Category Archives: Book as Object

The First Page of the Medieval Book

This is the first post of my new blog medievalbooks.nl. Until now I have posted short blogs on my Tumblr and longer ones on the collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. As the latter will be coming to an end, this is a good moment to start a blog with longer posts of my own.

For a reader there are few things more exciting than opening a new book and exposing its first page. How will the story start? Where is it set? Who is the main character? For the historian of the medieval book the thrill is the same, albeit for different reasons. As the squeaky wooden board falls open, various questions arise: In what script will the book be written? What layout did the scribe choose? What will the decoration look like?I love the opening page of the medieval book not just because it embodies the start of a new exploration, but also because it reveals the “whole being” of the book. Unique clues can be found on a manuscript’s first page, clues about the artisans that produced the object and the individuals who owned it over the centuries. Moreover, the opening page often provides the first inkling of the purpose for which the manuscript was made. Here we go!

Fig. 1 - Opening page of British Library, Sloane MS 2424 (fol. 1r)
Fig. 1 – Opening page of British Library, Sloane MS 2424 (fol. 1r), 12th century

Artisans
The most “in your face” clue about the individuals who produced the manuscript is provided by the script – the handwriting of a medieval scribe. As you start reading the first page, certain book-historical data starts to flow. The shape of medieval letters transmits two important pieces of information: the scribe’s whereabouts and “whenabouts”. I have blogged about the peculiar process of “sensing” how old a manuscript is (read it here). A similar feeling produces a sense of the country or region where the scribe was trained – and where he, we presume, produced the book. This copy of William of Conches’ Dragmaticon philosophiae (Fig. 1) was clearly produced by a scribe trained in Southern France. Such is suggested, among other things, by the shape of Tironian “et”, which features a firm and long horizontal top that starts far left from centre (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Tironian abbreviation for 'et' (Sloane 2424)
Fig. 2 – Tironian abbreviation for ‘et’ (detail of Fig. 1)

In fact, according to this British Library record François Avril placed the manuscript in Languedoc, in the very south of France. He did so on the basis of the decoration, which is another bookish feature expressing information about the origins of a manuscript. Both the colours of the initial and the “box” placed around it have a Southern-French feel (Fig. 3), showing that both artisans – scribe and decorator – were likely trained in that region. Decoration is a key element in the pursuit of information about the makers of a manuscript. This, in turn, increases the value of the opening page, because many medieval manuscripts (including the one shown in Fig. 1) contain a decorated initial on their first page only. The start of the book had to be celebrated, as it were, providing us with clues as to where that party took place.

Fig. 3 - BL Sloane 2424, fol. 1r (detail), 12th century
Fig. 3 – Decorated initial (detail of Fig. 1)

Owners
The first page is even more important for establishing who owned the manuscript. We often forget that the average medieval book may have had as many as fifteen owners. A thirteenth-century copy, for example, is currently 800 years old. If the average reading life of an individual was forty years (meaning he started to build a library at, say, twenty years of age), we may assume that the thirteenth-century book in question has had twenty different owners. It is no surprise, then, that we often find multiple names and ex-libris inscriptions written down in medieval books.

The first page was a prime location for such details, in part because medieval librarians knew that ownership inscriptions placed on cover- and flyleaves would disappear when the book was rebound. British Library, Sloane MS 2424 features a wide array of  ownership inscriptions on its opening page, both from medieval and modern times. The oldest one is found at the very top: an ex-libris inscription in thirteenth-century cursive script (Fig. 4). It is partly erased (as one does with second-hand books), meaning the identity of the institution who owned the manuscript remains anonymous.

Fig. 4 - British Library, Sloane MS 2424 fol. 1r (ownership inscription, 13th century)
Fig. 4 – Ownership inscription, 13th century (detail of Fig. 1)

The page in question also holds more modern shelfmarks. The number “2424”, written down in an eighteen-century hand, refers to the book’s place in the library of Sir Hans Sloane (d. 1753), who owned the manuscript prior to the British Library (Fig. 5). An earlier shelfmark, “B.27”, scratched out by Sloane, was likely from one of the previous owners – which included Louis Malet and Sir Robert Cotton, as the Schoenberg Database of provenances tells us. A nineteenth-century stamp from the British Library points to the present owner.

British Library, Sloane MS 2424, fol. 1r, 17th century.
Fig. 5 Ownership inscriptions, 18th and 19th centuries (detail of Fig. 1)

 

Purpose
The hardest thing to read from the first page of the medieval manuscript is the purpose for which the object was made. For this kind of information one may turn to dimensions and layout. The pretty manuscript in Fig. 6, for example, has margins that are slightly wider than normal. Originally the margins would have been even larger, considering that the book was bound at least twice, meaning that its width was reduced twice by the binder’s knife. Such broad margins suggest that this twelfth-century book filled with patristic excerpts was designed to be glossed. In fact, a later user did use the provided space for his (illegible) personal notes.

