Category Archives: Book Culture

Medieval Book Carousels

Medieval readers, especially studious ones, must have cursed their desks from time to time. It is not easy to manage desk space when working with often large and clunky medieval books. Scribes and translators developed work-arounds for these space issues, as I have shown in a blog post on medieval desktops. Scribes would place two desk surfaces stacked vertically, one for the book that was copied from, the other for the copy (image here). In contrast, translators would sometimes position two surfaces next to one another, one presumably for the original text, the other for the translation (see the striking images here and here). Readers, however, faced bigger challenges, since many needed more than two books open at the same time, which produced clutter and frantic searches for particular information. Figure 1 shows the French author Christine de Pisan, who is often shown while working in her study (here is an interesting article on the iconography), sitting behind a desk cluttered by books.

Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, Ms. 9009-11
Figure 1. The author Christine de Pisan shown as a reader, book clutter in fronts of her (Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 9009-11, 15th century). Source

Near the end of the Middle Ages a device came into service that helped avid readers like Christine: the book carousel or book wheel. When precisely this device became available to medieval readers is hard to deduce, but the oldest specimens I was able to find date from the fourteenth century. While being careful of the fact that medieval images may not necessarily be a truthful depiction of reality, it appears that during this early period there are two clearly distinguishable designs available. The difference lies in the number of shelves the device was fitted with, and thus in the carousel’s capacity.

Plain design

The book carousel enabled readers to have multiple books at hand, including copies that were opened to a relevant page. Among the earliest depictions are carousels shown with a single deck, providing room for no more than four to six tomes (although those with room for only two books also existed, as seen here). Early depictions of this “plain” model are seen in Figure 2 (from 1383) and Figure 3 (from c. 1400). These book wheels share some striking features. One is that the carousel stands on top of the desk, usually at the far end, where it is out of the way. This is most clearly observed in the depiction of a writing Cicero in the Bodleian Library manuscript (Figure 2). Here the carousel is placed in arm’s reach and contains various open books: the author merely has to turn the platform – carefully! – to consult them. Additional books are present in a book cupboard nearby. These would presumably be placed on the wheel when they were needed.

Oxford_Bodleian_Canon._Class. _Lat257
Figure 2. Cicero composing a work sitting at this desk (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canon. Class. Lat. 257, dated 1383). Source

A similar scene is observed in Figure 3, which is found in a copy of Petrarch’s De viris illustribus kept in the University Library in Darmstadt. Here, too, an author is seen at work with a book wheel nearby. This carousel is placed on the desk, although the image shows this less clearly. Here the author is reading, not writing: Petrarch uses both hands to thumb through the book as if looking for certain information. More sources are nearby, placed on the book wheel, which can be consulted simply by reaching over. As in Figure 2, an open book is present on the platform; additionally, a red copy with the clasps unhooked lies at the ready. However, the platform also holds a roll, by the looks of it, as well as loose pieces of paper. This carousel is clearly in heavy use!

Darmstadt_UB_101
Figure 3. Petrarch sitting at a desk with a book carousel placed nearby (Darmstadt, Universität- und Landesbibliothek, MS 101, datable to c. 1400). Source

The images shown so far share two striking features: the book carousel appears to consist of a single platform and the device was small enough to place on top of one’s desk. (Curiously, some carousels were designed with an arm, enabling the user to “swing” the platform closer, as this example shows.) This relatively plain design continued until the end of the medieval period, and even beyond. Figure 4 shows a woodcut from a late-fifteenth-century incunabulum (an early printed book) containing a bible with commentary (here is another example from an incunabulum). Jerome, that revered bible translator, is shown sitting behind a single-platform book wheel consulting various source texts. While this scene is very appropriate given that the Church Father is known to have consulted a great deal of sources for the production of his Vulgate Bible, including Hebrew manuscripts, it clearly concerns medievalization of an ancient scene.

