Category Archives: Book Culture

Medieval Spam: The Oldest Advertisements for Books

Advertisements are all around us. As I am writing this post, waiting in an airport lobby, I can only escape them if I close my eyes and cover my ears. Marketing and advertising are practices dating back to medieval times and we encounter them even in the world of books. While rare, surviving book advertisements are fascinating because they highlight what salesmen thought potential buyers deemed important about their products. Advertisements form, in an unusual way, a unique keyhole view into the hearts and minds of readers that lived a thousand years ago. Fascinatingly, surviving book advertisements come in very recognisable – modern – formats: some are window displays, others are spam in books, and yet others are flyers posted in public places.

Window displays

The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450)
Fig. 1 – The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450) – Source

While still rare, the most common surviving book advertisement from medieval times is the so-called ‘advertisement sheet’ from medieval writing masters (Fig. 1). Individuals who could write had a valuable gift, both intellectually and financially: they were able to duplicate any piece of writing, from short letters to full books; and they could do so for money. During the last three centuries of the Middle Ages (1200-1500) the demand for books rapidly increased, in part because of their cheaper production and the growing numbers of readers. Increased demand had a major impact on supply: urban professionals took over book production from the abbeys. They started to charge money, make profit, and build the commercial book market we still have today (more about such commercial activities in this blog post).

As more people became involved in commercial book production, competition among artisans increased. Starting in the thirteenth century, the book world became a market place where producers had to show what they had to offer – and more so than their nearby colleagues (Fig. 2). It is in this context that we are to understand the advertisement sheet in Fig. 1, a handful of which survive from the Middle Ages. Encompassing over ten different scripts, each one more fancy than the next, it displays the expertise of the artisan to potential customers. The sheet was made by one Herman Strepel, who worked around the middle of the fifteenth century, perhaps in the German city of Münster.

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 2 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-50): commercial shop with scribe and illuminator – Source

The sheet in Fig. 1 is a clever marketing tool in other ways as well. The samples are accompanied by their proper names, written in attractive letters of shiny gold. This vocabulary allowed the clientele to enter into a professional conversation with the scribe – using such term as ‘fracta’, ‘rotunda’ and ‘modus copiistarum’. The back of the advertisement sheet is blank, which means it was probably displayed in clear sight of potential customers, perhaps in a window or against a wall. A specimen from a German scribe says, ‘If you want to learn to write, do come in.’ It not only shows that artisans extended their services well beyond merely producing books (they were professional trainers as well), but it also that such sheets were put on display right outside the door.

Spam in books

Giesen, Universitätsbibliothek, 945 (advertisement in book)
Fig. 3 – Giesen, Universitätsbibliothek, 945 (advertisement at end of book)

The best way to show off one’s abilities as a book producer was through the book itself: every page is an appraisal of the artisan’s qualities. Some scribes directly addressed potential customers on the last page of a book, where they explicitly referred to the fine quality of the manuscript – and by proxy their abilities. An illuminating case concerns a scribe who calls himself Herneis. On the last page of a book he had copied for a client he wrote the following note: ‘If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across the Notre Dame cathedral’ (Fig. 3). The message ‘lured’ the beholder to the book street of medieval Paris, right opposite the cathedral. It’s a great example of medieval spam.

A slightly less blatant case of spam is from fifteenth-century Holland, the most western province of the Low Countries. Six Middle-Dutch manuscripts survive from an anonymous commercial scribe operating there. They all contain the same text, a History Bible, which suggests that the individual specialized in one particular genre. The surviving copies show variation in layout, writing support (paper/parchment), the inclusion of miniatures, and in the quality of the script. These differences most likely reflect the wishes of the patrons that were served. Interestingly, one of the manuscripts (Leiden, University Library, LTK 231) contains an intriguing message: ‘If you like this copy of the Old Testament, I can also produce a book with the New Testament for you.’ This tempting offer has the feel of iTunes’ ‘Complete my album’ or, more appropriately, the suggestions Amazon makes for further reading.

Flyers

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. G. e. 37
Fig. 4 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. G. e. 37 (c. 1477) – Source

The rarest kind of medieval advertisement is also the smallest. It measures only 80×146 mm, a little bigger than a credit card. As with historical artifacts in general, the smaller a bookish object is, the slimmer the chances that it survived. The small strip of paper seen in Fig. 4 is an advertisement that promoted William Caxton’s Sarum Pie (‘Ordinale ad usum Sarum’), a religious book he printed in his Westminster shop in 1477 (more here and here). It is a very small flyer that was to be posted in the city, given the Latin closing remark ‘Supplico stet cedula’ (please leave this [strip] posted). It is the earliest printed advertisement in English and it has a lot to tell.

