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.

Voices on the Medieval Page (1): The Reader

This is the first part of a series highlighting instances where medieval individuals added information to an existing book, either right after its production or centuries later. What precisely did scribes, readers, booksellers and librarians scribble down? And what do these voices tell us about their relationship to the manuscript? Part 1: the reader.

A medieval book was made because an individual wanted to read, own, the text contained on its pages. However, owning a book in the age before print was a luxury. Due to the long production time (easily half a year for a long text) and the materials used (up to c. 1300 the skins of animals) the cost of a book’s production was steep, even if it contained no decoration or miniatures. This is why up to the later Middle Ages book ownership was generally confined to affluent environments, such as religious houses, courts, and the residences of merchants and patricians.

Considering how special it was to own a manuscript, it may seem remarkable that medieval readers wrote in their books. Indeed, their uninvited contributions could be considerable. While in our modern day scribbling on the page is by many perceived as an almost offensive deed, condoned perhaps only when done for study purposes, medieval readers regarded it a normal practice, an integral part of the reading experience. Marginal notes, underscored text, pointing fingers all helped to digest the text and open a dialogue with the author. Thus the pen was as important as reading glasses.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 144 (12th c): annotations added in 13th century
1) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 144 (12th c): annotations, 13th century

The most common readers’ voices heard on the medieval page concern marginal annotations to the text (Image 1). Reading St Augustine a reader may suddenly remember a relevant passage in the work of another Church Father. With a quick pen action he could opt to place a reference in the margin, perhaps evens with the name of the other authority next to it. He could even quote the referenced text, either by heart or copied from another book. Monks in particular had access to a sizable reference library, a true temptation for the critical reader seeking to interact with the text in front of him.

Alternatively, a reader may jot down a clarifying sentence next to a passage that was hard to understand. In Latin books such notes may start with “Id est”(this is, this means). They are particularly common in university textbooks, but they are also frequently encountered in learned books from other environments – including monasteries. Clarifying notes are usually placed in the margin, that inviting ocean of empty space (as much as 50% of the medieval page was margin). Shorter notes were sometimes scribbled in between the lines. More exceptionally, readers drew clarifying schemes to makes sense of the sense (Image 2).

Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, MS 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram added in 13th century
2) Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram, 13th century

Highlighting information
Alternatively, a reader may use his pen to highlight important information. He could do so by drawing lines in the margin alongside the text, as we would do today, but there were also more sophisticated means. A particularly attractive one is the pointing finger (Image 3). This well-known signpost comes in different variants. On the one end of the spectrum there is merely the hand with its pointing finger, which is usually extended; on the other end there are hands with elaborated sleeves (like this one), or even those with entire bodies attached to them. A less conspicuous way of pointing out important information was to place the word “nota” (attention) next to it in the margin. The manner in which these signs were executed is highly personal: readers made their own customized pictogram out of the four letters of the word.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 60: finger pointing at marginal note
3) St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 60 (11th c): finger pointing at marginal note

Pointing out flaws
Sometimes a reader noticed that something he read was terribly wrong, prompting him to dip his quill in the ink pot. He may, for example, expunge the incorrect words by placing dots underneath them and write the correct reading nearby. Scribes often rid the text of copying flaws after they finished their job, but the picky reader may still find plenty to correct. Some got agitated by the mistakes they encountered as they made their way through the book. The individual who read a late-fourteenth century Dutch Gospel Book now in Vienna remarked the following when he was a third-way into the text, having already corrected dozens of mistakes: “These Gospels have been translated poorly; [the translator] did not understand them very well” (Dese evangelien sijn alte matelec gedietscht, diet dede verstont se qualec). (Image 4).

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): "what a poor translation!"
4) Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): “what a poor translation!”

Personal remarks
This frustrated outcry shows that readers’ corrections did not just concern flaws left behind by the scribe, but also included mistakes that were “baked” into the text from its very conception – when it was first made by the author or translator. They also show how personal (and opinionated!) readers’ remarks may be. There were other reasons to leave personal statements in a book. An enjoyable case for those who love medieval book culture is what Hector van Moerdrecht, Carthusian in Utrecht, had to say about two particularly narrow books in the library. In both he jotted on the flyleaf: “This book does not have the required width; it is too narrow and high”. His verdict was correct because the books do break with the rule for medieval page proportions. Van Moerdrecht’s words sound like those of a disappointed reader, or perhaps they were meant to offer an apology to his fellow monks. As the examples above emphasize, Carthusians were keen on presenting text in a “proper” manner.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1 (11th c).
5) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 1 (11th c): “Alter liber habet…”.

Logistic remarks
Then there are, finally, instances where it was necessary to add signposts to the page. A reader could, for example, point to another relevant text in the same manuscript (“see also further, on page …”). Particularly interesting are references to books in the library that presented alternative readings of a word or a passage. “Alter liber habet calatis” (our other book has “calatis”) we read in the margin of Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1, a late-eleventh century copy of Dioscorides’ De materia medica (Image 5). Such a remark suggests that the individual went through the text critically, comparing it, apparently, with a second copy in his vicinity. Indeed, another reader of the same manuscript frequently placed the letter “r” for “require” (check!) in the margins, showing that he, too, had felt the need to check up on the quality of the text.

