Category Archives: Book Culture

Stamp of Approval: A Paper Snippet and the Spanish Inquisition

This blog entry focuses on a book fragment I encountered in Leiden University Library earlier this week while studying twelfth-century material with my research team. As discussed in an earlier blog, after the invention of printing many handwritten books from the medieval period were cut up to be recycled for use in bookbindings, for example to support the bookblock as seen here. Cutting up printed books was a far more infrequent practice, it seems; rare even. This is in part, of course, because such books were made of paper, a much more fragile material than the parchment sheets from medieval books, and therefore less suitable for holding together a bookbinding. This is the story of such a rare printed fragment. And what a story it is!

According to an accompanying library note, the fragment in question (as well as two other cuttings from the same book) were used to support the binding of a bible printed in Antwerp in 1614. All three of them contain traces of binder’s glue. They are the remains of a Dutch book that clarified the Latin Mass, given such phrases as “When the priest receives the Holy Sacrament, and what it means.”

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254, unnumbered fragments (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

A mere glance at the fragments reveals a most remarkable feature: they were never part of an actual book. If you look carefully, you notice how part of the text can be read as it is shown in the image, while another part can only be read if you turn the page 180 degrees. In other words, the fragments are parts of sheets that were uncut and unfolded. Come again? A printed sheet of paper coming off the press usually consisted of two, four or even eight pages on the one side, and as many on the other. When both sides were printed the sheet was folded into a quire, the building block of the book. That never happened in this case, likely because the sheet was rejected by the printer and thrown in the proverbial bin – after which it was likely sold to a bookbinder and recycled as waste paper. Uncut printed sheets were rare at the time, but even rarer today. Fortune has it that I recently encountered another specimen, kept in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington (check out this blog I wrote about it).

Washington, Folger Library, STC 25004 c. 2
Washington, Folger Library, STC 25004 c. 2 (binding waste): uncut sheet from a 16th-century print shop (Photo: Folger)

The Leiden fragments are also special for another reason – one that sheds light on early-modern book culture in a different way. Note how the smallest snippet contains a brief section printed in a slightly larger typeface (see image below). It reads: “This book may be printed for the greater good of Christians” (“Dit Boecxken magh tot grooter oorboor der Christenen gedruckt worden.”) This intriguing colophon-like message has nothing to do with the contents as such, but reflects the book as an object. In what was likely the last page of the book, it tells the potential buyer that it was safe to purchase this book. Underneath it we read, in a different typeface: “Valtherus vander Stegen Canon. Antverp.” [Walterus vander Stegen, Canon in Antwerp]. What gives?

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254 (fragment 1 of 3).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3254, fragment 1 of 3, detail (Photo: Erik Kwakkel).

The name at the bottom forms the key to unlocking the mystery of this message. Walter van der Stegen (d. 1588) was canon at Antwerp cathedral and a member of the Inquisition. In that capacity he checked what printers were printing. He is known, for example, from the correspondence of the Antwerp printing house Plantin Moretus, with whom Van der Stegen was befriended (more about this here, at page 114; and here). As representative of the Inquisitor, Van der Stegen would give his blessing to certain editions, while making sure others did not see the light of day. The words in the Leiden fragment is his stamp of approval, almost literally: it indicates that the production of this particular book was granted by the Inquisition. Such approbations needed to be included in printed books after the Spanish authorities had regained control in the Low Countries. Latin books approved by Van der Stegen carried a Latin variant of the “stamp”. Here is one found in Justus Lipsius’ Collected Works, which bears the heading approbatio (giving approval):

Colophon in Justus Lipsius, Opera omnia (Antwerp: Johannes Moretus, 1600)
Colophon with Vander Stegen’s approval in Justus Lipsius, Opera omnia (Antwerp: Johannes Moretus, 1600)

Thus the tiny fragment and its two siblings bear unexpected evidence of some of the problems encountered by early printers: censorship and the affiliated fuss of seeking and printing Church approval; as well as the complexities of a new medium that involved printing several pages at the same time and on different sides of the paper – producing rejects, from time to time. What I find most astonishing, however, is that one of the three surviving snippets of the lost book should contain the approbation that gave life to the object it was once part of. The Inquisitor would have approved.

I wish to thank Paul Hoftijzer (Leiden) for his input regarding printed approbations.

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

Voices on the Medieval Page (1): The Reader

This is the first part of a series highlighting instances where medieval individuals added information to an existing book, either right after its production or centuries later. What precisely did scribes, readers, booksellers and librarians scribble down? And what do these voices tell us about their relationship to the manuscript? Part 1: the reader.

