this earlier post shows. Interestingly, they are also quite telling about the popularity of a specific book and in particular which pages were most important – since that is why a reader would like quick access to them.

Dirt is another indicator of frequent use and, in a sense, of a book’s popularity. The same manuscript as in Fig. 1 has a lot of dirt build-up in the folds. There are even leaves from trees encountered from time to time (Fig. 2). It is possible that these acted as environmentally-friendly bookmarks, ultimately helping us to gauge a reader’s interest.

Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): dirt and leaf in fold – Photo EK

A particularly engaging mark of use are instances where a medieval individual introduces himself to you. “Hello my name is Peter,” the inscription Petrus at the bottom of a twelfth-century page seems to express (Fig. 3). The name, written in a hesitant and uneasy fashion, has the look of having been written by a person learning to write, a child perhaps. Given that this book was produced in a monastic environment, we may well be dealing with a novice (a young member of the community) who had just mastered pen and ink. “I can write,” this inscription says. “I am Peter and I can write!”

Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 21 (12th century): marginal inscription – Photo EK

Wear and tear is another way in which the manuscript shows that it was used a lot – that it had been popular among a group of medieval readers. It is not uncommon to see pronounced discolouration at the lower left corner of the page. The dark patches that can sometimes be observed there result from generations of fingers turning the page. Pages with such dirty lower corners usually also turn quite easily, as if the structure of the parchment is loosened up by the repeated turning of pages. Occasionally one encounters a page like the one seen in Fig. 4, which is dirty all over its surface. One wonders how clean the readers’ hands were – also after consulting such a dirty book.

Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, VLF 94 (9th century): dirty page – Photo EK

Use or abuse?
The previous examples have drawn attention to an interesting truism: the more a manuscript was used, the dirtier it became. It appears, interestingly, that medieval readers had a very different attitude towards how one ought to interact with books. I don’t think many readers today would be willing to stab one of their books and insert a string, as seen in Fig. 1. And who would write his or her name on the page in such joyful, large script as the unknown Peter did in Fig. 4? Judging from the high frequency with which medieval readers jotted down notes in the margins, it becomes clear that books were seen as utilitarian objects, which could be treated in any way the reader saw fit. If the clarity of a text increased from having marginal notes written next to it, then the benefit of having those notes there would override any feelings of hesitation produced by having to write in your book.

However, the line between use and abuse is thin. You had to be careful when writing new text in the margins of an existing book, because while the ink was still wet it could easily produce smudges. The reader who annotated the manuscript with Ovid in Fig. 6, wiped out his thought (phrased in Dutch vernacular) by mistake. Peter-Who-Could-Write in Fig. 3 made the same mistake, because his name is also smudged. Peter’s finger must have been really dirty, because the parchment surrounding his name shows a lot of inky stains.

Fig. 5 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 163 (13th century): Dutch note, smudged- Photo EK

There are many examples of medieval manuscripts being a victim of their readers’ abuse. Fortunately for us, some abuses provide clues as to how the book was used. A good example of this is the manuscript page seen in Fig. 6, which shows a law manuscript with candle wax dripped all over the text – note the big yellow blob. It is not difficult to see a medieval student at work, late at night, perhaps studying for his exam the next day. It is dark and the only light is artificial: a candle. However, using a candle is risky, especially when you are trying to read a tiny note that is written in the between the lines: drip.

Fig. 6 – Liverpool, Sydney Jones Library, MS 4.20 (13th century): candle wax – Photo EK

Dirt and other undesired elements on the page are very frequently encountered and the examples here show how they can be evidence of how the reader interacted with the manuscript. From time to time, however, rather than showing negligence or carelessness, human interaction with medieval books shows something else, for example how liberal or prudish a reader was. Check out what the user of the fencing manual in Fig. 7 did to cover up the private parts of the two opponents: big fat drops of red wax (of the type used for making seals) were splashed on the page to bring the scenes in line with the standards of the prudish reader. No problem to behold two stabbing figures in a battle for survival, but we don’t want to see them do it naked. What a dirty book.

Fig. 7 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Var. 7 (16th century): obscured nudity – Source


Postscriptum: Kate Rudy (St Andrews) has done substantial work on dirt in medieval books and has even found a way to quantify dirt with the help of a densitometer (read about it here).