Looking at the input of readers on the medieval page makes for exciting research as it allows us to look over the shoulder of the very individuals whose books we study. Evidently, many medieval readers read with a pen in their hand, ready and willing to make their mark on the page and in the text. It is remarkable to observe, finally, how the reader did not shy away from exposing himself as a know-it-all, perfectionist, micro manager, or even, in case of the sneer about the poor translation, as a bit of a grump.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

A Hidden Medieval Archive Surfaces

On my Tumblr I recently posted two entries devoted to a remarkable discovery made in the Book History class I am co-teaching with Paul Hoftijzer for the Book and Digital Media Studies programme at Leiden University. It concerns 132 notes, letters and receipts from an unidentified court in the Rhine region, jotted on little slips of paper. They were hidden inside the binding of a book printed in 1577, which is part of the Bibliotheca Thysiana, a seventeenth-century library in Leiden, established by Johannes Thysius (d. 1653). The gems were discovered by during our class while students were systematically going through the binding remains in the library. The tiny slips made headlines in Dutch and Belgian printed media and featured in a popular news show on Dutch national radio. Why are they so special?

The hidden archive and the bookbinding it came from
The hidden archive and the bookbinding it came from

The slips are first of all remarkable simply because such small written objects rarely survive from medieval society. Due to their limited dimensions they tend to fall in between the proverbial cracks of the transmission process. There are few places where such objects can slumber undisturbed for centuries. Their low survival rate is also connected, however, to the fact that they were meant to be thrown out after use. In fact, this is what actually happened, although through the process an early-modern bookbinder unintentionally saved them. When a printed book from 1577 was to be fitted with its binding, the binder grabbed the 132 paper slips from his equivalent of a blue recycling bin and moulded them, likely wet, into cardboard boards. This is when their long journey to our modern period started, as stowaways hitchhiking on sixteenth-century printed matter. Thysius bought the volume second-hand and had likely no idea of the hidden treasures it contained.

Title page of book that contained the archive
Title page of the book that contained the archive

The collection also stands out because of its sheer size. As I briefly explained in an earlier blog, recycling medieval written material was a frequent occurrence in the workshop of early-modern (as well as medieval) binders. However, the very high volume of leaves the binder used is exceptional. What is so striking about the paper slips is that they tell us everyday things that we normally rarely hear about in historical sources. Take the note from 4 December 1461 sent to a chamberlain by a steward, asking “Could you please send me 6 guilders, because we need it?” It concerns internal mail from within the unknown household, likely delivered by a servant: the back reveals a fold and the designation “chamberlain”. We can almost hear him dash through the house, note in hand. A number of slips are receipts from payments: for work done by a carpenter, for the purchase of wheat for the horses of guests, and alike. Messages like these bring us as close to real medieval society as you can get. They are the medieval voices we normally don’t hear, that tell the story of what happened “on the ground”.

Note from stewart to chamberlain (front)
Note from steward to chamberlain (front)
Note from stewart to chamberlain (back)
Note from steward to chamberlain (back)

My favorite slip is a tiny note written by (or on behalf of) Count Philip (d. 1508), who held court near the river Rhine. On 31 May 1486 he sent his servant to Heidelberg with a most charming request. “Could you please get me some wild roses?”, he writes, adding “But make sure to also include some that are not yet flowering.” It is a small miracle that we still have this 527-year-old paper slip, which is the equivalent of our yellow sticky note. (How many post-it notes do you keep after use?) Judging from the back, where we encounter part of a seal and an address, the note was cut from a letter. In other words, the paper used for this request was recycled twice: once in 1486, when the note was written; and once in 1577, when it was made into a board for a bookbinding.

Note from 1461 requesting for wild roses
Note from 1486 requesting for wild roses

That such a twice-recycled object still exists and that it provides such detailed information about real people asking for real things, turns the archive into both a valuable medieval source and an exciting object to work with. Holding the request for wild roses in your hand really makes you think about how the flowers will have been used, who looked at them, and what conversations were held in the room where they were placed. Students will continue to hunt for fragments in Bibliotheca Thysiana and one of them will write his MA thesis on the hidden archive. The voices it contains will hopefully be allowed to speak more and louder.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Making Books for Profit in Medieval Times

The novelist L.P. Hartley once said that the past is like a foreign country: things are done different there. What I find most remarkable about the bookish slice of medieval society that I study is not so much the differences between medieval manuscripts and our modern books, but their similarities. While one may be inclined to emphasize how “foreign” the medieval book is – they are, after all, made of dead cows, and are handwritten – they present such recognizably modern features as a justified text, footnotes, running titles and page numbers.

Leaf number used in a Paris Bible (BL, Arundel 311, 13th c)
Leaf number in Paris Bible (BL, Arundel 311, 13th c)

The similarities run much further than mere physical traits, however. Take for example the manner in which the book was made and acquired from the 13th century onwards. If you wanted a book in the later Middle Ages you went to the store, as in our modern day. The bookseller did not normally have any books in stock, except for perhaps some second-hand copies, but you would tell him what you wanted, both content-wise and with respect to the object’s material features. You could specify, for example, that he use paper (not parchment), cursive script (not book script) and add miniatures (or forego on decoration). Just like so many other objects you bought in late-medieval society, the commercially-made manuscript was custom-tailored to the individual who purchased it.

The professionals who made books for profit were usually found near the biggest church in town. This was a well-chosen spot as canons and clerics (i.e. people who visited the church and who could read) formed an important part of the clientele. By the 14th century true communities of the book had formed in the neighborhoods around churches and cathedrals. Evidence from such cities as Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, London and Paris suggests that in these communities a diverse group of artisans interacted with clients and with each other. It was a world bound not only by the book, however, but also by profit.