The printed strip shows interesting parallels with the previous two items. As with the spam message of Herneis, Caxton tells customers where to go, which is the bare minimum that an advertisement has to do: ‘late hym come to Westmonester in to the Almonesrye at the reed pole’. Moreover, it stresses that the book has no typos (it is ‘well and truly correct’) and can be bought cheaply (‘and he shal have them good chepe’). Just like the advertisement sheet of Herman Strepel, Caxton’s piece of paper comes with a great marketing trick: it states that the new publication is ‘emprynted after the forme of this present lettre’ (is printed in the same typeface as this very note). In other words, the reader can tell with his own eyes that it is worthwhile heading over to Caxton’s shop.

Marketing tricks, sending out spam, and using colourful letters to attract clients: medieval advertisements are as effective today as they were 600 years ago.

Note – Want to know more? Check out this lecture I gave on commercial book production.

Dressing Up: Medieval Books Wearing Leather

Every book needs a coat, a protective layer. Without it, after all, the pages would be exposed to the elements and the dirty hands of readers. And so from the very early days of the book the object was given a binding. Medieval bindings mostly consist of two components: boards, commonly made out of wood (but in the later Middle Ages also from compressed paper), and something to cover the boards with. While in medieval times the most common covering material was leather, there is great variation observed in the kind that was used, as well as how it was decorated. Readers and reading communities had their own preferences in this regard. As a result one can “read” as much from the outside of the book as from its pages: they both transmit important cultural-historical information. Here is a post with an exotic twist, which includes bindings made from seal and human skin.

Wearing leather

British Library, Add 89000 (7th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Add 89000 (7th century) – Source

Most medieval bindings were made out of animal skin: usually it was a calf or pig who involuntarily ended up protecting the manuscript. Leather proved an ideal material for binding books. The material is stiff, which means it does an excellent job protecting the precious cargo inside, while at the same time adding to the desired “firmness” of the book. The material also repels water quite well. This benefit may seem odd, but it’s not. While monks may not have been reading books in the bath tub, they did consult them in the cloister, which was often a damp environment – given that the hallways were in the open air.

An added bonus of leather was that it accommodated blind-tooled decoration, which was applied in mesmerising shapes and patterns. The oldest book to survive with its original binding still in place is the seventh-century St Cuthbert Gospel (which is a Gospel of John, in fact). It shows just how utterly charming early-medieval leather bindings were; and how beautifully they were decorated (Fig. 1). The manuscript in question was placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert shortly after his death in 687. It was discovered when the grave was opened in the early twelfth century. Because by then a cult had grown around St Cuthbert, the book – and its original binding – was well taken care of. In fact, the binding looks like it was made yesterday.

British Library, Papyrus 1442 (dating 716-717)
Fig. 2 – British Library, Papyrus Codex 1442, binding  (716-717) – Source

The use of leather bindings predates books made out of parchment – like the book of St Cuthbert. Before parchment became common, books were made from plants – papyrus. Such papyrus codices were extremely fragile and they needed the protective qualities of leather, which may ultimately be the origins of the tradition of using skin for bindings (Fig. 2). Given that papyrus became in disuse after the fifth century (with some exceptions), very few original bindings of papyrus books survive. The oldest specimens we have are those in the so-called Nag Hammadi Archive, which date back to the third and fourth centuries (look at some images here). As you can see from Fig. 2, these covers of papyrus books were also decorated handsomely.

Exotic leather

National Library of Sweden (c. 1200)
Fig. 3 – National Library of Sweden (c. 1200) – Source

What to do if you need a leather binding, but there are no cows or pigs to slaughter for this purpose? The answer is seen in Fig. 3, which shows a book that was copied and bound in Iceland. Naturally the binder turned to creatures that were available there. This is how a poor seal ended up covering this Old Icelandic book with sermons, which was made around 1200. If you look carefully you can still see a significant amount of hair on the outside. As with other cases where animal hair is found on book covers, the hairs have turned green over time – or perhaps from the liquids involved in processing animal skin into leather.

