Category Archives: Book Culture

Judging a Book by its Cover

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

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

1. Text on leather

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

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

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

2. Title labels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Spine titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Posters

In our modern society there are words everywhere around us, all the time. They are not only written in books – that fair and most devoted carrier of text – but also on walls, where they appear in all shapes and sizes. Judging from surviving paintings, it appears that in medieval times it was less common to have words – text – displayed on walls. Looking at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous fresco Effects of Good Government in the City (1338-1340) one would assume medieval walls to be spotless, both indoors and outdoors (Fig. 1) – here is another example.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340)
Fig. 1 – Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340) – Source

Surviving artefacts suggest, however, that this medieval imagery is deceptive, that the streets we are shown in paintings were probably virtually cleaned by the painter. While rare, different types of posters survive that were once stuck to medieval walls. Curiously, they are often quite functional and bear striking resemblances to posters on our own walls

1. Advertisements
As I have shown in this older blog post, the world of the medieval book was riddled with advertisement; spam even. Medieval scribes and early-modern printers praised their own work in order to draw a crowd to their shops: “If you also want a beautiful copy like this, come and see me across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral”, the entrepreneur-scribe Herneis wrote in the back of a book with stories in Old French, which he had just completed (image here). Herneis tried to lure the reader of this spam message to the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, where a large group of commercial book makers were situated, namely all those who sold books in the French language. For Latin books you needed to go to the Rue St Jacques, in the Latin Quarter where students and teachers lived.

Because tradesmen of a certain kind usually had shops in the same neighbourhood, medieval citizens knew precisely where to go when they needed a book, a candle or a good chair – or all three, the perfect combination. This location sharing by individuals selling the same goods also came with a problem: how to convince the reader to step into your shop and not the neighbour’s? This is where the first poster comes in: the advertisement sheet (Figs. 2-3).

The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447)
Fig. 2 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447) – Source
Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (c. 1400) – Source and more

Both fragments seen here were once part of much larger sheets, which displayed many different types of scripts. It allowed the commercial scribe to show off how well he could write and just how many different scripts (medieval typefaces) he has mastered. The one seen in Fig. 2 even displays letters written in gold, as if to tempt the reader to take a closer look at all the pretty letters on display.

The back of advertisement sheets are empty and in some cases their corners display rusty holes, which suggests they were pinned to a wall. A German sheet from 1516 invites the beholder to “come in if you see something you like”, showing that this particular sheet acted as mini window displays outside of a shop. Because such sheets also presented the names of the scripts, as seen in Figs. 2-3, the client could simply enter and tell the scribe in what kind of script he wanted his book to be written out – for example in ‘fracta’, ‘rotunda’ or ‘modus copiistarum’. These posters show us just how advanced the book trade is even before the invention of print: a jargon had emerged that united artisans and connected clients to commercial makers of books.

2. Maps

Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300)
Fig. 4 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – source and more
Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake)
Fi. 5 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake) – Source

Much better known posters are wall maps, though these too survive in small numbers. The perhaps best known specimen is the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 4), which was produced around 1300 and measures an astonishing 1.5 x 1.3 meters. This particular map was perhaps first put on display in Hereford Cathedral for the benefit of pilgrims, although 17th-century references suggest that by that time it was placed in the library, perhaps so it could be consulted for study purposes (source). The map contains, after all, over a thousand inscriptions and legends, such as that of the Mandrake, with roots for hair – and immortalised by the Harry Potter books (Fig. 5).

Remarkably, the Hereford map is made of a single sheet, meaning the piece of parchment at its heart was once draped around a monster of a calf. Much larger still is the older Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, which measures 3.6 x 3.6 meters and was produced in the late thirteenth century (Fig. 6). This beast of a poster, which would cover a full wall in a modern bedroom, was produced from the skins of no less than 30 goats.

Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (13th century)
Fig. 6 – Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – Source

The Ebstorf map, which was sadly lost in the Allied bombing of Hanover in October 1943, was produced for contemplative purposes for the inhabitants of the Benedictine nunnery of Ebstorf. It allowed the beholder to observe God’s creation, the world, in all its details (more about its function here).

3. Library Catalogues
Surviving artefacts highlight the existence of yet a third category of medieval posters: wall catalogues. Again these are fairly large sheets, sometimes composed of several animal skins. The information on these objects is of a most practical kind, given that it showed readers where in the library they could find copies of certain texts (Fig. 7). As explained in this blog post, the catalogue was one of a series of instruments that helped readers find their way around the sometimes large collection of books in the monastery.

Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century) – Source

The object originally measured 800 × 590 mm and displays the contents of the library of Lopsen Abbey near Leiden, where it was pinned to the wall considering the holes in its corners. The inventory is divided into categories, such as “libri refectoriales” (books read during the meals) and “libri devoti et utiles” (books for personal, spiritual development), while books within these categories are simply numbered with Roman numerals. It shows that this is an inventory more than a catalogue. The absence of proper shelfmarks meant the reader had to go and hunt individual copies when he arrived at the lectern that held a certain category of books.

As you would expect from objects that were attached to damp walls, their backs may show signs of mould, as is the case in another wall catalogue surviving from the Low Countries (Fig. 8, lower left corner).

Deventer_Athenaeum_Library
Fig. 9 – Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, fragment of wall catalogue, back – Photo EK, more here

There was likely much more on display on the medieval wall. The problem, however, is that even if such posters survive, it is difficult to determine that the items in question were just that. To be sure, certain damage needs to be observed, such as pin holes or mould. Quite often we just don’t know for sure if we are dealing with a display sheet, even though there are good reasons to suspect it. For example, the preserver of manuscripts at the Royal Library The Hague, Ed van der Vlist, recently found two heavily-damaged fragments (from the same item) that fit the bill quite well: a single sheet with a text on John the Baptist of which the back remains blank (Fig. 9).

The Hague, Royal library, MS 131 D 1B (15th century)
Fig. 9 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 131 D 1B, front and back (15th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist (KB)

However, while this item may well have been pinned to a wall at some point, the backside does not show any evidence of such an attachment: there is no damage or mould visible. Sadly, the example shows how a particularly fascinating type of written artefact from the age before print, the precursor of our modern poster, may be doomed to remain obscure and understudied.

Chain, Chest, Curse: Combating Book Theft in Medieval Times

Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe? You’re probably not inclined to do this, because the object in question might be stolen. The medieval reader would nod his head approvingly, because book theft happened in his day too. In medieval times, however, the loss was much greater, given that the average price of a book – when purchased by an individual or community – was much higher. In fact, a more appropriate question would be whether you would leave the keys in the ignition of your car with the engine running when you enter Starbucks to order a coffee. Fortunately, the medieval reader had various strategies to combat book theft. Some of these appear a bit over the top to our modern eyes, while others seem not effective at all.

Chains
The least subtle but most effective way to keep your books safe was to chain them to a bookcase. Walking around in a “chained library” is an unreal experience (Fig. 1). There is nothing like seeing a medieval book in its natural habitat, where the chains produce a “cling-cling” sound when you walk too close to them – a sound that must have been familiar to medieval users of chained libraries.

The chained library of Hereford Cathedral
Fig. 1 – The chained library of Hereford Cathedral – Source
Fig. 2 – Zutphen, “Librije” Chained Library (16th century) – Photo EK (more here)

While there are only a modest number of chained libraries still in existence today (in my own country just one remains, Fig. 2), many of the medieval books we consult in modern libraries were once part of such a collection of “imprisoned” books. Objects that were once chained can be identified with ease, either from the attached chain (Fig. 3) or from the imprint it left in the wood of the book binding (example here, lower edge). The links of the chain are remarkably crude and clunky, although they have a certain charm as well (Fig. 4 and image all the way at the top, taken from this source).

University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84 (15th or 16th-century chain)
Fig. 3 – University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84 (15th or 16th-century chain) – Source
Zutphen, Librije Chained Library - Photo Julie Somers
Fig. 4 – Zutphen, “Librije” Chained Library (16th century) – Photo Julie Somers

The primary reason for chaining a book was, obviously, safekeeping. Just like phones and tablets on display in modern stores are fixed to their display tables with straps, these precious medieval books were bolted to the library that owned them. This feature of stabilitas loci (to allude to the Benedictine ideal of staying in one location your entire life) turns the chain into something interesting beyond the strictly book-historical. It shows, after all, that the text inside the object was available in a public or semi-public place, such as a church or a cathedral. In other words, chains (or traces of them) suggest how information was accessed.

Book chests
Not all chained books were part of a real library – say a room with one or more bookcases. The famous seventeenth-century “Gorton Chest” from Chetham’s Library shows that books were also chained inside a book chest (Fig. 5, more here and here). This particular example was made in 1658 to contain 68 volumes that were purchased from the bequest of Humphrey Chetham. The lot made up the full extent of the parochial library of Gorton Chapel.

Chetham_Library_Book_Chest
Fig. 5 – Manchester, Chetham’s Library, Gorton chest, made in 1655 – Source

While book chests were a common phenomenon in medieval times, most of them did not actually feature chains. Surviving specimens suggest that the majority were merely wooden boxes, often enforced, that were fitted with one or more locks. The one that still survives in Merton College library, dating from the fourteenth-century, is a good example of such an object (Fig. 6). The theft-prevention plan of these chests was simple yet effective: the filled object was too heavy to move or steal, while the locks kept the contents safe from theft. In a sense, the heavy and enforced chest is the equivalent of a modern safe. Similar chests were used for other kinds of precious objects as well (here is one not made for books).