Whether you were scribe, illuminator or binder, as a professional you would strive for quality and diversity as this ensured bread and butter on the table. In parallel to our modern book business, medieval manuscript artisans used various marketing strategies to attract new clientele. The most striking of these is advertisements. Scribes hung large sheets outside their doors to show what kind of scripts they had mastered. The short writing samples found on these sheets were often accompanied by the names of the scripts, which shows just how professional the world of the book had become. A particularly rich specimen survives from the shop of Herman Strepel, a professional scribe in Münster (c. 1447). In the true spirit of medieval marketing he wrote the names of all the scripts in golden letters on his advertisement sheet.

Advertisement sheet from Herman Strepel, professional scribe in Münster, c. 1447 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45)
Advertisement sheet from Herman Strepel, professional scribe in Münster, c. 1447 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45)

Scribes also included advertisements in books they had copied for a client. An example of such “spam” is found in a French manuscript made in Paris by a scribe who calls himself Herneis. On the last page of the book he writes, “If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across the Notre Dame cathedral.” Herneis and his fellow bookmen lived and worked in the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, which served as the center of commercially-made vernacular books. Similarly, students were served in the Rue St Jacques, on the Left Bank, where the latest Latin textbooks were on offer. For Parisians and students it was handy to have all the professionals in one street: you knew where to go when you needed a book and it was easy to check out who was available for making one for you.

Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)
Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)

This centralization was equally convenient, however, for the artisans themselves. Booksellers (also called stationers) in Rue Neuve Notre Dame and in other such “book streets” in European cities depended on the professional scribes, illuminators and binders that lived in their vicinity. They would hire them for various projects. When a client came to order a book from a stationer, the latter would divide the work among the artisans he usually worked with. One copied the text, another drew the images, and a third bound the book. These hired hands were given contracts which specified precisely what they would have to do and how much money they received for it. From time to time the stationer would come and check on the progress they made. In some manuscripts these cost estimates were scribbled in the margin.

Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)
Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)

Although making books for profit was a common scenario in the later Middle Ages, it did not make you particularly rich. On the last page of a Middle Dutch chronicle a clearly frustrated scribe wrote, “For so little money I never want to produce a book ever again!” This world of professional medieval scribes, the underpaid and others, was shaken up by the coming of Gutenberg’s printing press, around the middle of the 15th century. The ink pots dried up and the handwritten book slowly turned into an archaic object that was more costly than its printed counterpart. In the 16th century only large choir books (which did not fit on the press) and handsome presentation copies, custom-made for an affluent client, were still written by hand.

And so we see scribes jumping the handwritten ship, many ending up working in printing shops. Here, too, a striking parallel between the medieval and modern world of the book may be pointed out. Medieval producers and salesmen of books had to adapt to the new medium made popular by Johannes Gutenberg, as much as publishers today have to change their ways in a world where pixels are gaining grounds over ink.


Want to know more? Here you will find a Dutch guest blog I wrote for on the same topic. Check out this YouTube movie for a public lecture I did on commercial book production in medieval times. This is the “Bible” of commercial book production in Paris. On English books made for profit, check out some of the essays in this book. Read a great lecture by Malcolm Parkes about (commercially-made) books at universities here.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

The Proud Reader: Showing Off the Medieval Book

When I started this post I set out to answer a very simple query: what is the oldest photograph we have of a real reader interacting with a medieval manuscript? The quest was sparked by a 19th-century photograph I tweeted last weekend of the Cincinnati Public Library, a picture that is both attractive and powerful. It takes us into a large, dark room, with high ceilings. Light is sprinkled over high stacks of books, which look like matchboxes. Cast-iron pillars hold up the ceiling and give the place the appearance of a cathedral, where readers come to worship the book. In front of a bookcase we see a man taking a book off the shelf. Wearing a white shirt and contrasting sharply with his dark surroundings, he is demanding our attention: the reader is the focus of this scene.

Cincinnati Public Library
Cincinnati Public Library, 19th century

The photograph looks unreal, more likely taken at the set of a Dr. Who episode than in a late-19th-century library. The reason why the image appeals to me, however, is not just because of the otherworldly nature of this black-and-white world of reading, it is also the fact that this moment is now gone. The thrill of this photograph is that it captures a real moment where a reader in the past, an individual who lived long enough ago to make him part of history, interacts with a book. The black-and-white image forms, as it were, a visual piece of reception history, as do the other 19th-century photographs in the Flickr stream of the Cincinnati Public Library, which showcase the inhabitants of this cathedral of the book in different settings of reading.

How marvelous it would be to see past generations interacting with medieval books. What powerful images they would make – looking at Tolkien thumbing through the Beowulf codex, seeing Cotton wandering through his magnificent library, or watching Louis IX of France learning to read from the famous Leiden Psalter. Old photographs do provide us with such “live” scenes, but there are only very few. Two of them show a reader interacting with the early-13th-century Codex Gigas or ‘Devil’s Bible’, the largest book to survive from the medieval period and currently kept in the National Library of Stockholm. Weighing 75 kilograms and measuring an astonishing 890×490 mm, it is as large as a dining room chair, taller than a bike. It was nearly destroyed in 1697 when a fire raged at the Royal Castle in Stockholm, where it was kept at the time. It was saved because it was thrown out of a window, seriously injuring a bystander.