The story gets even more graphic. The skin used for bookbindings is not limited to animals. Under the name anthropdermic bibliopegy goes the practice of using human skin for binding books. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out to be a post-medieval practice, particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The cover seen in Fig. 4 dates from the early 17th century and the skin was taken from the priest Father Henry Garnet. He was executed in 1606 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, the attempt to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the British Parliament. The book in question actually outlines the story of the plot and the evidence of Garnet’s guilt (more on this book here and here). The origins of the binding must have given the reader significant satisfaction.

Book bound in human skin (early 17th century)
Fig. 4 – Book bound in human skin (early 17th century) – Source

The last word: cloth
Not all medieval books were dressed up in leather. Less commonly used, perhaps because it is more fragile, is cloth. This material handled the frequent use of a book far less well than leather. The real-world use of a medieval book was such that the object would be pushed back and forth over a wooden desk, which did not exactly contribute to a long life. The cloth binding seen in Fig. 5 dates from the middle of the fifteenth century and it covers a monastic rule.

Stockholm, National Library of Sweden (c. 1450)
Fig. 5 – Stockholm, National Library of Sweden (c. 1450) – Source

The manuscript has a particularly pretty button to close the volume up (see image at top of blog), adding further to the charm of this beautiful bookbinding. In the age of the printed book such cloth bindings (and embroidered ones) became more common, perhaps because increasingly more books became owned privately. This meant, of course, that the objects were not consulted on the hard surface of a wooden desk, but on the soft lap of the reader. As with embroidered bindings, which also increased in popularity in post-medieval times, cloth may have been regarded as a more suitable material for private reading. In tune with the dressing code for medieval books, the objects knew when to slip into something more comfortable.

Note – This blog post tells you more about leather bindings; it includes some great images as well.

Getting Personal in the Margin

At its very heart the medieval book is a vehicle of information. It was an expensive receptacle for text, which was poured onto the page by the scribe, and retrieved by the reader. As strange as this may sound, as a book historian I have limited interest in the actual text found on the medieval page. My job is to look at books, not to read them: knowing author, genre and purpose often suffices for what I do. Very different, however, is my attitude towards words found in the margins, placed there “extra-textually” by scribes and readers. Here we may find information about the production circumstances of a given manuscript and the attitude of scribes or readers towards a text. In most books, there was ample room  to add such details, because on average a stunning fifty percent of the medieval page was left blank. It is in this vast emptiness, so often overlooked in editions of texts, that we may pick up key information about the long life of the book.

Pointing a Finger

Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library,  MS C54 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library, MS C54 (15th century)

We are taught not to point, but in the margin of the page it is okay. Readers frequently felt the need to mark a certain passage, for example for future reference or to debate its meaning (Fig. 1; more here). To do so, they added manicula (Latin for “little hand”) those highly entertaining pointing fingers. This is good news for us, because they facilitate a look into the mind of a medieval reader. It is not uncommon that a person’s interest shines through the collection of marginal hands in a manuscript. While most individuals simply marked spots with an X, the pointing hand provided a much clearer – and more expressive – signpost. A particularly entertaining pair is found in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. To mark a particularly long passage we encounter a hand where all five fingers have been drafted into service, while in another case the hand is replaced by an octopus with five tentacles (Fig. 2-3).

Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 2 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)
Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)

From time to time a debatable passage is highlighted by a pointing device that is part of the book’s decoration, like Augustine taking a stance while aiming his spear at a gloss in the text, seen at the top of this post (source).

Critiquing Authorities

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857, fol. 95v (14th century)

There is nothing more inviting to a critical mind than the empty space of the margin. Medieval readers frequently felt the need to vent in that location, for different reasons. Like Augustine and his spear, they would express their dismay about something. There is the Carthusian monk from Herne, for example, who could not handle the poor Latin-Dutch Bible translation he was reading. With a pen shaking from frustration he wrote: “Whoever translated these Gospels, did a very poor job!” (Fig. 4) The same person is encountered in the margins of a different manuscript, where he corrected yet another flawed translation (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 2849-51). Providing improved readings in the margins he added the following personal touch: “This is how I would have translated it.” Take that, translator!