Opening page of British Library, Arundel MS 173 (fol. 1r)
Fig. 6 – Opening page of British Library, Arundel MS 173 (fol. 1r)

As with layout, a page’s dimensions may also provide information about the purpose for which a medieval book was created. Take the peculiar copy of Virgil’s Aeneis in Fig.  7. The book breaks with the norm of medieval book production in that the page is extremely high and narrow. We know that this format was favoured by individuals who used books in a setting of performance, such as soloists in the church and actors on the stage. Similarly, teachers in monastic schools enjoyed the narrow format, which accommodated their walking through the classroom as Virgil’s text was used to teach novices Latin grammar – a common use for classical manuscripts in this age. In sum, the likely function of Harley 2777 already jumps off its first page.

British Library, Harley MS 2777, fol. 1r, 12th century
Fig. 7 – Opening page of British Library, Harley MS 2777, fol. 1r, 12th century

 

For the impatient scholar who cannot wait to see the first page, narrow books like the Harley Virgil are perfect. After all, its unusual dimensions, which are so very telling for the manuscript’s purpose, are already evident when the manuscript is still sitting in its box, unopened. Even before the first page is consulted, the manuscript has already transmitted some of its secrets.

Note – You may want to check out the accompanying post devoted to the manuscript’s ‘last’ page, which was published on my project’s collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. It is reposted below (or click here).

 

What is the Oldest Book in the World?

The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.

What you do when you are kept up at night with such an existentialistic query is to consult Google. However, what Google returns does not make me a happy camper. In fact, I am provided with a very broad range of possible answers. First of all, let’s remove the weed, answers that are the result of flawed reasoning. A lot of websites, for example, confuse “book” with “text”. Wiki Answers reports: “the oldest book in the world is the Bible” (here). And Ask.com: “The oldest book in the world is entitled ‘The Instructions of Shurupak'”, which dates from 3000 BCE (here). A book and a text are, of course, very different things: like a hamburger in a bun or your legs in a pair of pants, a book contains a text, but it is not its equivalent. Equally incorrect are websites whose claims are based on the premise that a book is a printed object. Thus the oldest book in the world must surely be the Gutenberg Bible (oldest printed book in the West, from c. 1455) or Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra (oldest printed book in the East, from c. 868), as in this Huffington Post article. No, it’s not.

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed 11 May 868
1. Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China, 11 May 868.
More carefully phrased answers can be equally confusing, even when provided by reputable institutions. When the British Library purchased the St Cuthbert Gospel, the seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1104, newspapers claimed the library was in possession of “Europe’s oldest book” (see for example here and here). In its press release the British Library qualified its purchase as “the oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which is to say that it survived in its original binding (here). While this nuance is welcome, the claim feels forced – and not just because the press release atypically calls an English book “European”, no doubt to increase the impact of the purchase. The thing is, many medieval books were designed and used without a binding, which raises the question of whether the binding should even be made part and parcel of the concept “book”. Notably, if bindings are taken out of play there are other books older than the St Cuthbert Gospel, such as the sixth-century herbary right here in Leiden (Pic 2).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600)
2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600).
The issue of what precisely constitutes a “book” also lies at the heart of another prominent hit in my Google search. Stop the press, the oldest book in the world is an object that consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold written in a lost Etruscan language around 600 BC (check out the BBC news item here)! The sheets are “believed to be the oldest comprehensive work involving multiple pages”, according to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, where it is kept (Pic 3). Significant is the following assessment of the museum: similar sheets are scattered throughout the world, but those are not linked together, and therefore do not represent a book. A book, the underlying premise suggests, is an object that consists of multiple leaves bound together. So far so good – we have started our initial descent towards our answer.
Old Etruscan "book", made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
3. Old Etruscan “book”, made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
Unfortunately, the shiny Etruscan object cannot be called “the oldest book in the world”. The reason is that it consists of unfolded single sheets (golden plates, actually), which are held together by two rings (as seen in Pic 3). However, the codex (the book before print and therefore the oldest type of real book in the world) is not an object that merely consists of a bunch of leaves. It is, by contrast and definition, built from double leaves: sheets that are folded into quires. Looking for the oldest book, then, we should look among objects made from bendy, foldable writing material: papyrus (made from the plant), parchment (animal skin) and paper. Of these three writing supports papyrus is the oldest. It was roughly used for four kinds of objects: i) Unfolded sheets, used for notes and documentary purposes (example); ii) Rolls, i.e. unfolded sheets that were attached at their short side (example); iii) Book-like objects made up from group of unfolded single sheets (‘singletons’) bound together; iv) Real books made from quires (“codices”).Bingo!The oldest book must be made of papyrus. Which one could it be, however? Our search is made easy by the fact that very few papyrus books of old age survive. There are some from the seventh or eight century AD (see this one, for example, or this one). The really old specimens, however, are fragments from once complete sheets (Pic 4).
Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)
4. Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)

It is their fragmentary nature that constitutes the last – killer – hurdle on our way to the finish line. From a surviving papyrus fragment we can, unfortunately, not deduce – at least as far as I can tell – if it originally belonged to an unfolded (single) leaf or a folded (double) sheet. While catalogues often tell you that a papyrus fragment was part of a codex, in other words, that it belonged to a book made from quires (here is an example), we can, in fact, not know for sure if this was the case. Unless it sports a sharp fold, the oldest book in the world will therefore remain hidden in its vault, old but deprived of its prize.