X-Rays Expose a Hidden Medieval Library

Readers of this blog probably know that early-modern book bindings contain hidden treasure: fragments cut from medieval manuscripts, ranging from small snippets to full pages. The fragments were placed inside bindings to reinforce the bookblock and to provide support for the boards (see this post I wrote about it, and this one as well). This recycling process – plain-old slicing and dicing, really – was common practice, old-fashioned as handwritten books had become after the invention of print. In fact, medieval pages are found in as many as one in five bindings of printed books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  While the stowaways are normally hidden from our eyes, we sometimes get to meet them face to face when a binding is damaged (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, 583, printed work (16th century) with medieval fragments inside (12th century) – Photo EK

But what to do with the thousands of fragments that are hidden from us in bindings that are still in pristine condition? This simple question became the drive behind the development of a method to examine fragments without removing or damaging the bindings. The method, which was presented this week, encompasses medieval book history (executed by me) and Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (developed by Joris Dik, Delft University).This post gives you an exclusive look behind-the-scenes at how we managed to digitally leaf through invisible pages and gain access to a hidden library.

The plan

Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection - Photo Julie Somers
Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection – Photo Julie Somers – Source

In the spring of 2014 I was asked to write a short piece about ideas or approaches that could potentially change a scholarly discipline, even if they were not yet feasible.  I wrote about how we might be able to access a hidden medieval “library” if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings (Fig. 2). Take their carriers– printed books whose bindings are enforced with the fragments – and give them a ride on the luggage belt at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Let’s give them a bit of x-ray love, I suggested, half jokingly (here is the piece I wrote).

Then I remembered that a fellow member of The Young Academy, Joris Dik, developed an x-ray technology that enables researchers to look through paintings, in search of the earlier stages of the composition. Joris and I secured funding through The Young Academy to transport his Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (or MA-XRF) scanner to Leiden University Library, an institution that greatly supported the unusual kind of research we were planning to undertake. We dubbed our endeavour the “Hidden Library” project and on October 4th, 2015 we started firing away at early-modern bindings in Leiden University Library.

The theory

Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath
Fig. 3 – Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath – Composed from images in this source

The Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (MA-XRF) technology was developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University, in collaboration with industrial, academic and museum partners. The machine was designed in such a way that it could be transported to a museum in a few crates. There it would be used to show hidden paint layers in paintings by Rembrandt and other old masters. For example, in collaboration with partners in Antwerp Joris Dik successfully showed an unfinished self-portrait by Rembrandt, which was hidden underneath a painting of an old man (Fig. 3) – here is a more recent Rembrandt discovery. A thin beam of X-rays is used to scan the object, charting the presence and abundance of various elements below the surface. Theoretically, the technology ought to make it possible to show medieval inks as well, even when they are covered by a layer of parchment, paper or leather – the most common materials that hide medieval binding fragments from our eyes. But would it?

The practice

The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University
Fig. 4 – The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University – Photo EK

The answer to this question came very quickly after we hit the switch: yes. However, interdisciplinary research often comes with complications. Yes, we see text, but no, we could not read it. And so a series of experiments were undertaken by the team (which also included two research assistants, Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden). For one thing, we learned that the distance between the head that released the x-ray beam and the fragment in the binding was key to our success (Fig. 5). A device was built that allowed us to adjust this distance between head and fragment with half a millimeter (the image was taken before it was completed).

The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19
Fig. 5 – The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19

Another variable we had to master was the length of time needed to scan the fragment. The head was moving back and forth in front of the scanner (Fig. 4), but how slow did this movement need to be? How long should the scanner scan before moving on to the next bit? When was it clear enough for me to read? Ultimately these nuts were cracked, meaning we were able to see a fragment through a binding. In fact, we managed to do it in such a way that the text was clear, legible and datable, as the following examples show (Figs. 6-8).

Example 1: fragment underneath paper
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11 (16th-century): 15th-century fragment visible underneath paper cover – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 2: fragment inside a parchment binding
Fig. 7 – Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19 (16th century): 15th-century fragment seen inside a parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 3: large fragment inside parchment binding
Fig. 8 – Leiden, University Library, 180 E 18: large fragment inside parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö

We ultimately scanned around twenty different early printed books. This seems a modest amount, but the main aim of the Hidden Library project was to discover if we could indeed expose bindings to x-rays and reveal the medieval fragments inside. In that respect the project was a success.