While such explicit remarks are exceptional, critiquing the text in the margin was a normal thing to do as a medieval reader. In most cases he or she would jot down a gloss next to the actual text and connect the two with so-called tie marks – the precursor of our footnote (Fig. 5). This practice became particularly popular in the university classroom of the thirteenth century. The De disciplina scholarum, a student guidebook from Paris, stipulated that wax tablets or tiny slips of parchment were taken into the classroom for note-taking. These notes were later added to the margins of students’ textbooks. Aristotle manuscripts, the main textbook for the Arts Faculty, even provided a clever “zoning” system to accommodate criticism: the margins were broken up into vertical columns where the opinions of master and student would settle (visible in Fig. 5).

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 5 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century): marginal notes preceded by tiemarks

Scribes Getting Personal
The examples so far show how marginal additions allow us to peek into the world of those who read manuscripts. Similarly, marginalia bring us closer to those who made the books. Well known are the logistical remarks. From time to time we encounter cross references (“For more on this theme, see this and this page”), remarks about a manuscript’s contents (“Something seems missing here”), or indicators expressing that something is missing (“Vacat”, this is empty). While these statements suggest that book makers put their heart into their scribal work, they can hardly be called “personal”.

That label is appropriate for a rarer type of scribal remark. From the same Charterhouse as the nitty-gritty reader who disliked the Gospel translation comes the following marginal notation: “I put this text here because it also contains work by [the author] Jacob van Maerlant” (Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1374, fol. 129r). Says the same scribe in another manuscript: “I copied this here because it analyses faith” (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 13.708, fol. 218r). With these remarks the scribe appears to deliver a personal message to the reader, sharing his rationale for compiling the collections.

London, British Library, Add. MS 30024, fol. 1v (Mechanical arts)
Fig. 6 – Depiction of the mechanical art “escriture” (writing), showing a commercial scribe, front (London, British Library, Add. 30024, fol. 1v, detail)

Other personal statements come from the world of commercial book production. Here it was all about making a profit out of producing and selling books (Fig. 6). Some artisans wrote their name and location in the margin, like a medieval form of spam (I wrote about it here). Not every paid scribe was equally happy with what he received and from time to time we encounter complaints. On 15 May 1444, at nine o’clock in the evening, the scribe Henry of Damme finished a copy of a chronicle about the city of Brussels, which he had copied for the municipal government. In a corner of a flyleaf he tallies his expenses: “11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each” (source, in Dutch). Unsatisfied as he was, he wrote the following underneath the last text line: Pro tali precio nunquam plus scriber volo: “For such a (small) amount I won’t write again!” (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 19607, fol. CCLXXVr).

The breakdown of these numbers show that Henry had little reason for complaining: he earned 1.4 shilling a day, which is about the same as his fellow scribes working in the chancery. While the Carthusian scribe who explained the reasons for putting a collection together made a positive and personable connection to the readers of his books, Henry’s remarks, by contrast, expose him as a bit of a greedy whiner.

The First Page of the Medieval Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Last Page of the Medieval Book

I love the last page of the medieval book. Not because it means that my research of a particular manuscript is almost completed, but because the last page often provides information pertaining to the origins of the object – information not normally found elsewhere in the manuscript. This post, which discusses some of this information, is devoted to the last text page of a manuscript as well as the last physical page of the book – which are, perhaps surprisingly, not usually the same thing.

The Last Page of the Text
The last page of the text was a podium where the scribe could state information about himself and the circumstances of the book’s production. While few scribes seized this opportunity (about one in seven do say something), such added information, collected in what we call a “colophon”, can enrich our knowledge of a manuscript considerably. Some colophons provide a glance into the reality of the scriptorium or urban workshop, where a scribe toils over a piece of parchment. Well known are colophons that state such cries as “Please give me a drink!” or “Let my right hand be free from pain!” (see Fig. 1 and this MedievalFragments post).

Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5 (pic Giulio Menna)
Fig. 1 – Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5, 15th century (Photo: Giulio Menna)

More telling are colophons where a scribe lifts the veil and allows us to peek into his or her working space. The Paris artisan Herneis states on the last page of a book he copied: “If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across from the Notre Dame cathedral” (see Fig. 2 and this MedievalFragments post). There are other cases where a commercial scribe advertises his work. One from mid-fifteenth-century Holland copied the same book up to eight times (the historical books of the Old Testament), showing that his labor is a commercial enterprise. At the end of one of these he writes: “If there is somebody who would like a copy of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide it for payment, because it is beautiful” (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1006, fol. 455r).

Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)
Fig. 2 – Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th century)

While Herneis in Paris was spamming a general audience, telling them where to go for a good book, the anonymous scribe in Holland was likely addressing the individual for whom he just copied the Old Testament. When the reader got to the end of the last page, he stumbled into this not-so-subtle recommendation for more good stuff – not unlike what happens when you search for a good read on Amazon: “If you like that book, you will love this one!”

As exciting as these examples are, the really important colophons are those that read like a title page. The colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541 is an example of a particularly rich source of information about how the manuscript came to be. The colophon on the last page states: “Pray for the person who made this book, which was completed in 1484 in the city of Maaseik, where we were taking refuge after our convent had burned down” (Fig. 3). These few lines provide a wealth of information, most importantly when and where the book was made, but even something extra about the life (and suffering) of the scribe, who recently lost her home in a fire.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

The Last Page of the Book
The second kind of last page that this post highlights is the actual last page of the book. As you can see in Fig. 3, the end of the last page sometimes coincides with the end of the book, or at least with the original medieval part of it. What also happens, quite frequently, in fact, is that the last text page is followed by one or more medieval flyleaves. These are often the remaining blank leaves of a last quire, which were left in place as an extra layer of protection. Flyleaves could also be added, usually in the form of a bifolium that was fixed in between the last quire and the board, to which half of the bifolium was appended as a pastedown.

The empty flyleaf – the actual last page of the medieval book – is usually a feast to look at. It was the ideal location to test your pen, to doodle on, or to add informal notes. Some librarians favoured putting the title of the book on the last page, as in Fig. 4, where the librarian wrote “Paterius de opusculis sancta Gregorii” in a book filled with excerpts from works by Gregory the Great.

St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)

Far more entertaining (for us) are, of course, the famous doodles that were frequently placed on flyleaves. Testing the pen was a common occurrence, given that the quill had to be cut several times per day. Scribes turned to the last page of a nearby book to jot short sentences of doodle little drawings to see if the nib’s cut was in order. Interestingly, some of these trials seem to combine testing the pen and trying out decorative elements. A good example of this is the page shown in Fig. 5.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I (14th-century doodles)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodles (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

While testing his pen, the scribe of these lovely doodles actually produced shapes that would not be out of place on an actual text page as decoration. It is almost as if he was refining a skill while also dealing with the nib of his pen. After all, a nib could be tested with just a few squiggly lines. Thus the last page of the book becomes a test ground for artistic creations: it makes for an attractive last thing to glance at before closing the book.

Note: This was originally posted as my last contribution to the collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. A companion piece on “The First Page of the Medieval Book” can be read here.

What is the Oldest Book in the World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Are the Scriptoria?

This blog connects to two earlier entries in medievalfragments: Irene O’Daly’s recent blog on how scribes are depicted in medieval art (here); and Jenneka Janzen’s assessment of how we are to understand the “physical scriptorium” (here). Something struck me when I read both pieces, in particular when I looked at the images accompanying Irene’s blog. The scribes in her story, as well as those in images I had on file myself, are depicted as individual copyists instead of scribes working in groups. Even when multiple scribes are presented in each other’s vicinity, such as the four evangelists in the Aachen Gospels of c. 820 (Fig. 1), we are still looking at multiple individual scribes – after all, they have their backs turned to each other and are separated by rock formations. My point, you ask? Where are the scriptoria, I reply!

Aachen Gospels, Aachen, Cathedral, s.n. (c. 820)
Fig. 1. Aachen Gospels (Aachen, Cathedral, s.n. c. 820).

While the monastic scriptorium is the location where manuscripts were made – at least until c. 1200, when commercial scribes took over the monks’ role as primary book producers – it turns out that medieval images of scriptoria are rare. Very rare. Check this out: while a Google search consisting of the words “medieval” “scribe ” and “manuscript” returns dozens of writing monks, not a single one is shown in a spacey room working side by side with fellow monks – with the exception of images from the nineteenth or twentieth century. Even an intense search through various databases left me nearly empty handed. Here is what I did find.

Lay person and monk making books jointly in a monastery (Wiesbaden, Deutches Museum)
Fig. 2. Lay person and monk jointly making books in a Echternach Abbey (Bremen, Universitätsbibliothek, MS 217, c. 1020).