Post-scriptum (30 Dec 2013): a recent British Library blog shows what the bindings of papyrus codices looked like. Read it here.

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.

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.

First They Kiss and Then They Bite: How Letters in Love Make History

If you don’t know when something precisely happened, can you still call it a historical event? What is the historian to do with information from a source that is not dated? What if it mentions how an official was murdered, that he fell by the knife, and that his killer was a student? Details abound, but dateless the event is largely meaningless. Historical information floating in time remains ordinary: a murder is a murder, nothing more.

For the disciplines that study the Middle Ages such undated sources are common. From circa 1500, at the close of the period, we have the luxury of knowing precisely when a source was produced. At that point in time, after all, such information was placed on the first – title – page of the book. How unlucky we medievalists are. We depend on thousands of handwritten sources that were made before the invention of the title page and which are, consequently, by and large undated. How are we to write the history of an age with so much “floating” information? This complex query has a seemingly simple answer: by learning how to date.

In order to so, paleographers like myself study the shape of letters. There is something magical about handwritten letters that makes them irresistible to me. A medieval scribe who wrote information on parchment did so, like we do today, in his own, individual manner. When we receive a letter from a loved one we intuitively recognize his or her handwriting merely by glancing at it. The process takes a split-second and may occur from as much as a meter away. It shows that each individual embeds, subconsciously, personal traits into the letters that flow out of his or her pen. Beholders somehow pick up on these “signals” frozen in the shape of letters. A sentence written on parchment becomes a skyline that might be recognized from afar – because we have visited the city before. An experienced paleographer looking at medieval manuscripts thus recognizes a scribal hand: “Zap!” it goes in his head.

Another “Zap!” moment arrives when the paleographer activates the part of his brain that intuitively tells him how old a specimen of writing is. Curiously, in this case it is not the individual traits that are important, but the generic ones. While handwriting with only unique characteristics is hard to date, one that conforms to contemporary trends is easier to place in time. Instinct and experience are crucial in this process: the experienced eye of the paleographer recognizes the script of an individual as exponent of a style of writing that is particular for a certain period – or geographical location, but that is another story. With such verdicts as “early thirteenth century” or “middle of the fourteenth century” information is secured in time.

One of the most significant challenges for the discipline of paleography is to transform these intuitive verdicts into assessments that are objective and substantiated with quantifiable data. The physical shape of the letter is still the point of departure but it is given a different role to play. In my own work two processes are important in this respect: to describe the shape of a letter (or even an individual stroke) as precisely as possible; and subsequently measuring how the shape evolved over time. In my experience, the latter is best done with manuscripts that, by exception, do contain a date. They are usually written down by the scribe on the last page of the manuscript. From these dated books one can deduce how a given letter was constructed physically at a certain point in time – or even in a particular geographical location, if the scribe also tells us where he wrote the book. If the corpus of dated books is large enough and spans enough years, we may witness how a letter developed over time. When the script of an undated manuscript is subsequently placed alongside this reconstructed time line of script development, a likely date of production may emerge.

Take the following example from the twelfth century, the period studied in our “Turning Over a New Leaf” project. Over the course of this century we notice how letter pairs with contrasting round strokes – like be or od– undergo a remarkable development. Blown up on a 29-inch screen it becomes clear that at the outset of the century the pairs are always separated: white space is clearly visible in between the individual parts that make up the pair. Halfway the century, however, we witness how the couples hesitatingly (but barely) start to touch one another, a process that is called “kissing”. Near the end of the century, finally, the pairs slightly overlap, a process known as “fusion” or “biting”. From distant strangers to couples in love: the stages of development turn out to be perfectly datable.

No kissing occurs in “hoc”
Letter pair “do” is kissing

Now the historian can do his thing. With an accurately dated source, information is given its rightful place in history, turning ordinary murder into historical event and adding to our understanding of the medieval period. Letter shapes thus calibrate our sense of dating. They anchor events in time so they can make history.

Want to know more about script development in the twelfth century?
 
Erik Kwakkel, “Kissing, Biting and the Treatment of Feet: The Transitional Script of the Long Twelfth Century,” in Erik Kwakkel, Rosamond McKitterick and Rodney Thomson, Turning Over a New Leaf: Change and Development in the Medieval Book (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012), 79-126.
Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.