Oxford, Merton College, book chest (14th century)
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Merton College, book chest (14th century) – Photo EK

Cursing
Considering these two practical theft-prevention techniques – chaining your books to something unmovable or putting them into a safe – the third seems kind of odd: to write a curse against book thieves inside the book. Your typical curse (or anathema) simply stated that the thief would be cursed, like this one in a book from an unidentified Church of St Caecilia: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act” (source and image). Some of these book curses really rub it in: “If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgement the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ” (source).

Book curses appear both in Latin and the vernacular, including in non-Western traditions, like Arabic (example here). Fig. 7 shows an Anglo-Saxon curse from the second half of the eleventh century, in a manuscript donated to Exeter Cathedral by bishop Leofric. This combination (of curse and donated book) is encountered more often. The inscription at the bottom of the page in Fig. 8 notes that the book was donated to Rochester Priory in Kent by Ralph of Stoke. The notation ends with a short book curse.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 2.16 (12th century)
Fig. 7 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 2.16 (12th century) – Source
British Library, Royal MS 2 C.i (written c. 1220)
Fig. 8 – British Library, Royal MS 2 C.i (written c. 1220) – Source

These two cases suggest that the receivers of the gifts felt compelled to treat the given object with extra care. A similar sentiment is encountered in some books that were copied by individuals who were, for some reason, important to a religious house. In the early twelfth century, one Humphrey was precentor in Rochester Priory, Kent, meaning he lead the congregation in singing during the mass. He is also known as a scribe who copied a number of books for the community in a particularly dazzling script. One of these books he copied bears a curse as well as a note “In memory of Humphrey the precentor” right below it (Fig. 9). The apparent significance to the community may well be the reason why a curse was added.

BL_Royal_5_B.xii
Fig. 9 – British Library, Royal MS 5 B.xii (dated 1115) – Source

Optimism
Book curses raise a lot of interesting questions. Were they indeed favoured for books of special significance? Are we to understand their presence as a sign that librarians and book owners really thought the inscriptions were effective? And if they were, why not place them in all books contained in the library? No matter the answers to these queries, there is a certain optimism embedded in such notations: the writer of the note apparently believed that a gentle reminder would bring potential thieves around and they might consequently not take the object.

Interestingly, the same optimism is echoed by inscriptions that ask the finder or thief of a book to return the object to its rightful owner. A Middle English note reads: “Ho so me fond er ho so me took I am // jon Fosys Boke” (Whoever found me or whoever took me, I am John Foss’s book) (Fig. 10, information taken from this article).

St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS Lat. F.v.I. N 70 (14th century)
Fig. 10 – St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS Lat. F.v.I. N 70 (14th century) – Source

Notes like this bring us back to Starbucks, where I have seen similar requests stuck to the wall: whoever took my iPad, please return it, or at least return the files on it. Just as in modern times, medieval books were likely also not often returned. In fact, the example of John Foss’s book gives us reason for pessimism: in the inscription the name is written on erasure, meaning that an earlier name, of a previous owner, was erased with a knife. Curiously, this makes John Foss the potential thief of this book. If this is indeed the case, the thief identifies himself by altering the very book curse that was aimed at people like him.

Post-scriptum: more on chained libraries in this post and on the one in Zutphen here. The link to the image of the curse related to the Church of St Caecilia was provided by Elizabeth Archibald (@Elizarchibald).

Half Full, Half Empty: The Peculiar Medieval Page

Margins are both a universal and remarkable feature of books. From the very earliest specimens produced two millennia ago, to the e-readers we use today, books contain pages that hold both text and a significant amount of blank space. What a strange pair they are: words, the primary reason for the book’s existence; and a vast emptiness present on all sides of the text. A particularly remarkable aspect of marginal space is that there is so much of it in medieval books. My own work on the twelfth century, reflecting broader medieval patterns, shows that pages from that period consist of approximately 50% margin, although in some cases it can be significantly more. This implies, astonishingly, that the majority of medieval books are half empty, despite the fact that parchment was expensive and sometimes even hard to come by. Why is this?

Tradition

London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century)
Fig. 1 – London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century) – Source

One answer to this question is a simple one: because this is how books were traditionally made. Medieval scribes took over a great deal of material features first introduced by their counterparts in Antiquity. The book as we know it – i.e. an object produced from quires (bundles of folded sheets) – came into existence in the fourth century, as discussed in my post What is the Oldest Book in the World?  The pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek New Testament copied around the middle of the fourth century, measures 381 x 345 mm (height x width), while the text itself only takes up 250×310 mm (height x width). A simple calculation reveals that the text takes up 58% of the page, while 42% is reserved for the outer margins. In other words, a little under half of this magnificent book is empty.

Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250)
Fig. 2 – Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250) –  Source

Going back even further, papyrus manuscripts from Antiquity also included a considerable amount of marginal space. This is seen, for example, in Fig. 2, which shows the remains of a copy of Paul’s Epistles written between 150 and 250 CE. While the margins have been reduced post-production through damage (the edges of the papyrus eroded), the upper margin, which is largely intact, shows how the scribe reserved ample marginal space. The extensive medieval margin is, in one way, simply a continuation of an older practice.

Toolbox
The early papyrus book in Fig. 2 highlights that it was also convenient to have an empty space around the text. It meant that you could fill them with tools that may be helpful when consulting the book. A particularly important reading aid is visible at the top of the papyrus page: the capital version of the Greek letter Mu (looking like an M), which represents the Greek number 40 (Fig. 3). In other words, this is a very early page number (folium number), an instrument that is apparently some two thousand years old and predates the printed book by over a millennium.

Detail of Fig. 1
Fig. 3 – Detail of Fig. 2

There are many other kinds of aids encountered in the margins of medieval books, including cross references to other books or locations in the same manuscript, quotation marks, labels that indicate who the quoted author is, and chapter numbers. A particularly prominent aid is the running title placed in the upper margin. The one in Fig. 4 states “Physicorum”, indicating this is Aristotle’s Physics. This particular manuscript contains several Aristotle texts, which were popular in the university classroom. The student or teacher who was browsing through the book for certain information was greatly helped by these sign posts.

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century) – Source

Notes
While the margin did a good job accommodating the relatively short reading aids, it could be challenging to add large amounts of text to the void surrounding the main text. Fig. 5 shows a schoolbook from c. 1100 that was donated to Egmond Abbey near Amsterdam by one Baldwinus, a teacher in Flanders. The text in the book, Lucan’s Pharsalia, was used in the medieval classroom, and it is therefore no surprise that numerous explanatory notes have been added to the text, probably by Baldwinus himself.

Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100) – Photo EK

There is something special about these marginal notes: they are preceded by symbols that are the precursor of our modern footnote (more about this early practice in this post). The symbol links a remark in the margin to a specific location in the main text. The symbol seen in Fig. 5 resembles the number 7 and is perhaps the Tironian note for “et”.

Detail of Fig. 3
Fig. 5 – Detail of Fig. 4

Despite these add-ons, the schoolbook from c. 1100 is not really prepared to hold extensive notes. Baldwinus could have crammed more text in the margins, had he copied in a smaller script or increased the number of lines for the marginal text passages (presently, their number corresponds to the main text). However, this was not yet common practice in his day and age. In the scholastic age, by contrast, when university students needed to add a lot of extra information in the margin, these two tricks were applied, as seen in Fig. 3 – note the tiny script of the marginal notes, as well as the increased number of lines compared to the main text.

Convention
The examples in this post have shown different ways in which the margin, that handy device inherited from Antiquity, was put to good use by scribes and readers. However, it has not discussed why medieval margins were so large. Why keep as much as half of the page blank? Surely a quarter would be sufficient to add notes or tools?  While there are manuscripts that exhibit pages with tiny or no margins, there are not many. Leiden University library owns one of these exceptions: an early-eleventh-century schoolbook made from scrap parchment, the pages of which were filled to the brim (Fig. 6).

Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)

Interestingly, the teacher who copied this book diverted from the medieval convention related to page design in that he opted not to add substantial blank spaces. His use of scrap parchment (offcuts that were left over after the regular sheets were cut from the animal skin) indicates this was a low-cost book project. In other words, making maximum use of the available space on the page is likely motivated by cost considerations: it ultimately limited the number sheets necessary to copy this collection of (classical) texts.

While the choice for large margins may have a basis in a shared idea of perfect proportions, something modern book designers would call the “golden ratio” (see herehere and here), the notion of convention is probably the ultimate drive. There are plenty of conventions in medieval book production that don’t have an obvious explanation. The relative dimensions of the page is one of them: the width of medieval books tends to be about 70% of its height (see my Books on a Diet post for some curious exceptions), but why is this so? And why do quires predominantly consist of four folded sheets? Why are page numbers placed in the upper rather than lower margin? The bottom line is that large margins may simply have been something that medieval readers had come to expect from the object in front of them.

Postscriptum – This post was written in celebration of a conference devoted to the medieval margin, which I attended in June 2015 (details and abstracts here). More on the unusual Leiden scrap manuscript in the essay I wrote for this volume. Also make sure to check out this blog by the Marginal Scholarship project. I owe the title of this post to Julie Somers.