This first image of multiple book producers at work in a monastic environment is from a richly-decorated Gospel Book produced in Echternach, Luxemburg (Fig. 2). It was made as a mighty gift for Emperor Henry II. The image shows a peculiar blend of two worlds: the individual on the right, a monk, is copying the text; while the person on the left, whose clothes show he is not a monk, produced the decoration. For important books such as this one professionals from the outside world were sometimes hired to decorate the pages. Is the place we see them working in a scriptorium? Perhaps. However, what the image really shows is how this particular book – the object sent to Henry II – came to be, namely with the help of a hired hand. Perhaps this image was added to show the receiver that a professional had decorated the object? (‘Spare no expense!’) In any case, it is unlikely that this illustration was included to show the inside of a scriptorium. This may be underscored by the observation that when lay scribes were asked to enter an abbey for the duration of a book project, they were usually separated from the local monks by order of the abbot.

Scriptorium in tenth-century Spain (Madird, Nat. Hist. Archaeological Museum Ms.Cod., 1097 B, c. 970)
Fig. 3. Scriptorium in tenth-century Spain (Madrid, Nat. Hist. Archaeological Museum, Cod., 1097 B, c. 970).

The second image I found presents a similar scenario (Fig. 3). Shown is the scriptorium of Tábara de León, a monastery in Spain, in what is usually regarded as the oldest known depiction of a scriptorium (c. 970). The image is part of a copy of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse. The accompanying colophon identifies the monk on the left as “Senior”, while the individual across the table is “Emeterius”, who is dressed as a lay person. Both are working on a book (is Emeterius perhaps drawing images?), while a third, in a room to the right, is cutting sheets (more information on this image here). While you are looking at a band of individuals producing a manuscript, the image likely shows how that very book was produced, as in Fig. 2.

Both images presented so far raise questions rather than answer them. Are we looking at a realistic representation of a scriptorium? Or do they show how a particular book was produced; stressing, in particular, that the monks had help from an outsider? If these two images do show us the real deal, then the scriptorium is a tiny space, not a vast room with rows of desks. Or did the illustrator choose to sacrifice a realistic view of a spacious room in order to show multiple individuals in the small space of a miniature?

Fig. 4. Paris, BnF, Lat. MS 818 (11th century).
Fig. 4. Paris, BnF, Lat. MS 818 (11th century).

The third image I found, which is part of an eleventh century missal (Fig. 4), underscores the issues encountered so far. The two figures appear to be involved in the production of a book. The individual on the left is writing on a wax tablet with a stylus, while the other is perhaps ruling a parchment sheet with a sharp object. (Or is he cutting sheets?) What may appear to be the inside of a scriptorium, could, in fact, also be showing us something else. If we zoom out and observe the full page, we see that the two figures are placed in a cramped space underneath the main character, a saint, who is writing text on a wax tablet with a stylus. It reminds me of the famous tenth-century ivory cutting showing Gregory the Great towering over some ‘dwarf’ scribes copying his works (Fig. 5). Three scribes producing manuscripts in a confined space do not constitute a scriptorium. Or do they?

Fig. 5. Gregory and his scribes (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 10th century).
Fig. 5. Gregory and his scribes (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 10th century).

Having searched the web far and wide, I came up with one last image. This scene is hard to trace back to a specific manuscript, but it appears to be kept in Madrid’s Bibliotheca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial – this is where I found it (Fig. 6). At long last, I hear you say, a real scriptorium, fitted with benches that are filled with scribes copying books, while a scriptorium master is looking on.

Spanish scriptorium? (Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 14th century).
Fig. 6. Spanish scriptorium? (Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 14th century).

Perhaps this is so, but there are issues here, too. For one thing, the scribe in the back is not a monk but a lay person. A rich one by the looks of his clothes and hair. The figure in the middle appears to be a monk, but the person on the right is likely not. The image comes close to what we would imagine a scriptorium to look like, judging from such descriptions as “[in the cloister] you might have seen a dozen young monks sitting on chairs in perfect silence, writing at tables carefully and skillfully constructed” (quote taken from Jenneka’s blog, mentioned earlier). However, the lay person in the back would seem out of place, as does perhaps the individual on the right.

In spite of all the obscurity in this blog, my main point stands: where are the scriptoria? After all, a search on the web and in my bookcase did not produce more than a handful of scenes where we see multiple individuals working on books in the same physical space. That none of them convincingly show us the inside of a monastic scriptorium does not matter. The biggest mystery, in my opinion, is why there are so few depictions of multiple scribes working together.

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