Paris_Mazarine_1339_A_f._014
Figure 4. St Jerome shown as bible translator, while consulting sources on book wheel (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, 1339, A f. 014, late 15th century). Source

More sophisticated designs

There were also more sophisticated carousels available to the medieval reader: some book wheels were fitted with two rotating platforms. This seems a sensible step-up given the limited capacity that came with a single platform – note that the individuals in Figures 2-4 all have books nearby that do not fit on their carousel. Among the surviving depictions of this “double-decker” design are two from the fourteenth century (Figures 5-6). It shows that the one and two-deck designs were in use in the same century, which indicates that readers likely preferred one or the other. In other words, we do not seem to be dealing with a chronological development.

Cambrai_BM_620
Figure 5. Scribe (likely the author Johannes Andreae) at work, surrounded by books (Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, 620 (572)), c. 1320-1340. Source
Oxford_Bodleian_E_Mus._65
Figure 6. One of the authors of Le Roman de la Rose, Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun, shown with book wheel (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS e Mus. 65, datable to c. 1390). Source

Both individuals seen in Figures 5-6 are scribes. The first in particular is very engaged with books, which are shown all around him. Not only is his desk fitted with a two-tiered book carousel, there is also a book case present behind him (note the handy fold-away doors), as well as a wooden bench that doubles as book storage. This “book bench” is fitted with locks, so that its precious contents were hidden from thieves.

Even more sophisticated designs appeared just beyond the Middle Ages. Surviving from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are both depictions and actual specimens of book carousels that were not fitted with a horizontally turning platform, but that moved vertically. Carousels with this orientation can be fitted with a relatively high number of shelves, perhaps as many as eight or ten. In order for the books to not fall off, it was crucial that the shelves remained level as they were turning. The most famous of these is the book wheel shown in The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli from 1588 (Figure 7). The engraving includes the complex mechanism that held the books level.

The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”, 1588.
Figure 7. A scholar behind a vertical book wheel, as shown in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, 1588, fig. CLXXXVIII (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Eliz+47). Source
Leiden_Bibliotheca_Thysiana
Figure 8. Book wheel in Bibliotheca Thysiana, Leiden (mid 17th century). Source: photo by the author

Early-modern readers also could opt to purchase (have built, presumably) a less elaborate carousel with a vertical orientation, one with a modest number of shelves, each of which fitting one or two books. The one in the Bibliotheca Thysiana in Leiden contains only four shelves (Figure 8). Its user, Johannes Thysius (d. 1653), could consult up to eight books at the same time while sitting or standing behind the machine. The mechanism that held the books level is hidden inside the sides of the carousel. Even though you’d expect the books to remain on the shelves, it is quite a sensation to see the shelves remain dead level as you turn the carousel:

 

Larger carousels than the ones shown here do not seem to have been around in the medieval or early-modern period. There were ways to expand the device’s capacity, however, for example by adding a stationary shelf at the foot of the carousel, or even placing the book wheel on top of a small book cupboard (here is an example). Cases like this show that book carousels may have doubled as book cases. After all, private individuals in the medieval period did not usually own a large library. The modest number of books they owned would normally fit on a book wheel with a horizontal orientation. In other words, in addition to being a handy device for studying or reading multiple books at the same time, book carousels were also most useful storage devices, keeping books safe and off the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rufillus the Illuminator

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

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

Amiens_Lescalopier_30_detail
Figure 3. Rufillus’ name in Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v. Source

Rufillus the Scribe

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

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

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

Rufillus_StGall127_AmiensLescalopier30
Figure 4. The monk Rufillus in two historiated initials (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v, left, and Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 244r, right).

Rufillus the Person

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

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

Bloomington_LillyLibrary_Ricketts20
Figure 5. Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, shown as scribe (Bloomington, Lilly Library, Ricketts 20, fol. 1v, c. 1200-15). Source

Rufillus the Old Man?

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

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

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

Rufillus and the Weissenau scriptorium:

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

Selfies and self-portraits:

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.