Medieval Bargain Books

If you are like me, you probably have two types of books on your shelves: some are new, others are second-hand. The two are very different entities: new copies are expensive, pristine and present a current publication; second-hand ones, by contrast, are damaged, may smell of cigars, and potentially present an older edition of the text it holds. Apart from the cigar smell, not much has changed since medieval times. In that era, too, books were bought both new and pre-owned. And like today, their value differed greatly. We know this in part thanks to a rare yet familiar piece of information that is sometimes encountered in a medieval book: the price tag (Fig. 1).

Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 12th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK

Valuating books
The medieval bookseller carefully set a value on the new and second-hand books that he offered for sale. While it is difficult to deduce what factors were precisely in play in this valuation process, availability and looks were probably deemed very important. Manuscripts with illustrations or with a decorated binding may, for example, have been more expensive than plain copies bound in a parchment wrapper. Unlike today, less important was the text’s edition (there were no publishers, editions, or even title pages) or how pristine the copy in question was (it was common for medieval readers to jot down notes, so few copies were truly pristine).

Surviving price tags, while rare, add a real-world dynamic to these inferences and assumptions. The tags are usually found on the first page of the book, commonly at the top or bottom so that they could be easily found (Fig. 1). Book owners sometimes added these prices to their book  inventories, which therefore provide a great source of information about the value of books – even when the copies themselves no longer exist (Fig. 2).

London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century – Source

On this page the books owned by Symonis Bozoun are listed (column on the far left) and next to them the price he paid for them (column on the far right). Bozoun (d. 1352) was prior of the Benedictine cathedral priory at Norwich and the page enumerates the books he personally owned. Such lists show that customers valued knowing what they paid for a book, which may also explain why price tags sometimes remain in surviving copies.

Plain price tags
There are roughly two types of price tag. First there is the plain one, which merely presents a number expressing how much money needed to be forked over in order to own the object (Figs. 1, 3 and 4). The one in Fig. 1 reads “2 s[olidus]” (= shilling) and seems a real bargain. The manuscript in Fig. 3 was sold for “15 s[olidus]” (the note at the top of the page) and was thus considerably more expensive.  With “8 s[olidus]” the manuscript in Fig. 4 was priced “mid-range”.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 104 (13th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 104, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK
Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 186 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 168, 13th century (text) and 16th century (tag) – Photo EK

Such plain tags are almost always found in second-hand copies. That the manuscripts above were sold second-hand can be determined from the handwriting: while the price tags date from the fifteenth century (Figs. 1 and 3) and the sixteenth century (Fig. 4), the books themselves were copied in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (see the captions). This implies, of course, that the copies were several centuries old when the bookseller put these tags in. It also shows how the texts they contain – Claudianus (Fig. 1), excerpts from Priscian (Fig. 3), and Macrobius’ commentary on The Dream of Scipio (Fig. 4) – remained valuable, even though reading and learning practices had evolved considerably between the books’ production and resale.

Complex price tags

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (commercial book atelier, 1325-1350) – Source

The second type of price tag, which is even more rare, brings us to the heart of the commercial book trade (Fig. 5). Rather than presenting a single amount of money that needs to be paid, placed there by a bookseller, it provides an itemised bill that covers all stages of book production. Take this one, found in Cambridge, Peterhouse College, MS 110:

Pro pergamo 27 quat. precium quaterni iii d. Summa vi s. ix d.
Pro scriptura eorundem viz. xvi d. pro quaterno. Summa xxxvi s.
Pro luminacione viii d.
Pro ligacione ii s

This “price tag” provides a wealth of information: it shows us how much was paid for the parchment (3 pence per quire, or 6 shilling and 9 pence total), for the copying of the text (16 pence per quire, or 36 shilling total), for the illumination (8 pence) and for the bookbinding (2 shilling). In this case it was the book’s owner who wrote these expenses down, likely to keep track of how much he paid the artisans who executed the different stages of book production. It was more common, however, that such itemised bills were drawn up by the individual who coordinated the book project, a person called “libraire” in medieval French account books and “stationer” in English ones.

To provide such tallies, the artisan who copied or decorated had to keep track of how many quires he had already completed. From time to time we encounter penciled notes that helped the artisan do just that. In Fig. 6 we see (faintly) how the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis jots down how much money he is owed by the libraire (just above the line in ink at the very bottom). As a subcontractor working for different booksellers Jehan had to make sure he got paid for his sweat and tears.

Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)
Fig. 6 – The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71 A 24 (13th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist

Price tags add considerably to our understanding of the medieval book trade. They not only show how much medieval books differed in price, but we can even relate these differences to specific material and textual features of the books in which they survive. The perhaps most striking thing about medieval price tags, however, is that they allow us to trace second-hand copies and observe how much cheaper they were than new ones – a dimension that remains understudied in current scholarship. Ironically, today these medieval “bargain” books usually fetch enormous sums of money at auction houses (10 million is no exception, see here). Equally ironic, while in the trade of modern second-hand books older price tags usually devaluate a copy, their presence in medieval manuscripts usually increase their value considerably.