Codex Gigas or 'Devil's Bible'
Codex Gigas or ‘Devil’s Bible’

As we can read on the left image, the man in the two photographs is Gustaf Liljegren, “machinist” (engineer). The pictures give us an inkling of what he thinks of the book: he seems in awe and proud to be able to hold this giant among medieval manuscripts. He was probably asked to stand next to the book to put the object’s size in perspective. In the picture on the left he poses next to it, gently holding open the book at the page depicting Heavenly Jerusalem. He gazes at the image, as if to steer our eyes towards it. In the picture on the right he seems to study the book, while leafing through it. This scene is also posed, of course, because the manuscript is facing the photographer, enabling us to see the two illuminated pages of the book.

We can even go further back in time to meet other readers if we move beyond the photograph. A 19th-century engraving from J.W. Clark’s Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods captures a gentleman reading a manuscript in a chained library – producing a very odd scene.

Gentleman in chained library
Gentleman in chained library

Then there are paintings, such as the one in which Humfrey Wanley, scholar of Old English, thumbs through an Anglo-Saxon codex. His arm is lifted just a bit too high for comfort: here, too, the reader poses proudly with the medieval book, showing it off to us, the beholders. The perhaps most powerful painting is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Man Holding a Book” (c. 1450). This medieval scene has a very modern feel to it, in part because the reader’s face looks so modern. You could have talked to this guy when you were in the bookshop yesterday.

Rogier van der Weyden, Man with Book (c. 1450)
Rogier van der Weyden, Man with Book (c. 1450)

What the readers in both the photographs and the paintings share is the desire to show off their treasures. The clear-eyed man in Van der Weyden’s painting does so most vividly. His hands lift the book up high, so as to make sure that the most important part of the painting is visible to us. The object is as dear to him as the only other object that features prominently in the painting, his shiny golden ring. Both book and ring are expensive and affordable only by few, which is no doubt the subtext of their presence in the picture. As his counterparts from the 17th and 19th centuries, he is a proud reader.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

My First Year on Twitter: How I Became @erik_kwakkel

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

I signed up for Twitter almost a year ago to the day. I had heard of Twitter, of course, but I connected the medium to such messages as “I am so bored of this life!” and “I just drank an entire six-pack in five minutes.” Mind you, life can be boring at times (although Twitter is a fine antidote, I find) and I am known throughout the world for my firm handling of the six-pack. There was little, however, that could tempt me to join the league of “two-thumb typers”. Then I became elected to The Young Academy, the “junior” branch of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and saw how Twitter can be a marvelous tool to present your research interests to a broader audience, both inside and outside academia. I decided to give it a try for a year and then evaluate. As I started to write such an evaluation for this blog, another dynamic appeared, which I will give voice as well: how did I become “@erik_kwakkel”?

0-250 Followers – What I love most about Twitter is how it connects you to like-minded individuals, kindred spirits if you want. I enjoy reading what others have to share, and I love it when followers express that they enjoyed something I posted, for example through their replies or retweets – the latter being the perfect litmus test for assessing how well you are “in touch” with your followers. Mind you, when I started tweeting there was little feedback. Not just because I had few followers (on Twitter everybody is forced to talk to himself for a little while upon start-up), but also because I had not found my niche yet. I felt like an echo because I was merely retweeting others, including Calls for Papers, blogs about medieval manuscripts, new findings in my field of research – the study of the medieval book.

Remarkable image, but not a funny tweet
Remarkable image, familiar scene

250-500 Followers – During the first weeks that I merely echoed others I remaining very indifferent about Twitter. That changed in March 2012, when my students and I discovered dozens of medieval fragments while staying in a monastery (more on this event here, here and here). Over the course of three days I live-tweeted our findings. Mind you, I did not decide to live-tweet, because I had never even heard of it. I merely aimed to show others what we discovered. Since we found something new every 15 minutes, the event started to attract attention among the 250 followers I then had. Many things happened: their number increased quickly; I started to receive responses from others about our findings, including identifications; the newspaper called; and I began to enjoy tweeting. These three days were important because it gave me a sense of Twitter’s potential, but also that it was possible to have a dialogue with others interested in old books. I realized, in sum, that one can make a real contribution to a virtual community.

500-1000 Followers – It is kind of ironic that I learned to make sense of Twitter while staying in a medieval monastery. It also shows that being secluded from the world has no impact on your contribution to Twitter, which is another thing I have grown to like about the medium. A second boost caught me equally by surprise. The afternoon before I went on holiday, early July 2012, I had an hour to kill. I thought I would send out a bunch of images because I did not know when I would be able to tweet again. By this time I tweeted a few images per week, mostly of manuscripts I encountered in libraries, both virtual and real. That hour I sent out ten manuscript pages with doodles that I had found. However, I changed one thing, although not purposefully so. Whereas my captions normally merely stated the shelfmark and the age of the manuscript, I found myself typing funny, even bizarre and over-the-top things to accompany the image (here is one of those ten). Blame it on the lure of the holiday, which was around the corner, but I’d never had so much fun as a twitterer. The responses were very unexpected: I received dozens of retweets within half an hour; people were asking for more; and others responded by sending doodles they had discovered themselves.