A medieval book was made because an individual wanted to read, own, the text contained on its pages. However, owning a book in the age before print was a luxury. Due to the long production time (easily half a year for a long text) and the materials used (up to c. 1300 the skins of animals) the cost of a book’s production was steep, even if it contained no decoration or miniatures. This is why up to the later Middle Ages book ownership was generally confined to affluent environments, such as religious houses, courts, and the residences of merchants and patricians.

Considering how special it was to own a manuscript, it may seem remarkable that medieval readers wrote in their books. Indeed, their uninvited contributions could be considerable. While in our modern day scribbling on the page is by many perceived as an almost offensive deed, condoned perhaps only when done for study purposes, medieval readers regarded it a normal practice, an integral part of the reading experience. Marginal notes, underscored text, pointing fingers all helped to digest the text and open a dialogue with the author. Thus the pen was as important as reading glasses.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 144 (12th c): annotations added in 13th century
1) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 144 (12th c): annotations, 13th century

The most common readers’ voices heard on the medieval page concern marginal annotations to the text (Image 1). Reading St Augustine a reader may suddenly remember a relevant passage in the work of another Church Father. With a quick pen action he could opt to place a reference in the margin, perhaps evens with the name of the other authority next to it. He could even quote the referenced text, either by heart or copied from another book. Monks in particular had access to a sizable reference library, a true temptation for the critical reader seeking to interact with the text in front of him.

Alternatively, a reader may jot down a clarifying sentence next to a passage that was hard to understand. In Latin books such notes may start with “Id est”(this is, this means). They are particularly common in university textbooks, but they are also frequently encountered in learned books from other environments – including monasteries. Clarifying notes are usually placed in the margin, that inviting ocean of empty space (as much as 50% of the medieval page was margin). Shorter notes were sometimes scribbled in between the lines. More exceptionally, readers drew clarifying schemes to makes sense of the sense (Image 2).

Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, MS 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram added in 13th century
2) Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram, 13th century

Highlighting information
Alternatively, a reader may use his pen to highlight important information. He could do so by drawing lines in the margin alongside the text, as we would do today, but there were also more sophisticated means. A particularly attractive one is the pointing finger (Image 3). This well-known signpost comes in different variants. On the one end of the spectrum there is merely the hand with its pointing finger, which is usually extended; on the other end there are hands with elaborated sleeves (like this one), or even those with entire bodies attached to them. A less conspicuous way of pointing out important information was to place the word “nota” (attention) next to it in the margin. The manner in which these signs were executed is highly personal: readers made their own customized pictogram out of the four letters of the word.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 60: finger pointing at marginal note
3) St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 60 (11th c): finger pointing at marginal note

Pointing out flaws
Sometimes a reader noticed that something he read was terribly wrong, prompting him to dip his quill in the ink pot. He may, for example, expunge the incorrect words by placing dots underneath them and write the correct reading nearby. Scribes often rid the text of copying flaws after they finished their job, but the picky reader may still find plenty to correct. Some got agitated by the mistakes they encountered as they made their way through the book. The individual who read a late-fourteenth century Dutch Gospel Book now in Vienna remarked the following when he was a third-way into the text, having already corrected dozens of mistakes: “These Gospels have been translated poorly; [the translator] did not understand them very well” (Dese evangelien sijn alte matelec gedietscht, diet dede verstont se qualec). (Image 4).

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): "what a poor translation!"
4) Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): “what a poor translation!”

Personal remarks
This frustrated outcry shows that readers’ corrections did not just concern flaws left behind by the scribe, but also included mistakes that were “baked” into the text from its very conception – when it was first made by the author or translator. They also show how personal (and opinionated!) readers’ remarks may be. There were other reasons to leave personal statements in a book. An enjoyable case for those who love medieval book culture is what Hector van Moerdrecht, Carthusian in Utrecht, had to say about two particularly narrow books in the library. In both he jotted on the flyleaf: “This book does not have the required width; it is too narrow and high”. His verdict was correct because the books do break with the rule for medieval page proportions. Van Moerdrecht’s words sound like those of a disappointed reader, or perhaps they were meant to offer an apology to his fellow monks. As the examples above emphasize, Carthusians were keen on presenting text in a “proper” manner.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1 (11th c).
5) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 1 (11th c): “Alter liber habet…”.