Postscriptum – See this blog for more information on commercial book production in medieval times; here you can read about book advertisements and spam. This piece discusses another rare source for book prices, colophons at the end of texts. I traced the price tags in the Leiden manuscripts (Figs. 1, 3 and 4) via Peter Gumbert’s catalogue of the BPL collection (here). More about the medieval book trade in my “Commercial Organisation and Economic Innovation,” in The Production of Books in England, 1350-1530, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, 14 (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), 173-91.

Rare Medieval Name Tags

A word of warning: this post may make you want to weep. Last week I blogged about tiny pieces of parchment, paper birch bark, and wood that were filled with short messages from individuals in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (check out Texting in Medieval Times). The snippets – from a soldier’s request for more beer to a duke’s shopping list – were made cheaply and with little care because the messages on them were not meant to be kept long. Although such ephemeral material doesn’t normally survive, it forms an important historical source: it provides a rare glimpse on everyday life in medieval times.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnummer 519, Inv. nr. 3384 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnummer 519, Inv. nr. 3384 (15th century) – Photo EK

More than in any other medieval document I have seen, such an intimate view of medieval life is provided by a type of written object I encountered for the first time this week (Fig. 1). When visiting the restoration lab at the regional archives in Leiden (Erfgoed Leiden en omstreken) my eyes were drawn to a photograph on the wall that showed a tiny strip of paper from the fifteenth century. I returned the next day to order up the slips from the vault and see for myself what they were all about. Here is the powerful story of a collection of medieval name tags, which may be best consumed with a tissue handy by.

Name tags
The fifteenth-century strips are written in Middle Dutch and kept in the archive of the medieval Holy Spirit Orphanage in the city of Leiden (Dutch: Heilige Geest- of Arme Wees- en Kinderhuis). Founded in 1316, the orphanage was connected to the parish of St Peter (more here). The building is still there and is situated less than 100 meters from the massive Church of Hoogland (Hooglandse Kerk), which can be seen towering over the city from miles away. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the charitable organisation was responsible for the care of foundlings and children.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 1 (15th century)
Fig. 2 Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 1 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 2 (15th century)
Fig. 3 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 2 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 3 (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 3 (15th century) – Photo EK

The paper slips, some of which are as small as 10×30 mm, add a real-world dimension to what we know about medieval orphanages. The examples above read: “This child is named Bartholomew” (Fig. 2: Item Dit kint heeit bartelmeis), “Job is his name” (Fig. 3: Job ist geheten), and “This child’s name is William” (Fig. 4: Dit kint hiet Willem). Each slip shows a pair of holes as well as the indent of a pin, which explains what we are looking at: name tags pinned on foundlings’ clothing as they entered the orphanage. As far as I know, this is the only surviving collection of medieval name tags, and it is a mystery why they were kept in the orphanage’s archive for five centuries.

Who wrote them?
The tag collection can probably be divided into two categories. Some were probably written by one of the masters of the orphanage. The ones seen in Figs. 2-4, for example, are done by an experienced, professional hand. Others, however, are written in a less experienced hand. These may well have been written by the parents. This is supported by the observation that these tags provide more details about the child (Figs. 5-6).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 4 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 4 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 6 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 6 (15th century) – Photo EK

The one seen in Fig. 5 (again with a clear pin mark) reads: “This child is called Cornelius and belongs to a painter whose wife is a wool comber” (Dit kijnt heet cornelis dit hoet een schilder een schilder toe sijn wijf is een kemster). On the tag in Fig. 6 we read “This child is baptised and her name is Mariken” (Dijt kijnt is ghekorstent ende haerren name is mariken). Both show how some children – whether found in the street or dropped off at the orphanage – entered the orphanage with some family history attached, literally.

The only parchment tag provides a particularly detailed history (Fig. 7).  It reads “My mother gave me an illegal father, which is why I was brought here as a foundling. Keep this note so that they can pick me up again later. I was baptised and born on St Remigius day.” (Mijn moeder min een onrecht vader gaf daer om ben ic voer een vondelinck gebracht, bewaert dit briefken v[…] opdat nae min weder halen sal ic ben gedopt ende op Remigius dach geboren.) As in the case of Fig. 5-6, it is very likely that the information on this note was provided by the parents, probably as they dropped off their child.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 5 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 5 (15th century) – Photo EK

Accompanying booklet
The ten or so surviving slips are kept together with a fifteenth-century booklet, in which they may, in fact, have traveled through time. The title on the first page tells us what we are dealing with: “The Child Book: How the Children Came Here” (Fig. 8: Item dat kijnderbock hoe dat die kijnder hier ghecomen sijen).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet (15th century)
Fig. 8 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet (15th century) – Photo EK