Popular image
Particularly popular image (sent to me by @EmirOFilipovic)

1000-1500 Followers – That one hour in July changed everything for me. The ten medieval doodles showed me a way to combine three important things: what I love as a researcher (medieval books); the means to reach a broad audience (images); and something that is dear to me personally, which is to bring a light touch, humor if appropriate, to all things I do. In effect, the ten images helped me to decide who I wanted to be as @erik_kwakkel: an expert who shows off the wonderful world of the medieval book through images with vivid, funny where possible, captions. During my summer holiday I remained “in the zone” and experimented with various types of captions and images, leaning in particular on the responses from some of the new followers I had gained (such as @PaulaSKirby). Did they retweet, then it worked. If not, I had gone too far. I learned that four images per day saturates the market. Also that early in the day over-the-top tweets have less impact than the more factual ones. And so I crafted a schedule that starts with a factual tweet (Noon, my time); followed by a funny one (4 pm); then a tweet that is a mix of these two (8 pm); and finally a neutral one (Midnight).

Early trial of funny caption
Early tweet with funny caption, which hit the right spot

1668 Followers – So here I am: @erik_kwakkel, tweeting four images per day to 1668 (correction, now 1670) followers, interspersed with announcements, links to remarkable blogs, or manuscript news. From time to time I post material sent to me by others, such as the cat paw image above. My network has grown exponentially, not just virtually, but also tangibly: I received tweets with invitations to speak; some of my own tweets led to articles in national newspapers; and at conferences I often know a few delegates already, through Twitter. The “fun” dynamic of my tweets has even sparked a well thought-through analysis from @burnablebooks, from which I learned new things about my image stream (find it here). There are many seemingly appealing reasons not to be on Twitter as an academic (I blogged about them here), but none have persuaded me to leave the medium be. I will stick around, as I hope my followers will too.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

The Traveling Book: Medieval Texts on the Move

In their owner’s backpack, on wagons and in boats: medieval books were keen travelers. With them they carried texts and ideas across the map of Europe, disseminating the sciences, spreading romances and passing on historical narratives. Short texts may have moved from A to B because they were committed to memory, by troubadours for example, but longer texts more likely traveled in the form of ink on a parchment or paper page. Remarkably, while it must have been quite normal for books to physically move between monastic communities, cities and even countries, the phenomenon is almost completely hidden from our sight.

Occasionally we get glimpses into the transportation of books and the rational behind it. Court records show, for example, that when in 1423 a boat with commercial goods was seized in Nice, a batch of paper prayer books was among the confiscated items. When in the late fourteenth century the monks of Herne Charterhouse fled to Brussels to escape the war, they brought their library with them. Patricians in the city subsequently acquired copies of some of the Carthusians’ books: they especially craved after their Middle Dutch religious texts. On the other side of the Alps, in the late eleventh century, Constantine the African entered the abbey of Monte Cassino. He arrived from Africa, where he was born and raised, and he likely took a modest library of medical works with him across the pond. In Italy he would gradually translate twenty-four of them from Arabic into Latin, sparking the birth of modern medicine in a changing Western Europe.

Constantine the African lecturing on Uroscopy (Oxford, Bodl., Rawl. C. 328, f. 3r, 13th c)

Commercial endeavors, wars and emigration: these are all valid reasons for a book to travel. However, in spite of the fact that a fair amount of surviving manuscripts will at some point have been on the road, the objects themselves reveal surprisingly little about their itinerary. An unusual exception are three booklets that would ultimately find a home in Rooklooster Priory just outside Brussels. All three include important mystical tracts: Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 3067-73, fols. 2-14, which includes a sermon by Eckhart; and Paris, Bibliotheque Mazarine, MS 920, fols. 2-45 (Ruusbroec) and 120-144 (two letters by Hadewijch). All three were copied c. 1350 and the ex-libris inscriptions they hold, entered on their flyleafs by Rooklooster librarian Arnold de Short, tell us that they had become part of the priory’s library in the very early fifteenth century. Their journey to the priory was long and windy – and included crossing the border several times.

Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, MS 920, f. 2r (erased German glosses in Middle Dutch text)

Their complex itinerary is evidenced by German glosses and excerpts that were added to the Middle Dutch texts two or three decades after the latter were copied down into the slim booklets. The Brussels booklet contains just a few glosses, suggesting a German reader had difficulties reading Middle Dutch. Similar additions, except more, are found in the first of the Paris booklets. The first two pages alone contain as many as forty German glosses, be it that all of them were erased later (you can still read some of them of you hold the book in a certain angle). The foreign contribution in the other Paris booklet is more elaborate and complex. It entails several short excerpts from religious texts in Latin and German, which were added to pages that were left blank in the last quire of the booklet. All of these foreign contributions date from 1350-75.

Brussels, Kon. Bibl. MS 3067-73, f. 10r (German glosses)

The Dutch booklets are ‘living’ witnesses of a network through which mystical texts were exchanged between the duchy of Brabant (in particular Brussels) and cities in Germany (Cologne) and Swiss (Bazel). The booklets were made in Brabant in the middle of the fourteenth century. Research has shown that the Brussels booklet was likely commissioned from a commercial scribe by a patrician in town, who also had another part of the composite manuscript made (Part 4, with more Eckhart). After one or two decades, in 1350-75, the tiny booklets traveled to a German reader or community. The latter seems the more likely scenario for Paris, considering it holds not just one but several additions. By the early fifteenth century the booklets had returned to Brabant and were present in Rooklooster Priory.

Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, MS 920, f. 145v (excerpt in German)

This intriguing case of the traveling mystical booklets raises important questions. How were the objects actually transported? They are small (c. 130 mm in height, encompassing only a few quires), so perhaps they were put in a backpack? One of them was folded for a long time, which suggests it was placed in someone’s pocket. Were they made this small for the very reason that they would be on the move? And why did they travel to a different country? Were they gifts for kindred spirits? Did they accompany their owner because he could not part with the mystical texts as he traveled abroad? Or were they possibly commercial items meant for sales? In spite of the lack of answers, the three thin manuscripts form one of the few tangible remains of the spread of Eckhart and other mystical works among lay readers in fourteenth-century Europe.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

“Book to Reader, Come in Reader!” The Manuscript Speaks, But Are You Listening?

When I prepare myself to go to a library to study a medieval manuscript there are certain items I will pack. Pencil: check. Ruler: check. Magnifying glass: check. Mirror: check. iPad: check. All are in frequent use and without them my mission will fail. However, in addition to these, there is a vital tool that is not found in my bag and which is not tangible: intuition. This is the instrument nobody tells you about when you train as codicologist or paleographer, setting out to study the medieval medieval book’s physical composition or the script on its pages. Rather, this is something you need to acquire yourself. And like all things intuitive, it takes time and practice.

As in other instances where intuition is at play – anticipating the best biking route in a busy street, knowing when a toddler’s laugh will turn into a cry, deciding when the bagels in the oven are done – the codicologist will pick up subtle clues from the object he observes, the material book. Parchment quality, dimensions, style of script, precision with which the layout is designed and executed, position of initial letters: they all send out signals that are picked up by the receiver, the individual hanging over the book. Most intriguingly, all this happens without the observer realizing it. That is to say, if he is experienced enough: if he is tuned into the book.

Listening to the manuscript

Just like it takes a while for a biker to recognize which gap in traffic presents an opportunity to move forward and which instant death, the codicologist’s system needs to be made aware of the subtleties on the page, and their potential implications. As soon as you open the book the object starts to transmit information, but if the receiver is not at the same wavelength, the book’s voice becomes muted, a whisper in the wind. So how does one communicate successfully with the handwritten book from the Middle Ages? The short answer is by looking at them, a lot. The long answer is, you guessed it, a bit more complicated.

To “calibrate” one’s system it is crucial to look at books about which a lot is known. It helps to observe a commercially-made manuscript from Paris or a book made for personal use while realizing the object in front of you is a commercial product from a major book market or an object made by its reader. Doing so creates a framework in which subsequent observations about the material object, including subtle traits that may not stand out as much, may then be fitted. A crucial component of “setting” your system is looking at images of dated and localized manuscripts, while keeping in mind their time and geographical space of production. As disheartening as this long answer may sound (it is a lot of work), you will ultimately start to sense truths about a manuscript that can at first not be measured.

In touch with the book

What a joy when the system is built, booted, and intuitive data starts to poor in! Open the book and things will start to jump out at you instantly. The object will start to speak in different tones and voices, some clearer than others. You will sense that a manuscript is too narrow, that the margins are larger than usual, or that the text is distributed unevenly over the page. The script in particular is a loudmouth. It will scream two things at you, namely its time and location of production: “I am from England!” and “I was born in the early twelfth century!”, you may here it say. Great, glad we figured that out. The next thing that happens is that rational thinking takes over, pumping out observations that substantiate your intuitive claims. You start to measure the dimensions of the page and will subsequently know that the margin is too wide and the page too narrow. Or in case of the script: you may observe an overhanging a and a curved-back t, confirming your feeling that this may be an English product.

While it may take a few minutes to find such factual support, the initial intuitive verdict is presented to you at lightning speed, no slower then deciding that your bagels are done. In fact, if looking at manuscripts has become routine, one may even forget that the supporting observations written down on one’s iPad actually started with an intuitive sensation – with transmissions sent out from the page. Paleographers do not usually talk about that very first stage, perhaps because they think it will devaluate the ultimate verdict they present with respect to for example a manuscript’s date or origins. It is telling, however, that they have a name for it: “aspect”, or “the impression a script makes at first sight”. I love it that this key definition in manuscript studies acknowledges the value of the gut feeling. Can you already hear your manuscript speak to you?

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Life Beyond the Grave: The Leiden Apocalypse Fragments

A while ago, this blog devoted a post to medieval manuscript fragments, parts of sheets that were cut up and used to support bookbindings. New fragments appear on the radar frequently. Just yesterday, for example, new fragments of Old French verse texts emerged at the University of St Andrews. Leiden University Library, my go-to place for looking at manuscripts, has hundreds of them, in various languages. Four seemingly insignificant strips, which I studied a while back, can be used to show just how important it is to take fragments seriously and to have a look at them when you study a text tradition. The strips in question, now sealed in plastic, once belonged to a Middle Dutch copy of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse. Apart from being disseminated as part of the Bible, the book also has a separate transmission, as is the case in Latin and other vernaculars. However, only six such manuscripts survive in Middle Dutch. This immediately elevates the Leiden fragments, which bear shelfmark BPL 2454 (13) and can be dated to 1350-75, to an important – seventh – witness of the tradition.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS BPL 2454 (13), fragment 1

The oldest surviving manuscript, kept in the St Petersburg Library of Sciences, can be dated to 1325-50. The Flemish book historian Willem de Vreese found it in a pile of Middle Dutch manuscripts that were left under a dripping pipe in a forgotten part of the library. He was given permission to defrost the chunk of ice and “liberate” the twenty or so medieval books – like Han Solo being freed from carbonite. The best known manuscript, however, is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS néerlandais 3, made around 1400 in Flanders, most likely in Bruges.