Challenges for the future
Before we start thinking that this method will enable us, starting right now, to trace thousands of new fragments, we are forced to take a reality check. First of all, the second variable – of how long a binding needed to be scanned in order to reveal its hidden treasure – remains a practical road block between science and unveiling a medieval source that has never been tapped into systematically. The images you see in Fig. 6-8 were each produced with over 24 hours of scanning time. A shorter period makes fragments visible, but not legible, as seen in Fig. 9 (which shows the same fragment as in Fig. 6, yet exposed significantly shorter).

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11
Fig. 9 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, short exposure

Secondly, another problem is to distinguish between the text on the front and back of the fragment. Depending on the composition of the ink, it may or may not be possible to separate the two sides of a leaf. Iron, for example, will be returned from both sides of a leaf, producing a peculiar image like the one seen in Fig. 10. One has to look for elements that only show the side closest to the beam, which in this case is calcium. Consequently, this particular fragment is seen in its most optimal form when only calcium is shown, as is the case in Fig. 6.

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron
Fig. 10 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron returns text from both sides of leaf at same time

So yes, the new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper. However, the method is not yet perfect in that it comes with challenges that need to be overcome, of which the long exposure time is the most significant. To stay within the analogy of this post, while the door to a virtual medieval library has been opened by the MA-XRF technique, we need to find a way to enter and take a look around as quickly and efficiently as we would in a real library.

The interdisciplinary research introduced here was executed by Joris Dik (Delft University) and Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University) in close collaboration with the University Library Leiden. Fundamental in our research was the help of the library’s conservator, Karin Scheper (who is, by the way, a guest blogger for medievalbooks). Two research assistants worked with us for the duration of the project: Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden. The project was financed by De Jonge Akademie (The Young Academy), a branch of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen (The Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences). Two formal publications, providing a more detailed description of the research and its results, are planned. Various national Dutch news outlets have paid attention to the project (newspaper, radio [start at 9.50 min] and television [start at 20 sec.]).

Judging a Book by its Cover

What a clever device the book is. It is compact and light, yet contains hundreds of pages that hold an incredible amount of information. Moving forward or backward in the text is as easy as flipping a page, while the book’s square shape and flat bottom facilitates easy shelving. Still, the object is useless if the information it contains cannot be found. And so tools were developed to help the reader do just that, such as page numbers, running titles, and indices. As familiar as these aids may be, they are older than you think. The page number, for example, is encountered in papyrus manuscripts made some two thousand years ago (see this older blog post).

Crucially, to look up information in a book you must have first located the object. And so the shelfmark was invented, the equivalent of our call number. By the end of the medieval period it had become as clever as the book to which it was added: letters, digits, and even colour coding was used to guide the reader to a particular manuscript (see this post on GPS in the medieval library). This post explores the medieval roots of yet another tool for finding a specific book, one that is as popular now as it was in medieval times: title and author information displayed on the spine and dust jacket.  How did the outside of the medieval manuscript communicate what was hidden inside?

1. Text on leather

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292
Fig. 1 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292 (c. 1100) – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover (detail)
Fig. 2 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover, detail (14th century)

Why make things complicated? The easiest way to identify a manuscript was to simply jot the title on the front cover, straight on the leather of the binding (Figs. 1-2). Although one might imagine that this is how the tradition of our modern cover information began, there are too few original bindings left to know for sure. The manuscript seen in Figs. 1-2 is important as it shows that the practice goes back to at least the fourteenth century.

The manuscript shown in Figs. 1-2 was copied around 1100 and still has its original binding. Interestingly, this tells us that for 200-300 years users were quite content with an “anonymous” book, which did not provide a clue to what information it contained. This is all the more striking when you consider that during these three centuries the library where the object was held, in the abbey of St Gall, harboured several hundred books. How on earth did the monks find their way to the texts contained within this binding?

2. Title labels

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, front cover
Fig. 3 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237 (9th century), front cover – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label (14th century?)

Writing text on a manuscript’s cover, as seen in Fig. 2, was not easy. The structure of the leather could be coarse and the surface uneven, which made it potentially difficult to write the title information legibly. More importantly, when the leather had a dark color, a black title may simply not be visible. In such cases it made more sense to write the information on a parchment or paper slip – a label – that was subsequently pasted on the cover, as is still common practice in libraries today.

The manuscript in Figs. 3-4, which features a parchment label, shows how incredibly effective this practice was: it clearly reads Liber ethymolo[giarum] Isidori, telling the reader that he was about to open Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. These paste-on labels could be quite extensive (Fig. 5). In fact, some book owners preferred to have the entire contents displayed on the outside, even if the object held ten works (Fig. 6).

Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29
Fig. 5 – Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29 (10th-11th centuries), label 15th century – Source
Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20, label on front cover (15th-century)
Fig. 6 – Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20 (13th century), label 15th-century – Source

As detailed as these labels are, they exclusively list the titles of the works contained by the manuscript, not the authors’ names. It appears as if the librarian who labeled these manuscripts judged the title (and not the author) to be the best identifier of the object.

3. The fenestra
Paper or parchment title shields were sometimes placed under a thin piece of horn (bone), for protection (Figs. 7-8). The so-called “fenestra” (window in Latin) was secured to the wooden cover with nails: it was clearly going nowhere (Fig. 8). This type of cover information can be seen as the next step in the process of providing efficient book titles: a clear and permanent label, hammered into wooden boards with nails. It is a far cry from the on-the-fly title hastily written directly on leather (here is another example).

San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century) – Source and more
San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra
Fig. 8 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra

The fenestra is often found on manuscripts that were part of a well-organised library. It may therefore contain quite a bit more information than merely the title or the author. The one seen in Fig. 8 is from the library of the Carthusian house of Syon in Middlesex, England. The label is clever and reads:  “V. Beda de gestis Anglorum. Idem super actus apostolorum et epistolas canonicas. 2o fo et prassini”. The main piece of information concerns what is found inside: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Bede’s commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and on the New Testament’s Canonical Epistles.

However, it also mentions the first words of the second folium: secundum folium [incipit] et prassini, the second folium starts with “et prassini”. These words formed a unique identifier, for no two copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will have had these very words at the start of the second leaf. This technique was commonly used to identify unique copies for inclusion in a monastery’s book inventory or library catalogue. It is probable that this is the reason why the fenestra contains the phrase: to link this specific book to the monastery’s catalogue.

4. Spine titles

Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio
Fig 9 – Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio – Source (Source title image)

Not only was a book’s title and name of the author jotted down on the front cover, it would ultimately also feature on the spine, as any modern reader knows. This part of the tradition has its own path of development. It all started on the fore-edge, the long side of the book that shows the paper or parchment pages. From at least the fourteenth century decoration was added to this location. Few books have been so lavishly decorated as Ordorico Pillone’s, who, around 1580, had the artist Cesare Vecellio decorate the fore-edge of 172 books in his library with stunning designs (Fig. 9). The technique would be perfected in the nineteenth century, when the magically disappearing fore-edge decoration was invented (example here).

In medieval times the edges of the book block were not usually decorated, while the design was commonly modest (Fig. 10-11). Although there are exceptions to this rule, as a potentially medieval fore-edge decoration in Durham shows (more here).

London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (1
Fig. 10 – London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (decoration: 14th century) – Source and more
London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (before 1416)
Fig. 11 – London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (decoration: before 1416) – Source

The manuscript in Fig. 11 shows that medieval fore-edge decoration could serve a functional purpose, because it concerns the coat of arms of Jean, duc de Berry (d. 1416). We may assume the books in his library were positioned with the fore-edge faced outward, as was common practice in many medieval libraries – in fact, this was done until well into the 17th century, as this image shows. How impressive his library must have looked to visitors: dozens of precious books, all evidently owned by the duke.

Given that the fore-edge was facing the reader, this location was also the perfect place to write down the title or author of the work contained by the volume. ‘Quaestiones morales’ (moral questions), a 15th-century hand wrote on the fore edge of an incunable printed in 1489 (Fig. 12). The earliest cases I encountered date from the early fifteenth century, although our view may be skewed because such fore-edge titles disappeared when binders in the early-modern period refitted the books with new bindings.

Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487)
Fig. 12 – Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487) – Source

When books finally turned their backs to the reader, the title ended up where it is still found today: on the spine. Based on my own experience, this practice was not common in medieval times, for the simple fact that manuscripts were not usually placed with their backs facing the reader. Cases from the early-modern period are plentiful. In fact, it became so popular that some readers wrote extensive tables of contents on the backs of their books (Fig. 13).

Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek
Fig. 13 – Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek – Photo EK, more

The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period).

Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the “dust jacket” with title actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century. Curiously, in the same century the Latin titulus was first used for denoting the title of a book (see here), which may also indicate that titles did not exist before then. If correct, this reconstruction suggests that for much of the Middle Ages readers could not tell what texts were found inside a book. Generations of frustrated monks had to wander through the library opening and closing manuscripts until they had found what they were looking for.