The booklet forms the counterpart to the labels, for it registers the orphans and provides information about the location where they were found. We may presume that the foundlings entered the house, often as babies, were tagged, and then processed. However, the entries in the book also contains brief reports from individuals who found foundlings in public spaces and came by to drop them off at the orphanage. The stories on the fifty-odd pages are truly heartbreaking.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1492)
Fig. 9 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1492) – Photo EK

On page 33 the following entry is found (Fig. 9). “Item, a child came to us without a name on the Thursday before the feast of St Peter in Chains. And we named it Peter, in the year 1502, for he was found in the Church of Our Lady under a bench.” (Item ons is en kijnt an ghekoemen sonder maem des donnersdacx voer sijnte pieters dach ad vynckula [St Peter in Chains] ende vij hietten pieter int jaer [1502] ende vas gheleit in onsser frouwen kerc onder een banck).

On page 7 a story with unhappy ending is penned down, by two scribes under the heading “anonymous” (sonder naem) (Fig. 10).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1491)
Fig. 10 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1491) – Photo EK

The first writes “Item a child was found in the church of St Peter and we named it Luke, on the Sunday before St Luke [= 18 October] in the year 1491. It looked like a newborn child to us, and it had been placed on the altar of St Agnes.” A second hand, in a slightly browner ink, added a short line, sometime later: “Luke died around St Catharine’s day [= 25 November] in the same year.” (Scribe 1: Item een kijnt ende vas ghevonden in sinte pieters kerc ende wij hietent Lucas op die zonnendach voer sinte Lucas anno [1491] ende was een nuo borun kijnt als ons dachten ende lach op sinte aegten altaer. Scribe 2: Lucas starf omtrent sinte katrinen dach actum voerseit.) The second scribe then crossed out the entry in the register.

These narratives form a powerful accompaniment to the paper slips. They report how and where the foundlings were found, and when they came to the orphanage with a paper name tag pinned on their clothes. Handling the paper slips in the archives is a heartbreaking experience: to think that they were made for the sole purpose of providing information about a child whose life was about to change dramatically. The handwriting underscores the emotions that must have been felt by the parents: the text is written in a scruffy manner, often with mistakes in spelling and grammar. For them it must have been a difficult task to write down these mini histories, in more ways than one.

Postscriptum – More on the history of the orphanage in Kees van der Wiel, ‘Dit kint hiet Willem’. De Heilige Geest in Leiden – 700 jaar vondelingen, wezen en jeugdzorg (Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2010), which also features some of the slips. With many thanks to Erfgoed Leiden for letting me photograph the name tags and use them for this post; and to Ed van der Vlist (Royal Library, The Hague) for his help with some readings. Just to emphasise, while I studied and transcribed them, I did not discover the tags, which featured in an exhibition some years ago.

Cracking Codes in Medieval Books

Reading a medieval book may not seem so different from reading a  volume from your own bookshelf: just pick it up, flip to the first page, and start reading. However, apart from the fact that you cannot really hold the average medieval book in your hand – a single volume often weighs as much as a whole pile of today’s books – there is also a problem that occurs when you actually start to read. It turns out you need to decode quite a bit. The first round of decoding happens when your eyes meet the page. The letters on it are shaped very differently from what our brains usually process, so the CPU in our head starts to spin like mad, perhaps even encouraging us to give up. See what happens when you read this snippet from the famous Leiden Glossary (Fig. 1). When you’re done with that, try Thomas Aquinas’ autograph, written in what is appropriately called a ‘littera inintelligibilis’ – indecipherable script (Fig. 2).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 69, fol. 24v, detail
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 69, fol. 24v, detail (late 8th century) – Source: photo UBL
Vatican Library, Vat. Lat. 9850, autograph Aquinas, 1260-1265
Fig. 2 – Vatican Library, Vat. Lat. 9850, autograph Aquinas, 1260-1265 – Source

The paleographer Lowe defined the first of these as a Pre-caroline Allemannic minuscule, which means it dates from before the establishment of Caroline Minuscule, which came around shortly before c. 800. It is relatively easy to decode the latter with our modern brains. This is because early printers in Italy used Caroline as a model for the Roman typefaces, which ultimately became our Times New Roman. Because we read a version of Caroline on our computer screen every day, we can sort of make sense of a medieval page from the ninth century (Fig. 3).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF MS 30, fol. 22v (9th century)
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF MS 30, fol. 22v (9th century) – Source: photo UBL

However, even when you are able to read such easy ‘typefaces’ from before the invention of printing, for example because you happen to be a medieval book historian, there is a second coding problem to overcome, which is much trickier: letters and words are frequently abbreviated with symbols. In fact, sometimes the text of a full page or even an entire book is written in code. Like any cypher, you can only read it if you know the key.