Paris, BnF, MS néerl. 3, f. 12r

The Paris manuscript is of great interest because it is the only one that is illuminated. It contains twenty-two breathtaking full-page miniatures, considered prime examples of “pre-Eyckian” realism. Equally remarkable is the manuscript’s layout: each book opening contains a miniature on the right page, with on the facing page the corresponding text – a chapter from the Apocalypse. Text and image thus form a diptych. For the Apocalypse tradition this is very unusual. In fact, it is found in only one other manuscript, a Latin copy made in Tours shortly after 800 (now Trier, Stadtbibliothek MS 31).

Trier, Stadtbibliothek, MS 31 (c. 800)

Back to the Leiden fragments. While not much of the original manuscript survives (the smallest of the four strips measures 41×12 mm, the largest 16x107mm), they provide crucial information about the decoration program of the Paris manuscript. The strips connect to Paris in two ways. First, they are illuminated as well, setting the Leiden and Paris copies apart from the other five. More notably, however, the fragments seem to present another instance of the unusual diptych tradition: the page out of which the strips were cut contained on the back the text of Chapter 12, while the front side held an image pertaining to Chapter 11. Certain elements from f. 12r of the Paris manuscript, presenting the image to Chapter 11, can be clearly made out in Leiden. Note for example how the crawling figure attacked by devils in the lower part of the Paris page (displayed above) is found on one of the Leiden strips as well – moreover, the man with his eyes closed is the same one as the individual being decapitated in Paris.

BPL 2454 (13), fragment 4

We can learn quite a bit from these small snippets. Most importantly, the Leiden fragments suggest that the decoration program in Paris is not unique. The diptych presentation, it seems, may have been more widespread in Middle Dutch vernacular. Also, the diptych design not only made use of high-quality miniatures, but apparently also accommodated plain colour drawings, as on the Leiden fragments, which were much cheaper. Readers who purchased such books thus seem to have been given a choice. Given that Leiden is the oldest one, predating Paris by several decades, the Middle Dutch diptych tradition, modest as it may have been, could potentially have had a long life, one that at least goes back to the early second half of the fourteenth century. Most importantly for us fragment lovers, however, is that the tiny Apocalypse remains show there is life beyond the grave, like the message of the text itself.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

A Window Display of 140 Characters: Why and How Twitter Works for Me as an Academic

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

Earlier this year I was invited to join the Young Academy of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences. All of a sudden I found myself in the company of researchers who were relatively young, yet advanced in terms of publications, acquired funding and public outreach. During a lunch leading up to the installation ceremony I noticed how my peers frequently checked and updated their Twitter accounts. Having resisted opening one myself, mainly because I thought it would be time-consuming and useless for academic purposes, I curiously inquired about the upsides. There were plenty, it turned out, and the next day I was on Twitter myself, with my spouse as sole follower. And so I started to tweet to her about medieval manuscripts, handwritten books that form my main area of expertise and investigation, and she pretended she hadn’t heard it all before. Now, six months later, with the 400th follower fast approaching, I thought I’d give a brief account of my experiences. The main purpose is to show other hesitant academics out there that Twitter can be a great platform for showing others what you are passionate about and why your research object matters. Here are three replies to my former hesitant and critical self.

1. Twitter is time-consuming

The most commonly heard negative verdict is that Twitter is time-consuming. This is simply not true. I carefully pick moments that I actively browse my feed and send tweets myself. As opposed to “personal” tweets (“I just bought a loaf of white bread and it smells soooo good!”), research-related tweets do generally not tap into the immediate present. My subject of study is anywhere between 1600 and 600 years old, so if I notice something interesting in a manuscript that is worthwhile sharing, it can wait until my lunch break or until after dinner – my main go-twitter moments. Also, I usually don’t shoot off more than one or two tweets per day – although a few more in the holidays, it turns out. Even though I craft them with care, it usually does not take me more then two minutes to find a suitable manuscript picture (I am tapping from my very large image database as well as the web) and write a caption – which is a format I am trying out at the moment. I find that I do not have to check my feed very often because it rarely contains time-sensitive information. (Mind you, I do not use Twitter to communicate with colleagues and friends due to the biggest downside of the medium, namely the virtual absence of the means to archive.)

2. I have nothing to say

While I have never met a colleague at a conference who did not talk passionately about his or her research, often unprompted, another reason why academics are hesitant to join, it seems, is the idea that you have to say something special, new, or original. I find that how I use Twitter – I want to show the largest and broadest possible audience how marvelous the world of the medieval manuscript is – even the most common observations (from my professional point of view) are worthwhile sharing. After all, as an academic you do not tweet for yourself but for others: as the title of this blog indicates, I see my tweets as mini window displays in which my object of study shines for a brief moment. “Sharing is nice,” to quote the sign at my table here in this busy Vancouver coffee shop. Popular tweets (in terms of the number of retweets and replies) are those that state simple facts, accompanied by a vivid image, such as this one:


3. Who on earth would be in interested in this?

I hear colleagues remark that nobody out there is interested in their thoughts. While this may be true in the real world, the Twitter community is so crowded that there is bound to be a significant number of individuals interested in the information you provide via tweets. The most important thing, I think, is to find a niche that you are comfortable with – a certain subject, tone, and manner of presentation – and stick to that format. If you build it, they will come. I am having great fun putting out tweets, especially those that present an image and a captivating description. People who do not like this will not follow my feed. Consequently, my way of putting information out there (i.e. information I find worth sharing, presented in my own way) will automatically become part of a network of individuals with the same interest and who like my way of dealing with the subject matter. With Twitter, it seems, you always have the right audience. That said, it is not easy to find a balance between providing factual information (building blocks of a tweet) and entertainment (an equally crucial component). I try to be witty, but not all the time. I provide factual details, but not always. Mixing up different ways in which you put your research out there seems to be key – to increase the number of followers with whom you share information, that is. And so after a few serious tweets I send one that is totally over the top, whose sole purpose is exclusively to entertain, as for example my most popular tweet to date (57 retweets):


Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Secrets of the Heart: Exploring the Dark Side of the Manuscript

In the heart of the medieval book, where the quires are united and meet the binding, great secrets loom in the dark. This is the place where we can read things in the manuscript that cannot be read on its pages: whether it is composite and in what manner it is composite. The question of whether a collection of texts was copied continuously or whether it was formed by binding together independently produced units, is of the utmost importance for understanding the object’s genesis and for “getting” the texts as a collection. Providing an answer to this query is difficult, however, because it depends on facts buried deep inside the quire construction of the book – which may, moreover, not be obtained without upsetting librarians. Nevertheless, one must persevere, treading as carefully as possible, because exploring the dark side of the manuscript pays off.

Composite manuscript: The booklets give themselves away by their varying dimensions.

The first thing to do is assessing whether a manuscript is composite or not. Determining that an object is not composite is easy enough. A collection of texts copied continuously is usually written by the same scribe. Mind you, in such case the book may still be composite, for the scribe may have united individual units he copied in the past. However, if the writing style (duct) and ink color are the same throughout, and especially if all catchwords are in place and in the same style, the text collection was likely copied in one “go”. There is one trap, hidden in plain sight: a book produced by multiple scribes may still be copied continuously. Sometimes a scribe stopped working on a project and another took over. The individuals usually tried to hide such transitions by “breaking” at the very end of a page: the first stopped after completing the last line on the recto side of the leaf, the second started with the first line on verso. Less frequently, the switch may also occur in the middle of the page; or even in the middle of a line. This intriguing scenario can usually not be explained. Was the first scribe suddenly overcome with tiredness? Had the abbey beer of the previous night gotten to him? Did he have a blind date with the rubricator?

Team of scribes: hand switch in the middle of a sentence (lines 8/9).

The domain of composite books is much darker – and more slippery. This is in large part due to the fact that such objects can be composite in different ways. They may consist, for example, of units that were designed and created specifically to be bound together, while in other cases such units were merely united because of their similar dimensions. In some composite books all individual units were in use by themselves before they were bound together, while in others only some of them were, or none at all. Consequently, any two individual units of a composite book (and the texts they hold!) may have very different relations to one another: either they are new neighbors or their kinship predates the volume. Descriptions in manuscript catalogues usually do not clarify such relations. The better ones will mention that a manuscript consists of multiple units, but that is often the end of it. Take the following examples, all taken from existing catalogues: “Latin works on science and mathematics assembled from several 13th-century booklets,” “A miscellany of five separate manuscripts,” “A set of five volumes” and “Three independent manuscripts bound together.” The volumes are composite, but how? How are we to understand “assembled” in the first description? And how meaningful is the use of different terms in these examples (“booklets”, “volumes” and “independent manuscripts”)?

Ultimately these descriptions show that bringing the genesis of a manuscript into play in your research normally requires you to go into the field and observe the object “in the flesh”. There is much to gain when you do. For example, the genesis of the book may tell us something about the availability of exemplars – and thus, perhaps, where we may situate the scribe. A scribe may have had all the exemplars he needed in front of him when he started to copy. Then again, he may not, for example because his hunt for exemplars had been only partly successful. Availability is a key consideration for the manuscript to become composite or not. After all, the scribe could wait until he had all the material he needed and copy everything at once. The result would be a full manuscript if he copied a lot of texts, or a booklet if the planned collection was modest in scope. If there was much to copy but there was a supply problem, he could decide to copy the collection in “installments”. The result would be a series of booklets, all in the same hand, bound together in a single volume. As he was waiting for new material to become available, the scribe could start using the booklets he had already copied, adding new installments as he got his hands on more exemplars. This is a different scenario again, one where some pages within a composite book (consisting of several parts copied by one hand) show wear and tear.

Copy and exemplar in a depiction of Jean Miélot as a scribe.

While the examples provided here may suggest that variation is endless, there are, in fact, only a limited number of ways to produce a composite book. Obviously, knowing the possible scenarios helps to deduce in what way a manuscript in front of you is composite. The first step, however, is to realize that the manuscript you are looking at, even when it is copied by one hand throughout, may be the product of extensive tweaking over a long period of time.

About composite books in general:

P.R. Robinson, “A Self-Contained Unit in Composite Manuscripts,” Codicologica 3: Essais typologiques, ed. A. Gruys and J.P. Gumbert (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 46-69.

About the different types of composite manuscripts and the formation of text collections:

Erik Kwakkel, “Late-Medieval Text Collections: A Codicological Typology based on Single-Author Manuscripts,” in Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice, ed. Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 56-79.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.