Category Archives: Book as Object

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.