Abbreviations
Decoding abbreviated letters and short common words is not rocket science, nor will it have been for medieval readers. Some of these abbreviations are actually still in use today, like the ampersand in the first line of Fig. 3, which starts with ‘Ignibus & ignis’. The ampersand abbreviates the word et (and), from which it, in fact, evolved (more on the genesis here). Less frequent words could also be abbreviated, but this practice was tricky in that the medieval scribe had to judge whether the book’s reader would understand the abbreviations – otherwise the text could not be decoded. Students in the scholastic environment of the emerging universities were masters in coding and decoding words (Fig. 4).

London, British Library, Arundel MS 383 (1250-1300)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Arundel MS 383 (1250-1300) – Source

The students who filled this page with notes abbreviated the words like there was no tomorrow. In fact, in the top segment (in the lighter ink) every single word is shortened with the help of lines, half circles, loops, dots and whatnot. It makes sense that students did this: the remarks are for personal use only, so you could do what you wanted. Moreover, shortening text in this fashion saved time and space. Coded words created room for more coded words.

Tironian notes
In the Middle Ages a peculiar abbreviation language existed, which even an experienced reader at the time was not necessarily able to decipher: Tironian notes. This medieval system of shorthand made use of several thousand symbols, which abbreviated entire words. The language is rooted in Antiquity. The poet Plutarch tells us that Cicero had trained scribes to take down notes at a fast pace, including his servant Tiro – hence the name.

Paris, BnF, lat. MS 11553 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, lat. MS 11553 (9th century) – Source

In medieval times Tironian notes were used by scholars trained at the highest level (see this excellent blog post). During the ninth century, the heyday of the ‘coding’ symbols, scholars used them to add comments to a text or to criticise them, much like the students in the university textbook in Fig. 4, and for the same reason: to save space and to increase speed. Sometimes such marginal additions are substantial, like those found in a ninth-century Bible kept in Paris (Fig. 5: right margin and in between lines).

Very rarely does one encounter a full text or manuscript copied out in Tironian notes. The ones I know are all filled with the Psalms, such as Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, lat. MS 190 and lat. MS 13160, both from the ninth century (Fig. 6). What is really great about these coded pages is that the first Tironian note of each chapter is executed in the same style as a regular decorated letter would be: enlarged and painted (see also the detail all the way at the top of this post). The result is a big and beautiful nonsensical shape – unless you know what it means.

Paris, BnF, lat. MS 190 (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Paris, BnF, lat. MS 190 (9th century) – Source

At first sight it seems an odd practice to write an entire book out in code, which could only be deciphered by scholars who had enjoyed the same high level of training as the scribe. However, perhaps these peculiar books were used to train individuals in the notation system? Monks knew the Psalms by heart, making them the perfect tool to learn the strange language of Tiro. The Latin titles would prompt a memorised text, after which perhaps the symbols would fall into place. It is striking, in this light, that the Psalms in MS 190 are preceded by a kind of dictionary to look up the meaning of the symbols – as you would want to do when learning a new language. Several of these explanatory texts survive, including in other Paris manuscripts (such as lat. 7493lat. 8777lat. 8778 and lat. 8780).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 84 (9th century)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 84 (9th century) – Photo EK

A similar explanatory text is found in Leiden (Fig. 7). The first entries on this page read liber, libellus and librarius (book, booklet and librarian). The symbol for the first looks like a bent line with a dot, in the second the dot is replaced by a comma, while the third shows both dot and comma – a librarian, after all, looks after both books and booklets. Then follow related words, such as parchment (pergamena and, less common, pitacium), page and sheets (pagina, carta, cartula). As this segment shows, the text is not so much a dictionary as a collection of thematic word lists.

Uncrackable code
While not everybody in medieval times would be able to read Tironian notes, probably many scholars could decipher it. However, there is a famous coded book that no one could read but its producer: the Voynich manuscript, which is written in an unknown alphabet (Fig. 8). There is considerable discussion about many aspects of this manuscript, including its precise date (see here) and the meaning  of the text it holds. The latter is perhaps the most striking aspect of the code in which the text is written: no one has been able to crack it.

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 408 (15th century)
Fig. 8 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 408 (15th century) – Source

The manuscript has fascinated scholars for a long time. Until 2013, when news outlets claimed the book had a genuine message (see here), it was not even clear if there was meaning in the madness. Finally, in February 2014 an English professor decoded ten words through the proper names of plants (see here). As intriguing as the book is, from a book-historical point of view it is far less interesting than Tironian notes. After all, while the Voynich manuscript appears to be coded in a highly personal way, placing the book in a relatively isolated position, Tironian notes provide an in-depth look into the fascinating world of medieval scholars. To hear their voices, all you need to do is crack the code.