Logistic remarks
Then there are, finally, instances where it was necessary to add signposts to the page. A reader could, for example, point to another relevant text in the same manuscript (“see also further, on page …”). Particularly interesting are references to books in the library that presented alternative readings of a word or a passage. “Alter liber habet calatis” (our other book has “calatis”) we read in the margin of Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1, a late-eleventh century copy of Dioscorides’ De materia medica (Image 5). Such a remark suggests that the individual went through the text critically, comparing it, apparently, with a second copy in his vicinity. Indeed, another reader of the same manuscript frequently placed the letter “r” for “require” (check!) in the margins, showing that he, too, had felt the need to check up on the quality of the text.

Looking at the input of readers on the medieval page makes for exciting research as it allows us to look over the shoulder of the very individuals whose books we study. Evidently, many medieval readers read with a pen in their hand, ready and willing to make their mark on the page and in the text. It is remarkable to observe, finally, how the reader did not shy away from exposing himself as a know-it-all, perfectionist, micro manager, or even, in case of the sneer about the poor translation, as a bit of a grump.

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

Making Books for Profit in Medieval Times

The novelist L.P. Hartley once said that the past is like a foreign country: things are done different there. What I find most remarkable about the bookish slice of medieval society that I study is not so much the differences between medieval manuscripts and our modern books, but their similarities. While one may be inclined to emphasize how “foreign” the medieval book is – they are, after all, made of dead cows, and are handwritten – they present such recognizably modern features as a justified text, footnotes, running titles and page numbers.

Leaf number used in a Paris Bible (BL, Arundel 311, 13th c)
Leaf number in Paris Bible (BL, Arundel 311, 13th c)

The similarities run much further than mere physical traits, however. Take for example the manner in which the book was made and acquired from the 13th century onwards. If you wanted a book in the later Middle Ages you went to the store, as in our modern day. The bookseller did not normally have any books in stock, except for perhaps some second-hand copies, but you would tell him what you wanted, both content-wise and with respect to the object’s material features. You could specify, for example, that he use paper (not parchment), cursive script (not book script) and add miniatures (or forego on decoration). Just like so many other objects you bought in late-medieval society, the commercially-made manuscript was custom-tailored to the individual who purchased it.

The professionals who made books for profit were usually found near the biggest church in town. This was a well-chosen spot as canons and clerics (i.e. people who visited the church and who could read) formed an important part of the clientele. By the 14th century true communities of the book had formed in the neighborhoods around churches and cathedrals. Evidence from such cities as Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, London and Paris suggests that in these communities a diverse group of artisans interacted with clients and with each other. It was a world bound not only by the book, however, but also by profit.

Whether you were scribe, illuminator or binder, as a professional you would strive for quality and diversity as this ensured bread and butter on the table. In parallel to our modern book business, medieval manuscript artisans used various marketing strategies to attract new clientele. The most striking of these is advertisements. Scribes hung large sheets outside their doors to show what kind of scripts they had mastered. The short writing samples found on these sheets were often accompanied by the names of the scripts, which shows just how professional the world of the book had become. A particularly rich specimen survives from the shop of Herman Strepel, a professional scribe in Münster (c. 1447). In the true spirit of medieval marketing he wrote the names of all the scripts in golden letters on his advertisement sheet.

Advertisement sheet from Herman Strepel, professional scribe in Münster, c. 1447 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45)
Advertisement sheet from Herman Strepel, professional scribe in Münster, c. 1447 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45)

Scribes also included advertisements in books they had copied for a client. An example of such “spam” is found in a French manuscript made in Paris by a scribe who calls himself Herneis. On the last page of the book he writes, “If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across the Notre Dame cathedral.” Herneis and his fellow bookmen lived and worked in the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, which served as the center of commercially-made vernacular books. Similarly, students were served in the Rue St Jacques, on the Left Bank, where the latest Latin textbooks were on offer. For Parisians and students it was handy to have all the professionals in one street: you knew where to go when you needed a book and it was easy to check out who was available for making one for you.

Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)
Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)

This centralization was equally convenient, however, for the artisans themselves. Booksellers (also called stationers) in Rue Neuve Notre Dame and in other such “book streets” in European cities depended on the professional scribes, illuminators and binders that lived in their vicinity. They would hire them for various projects. When a client came to order a book from a stationer, the latter would divide the work among the artisans he usually worked with. One copied the text, another drew the images, and a third bound the book. These hired hands were given contracts which specified precisely what they would have to do and how much money they received for it. From time to time the stationer would come and check on the progress they made. In some manuscripts these cost estimates were scribbled in the margin.

Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)
Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)

Although making books for profit was a common scenario in the later Middle Ages, it did not make you particularly rich. On the last page of a Middle Dutch chronicle a clearly frustrated scribe wrote, “For so little money I never want to produce a book ever again!” This world of professional medieval scribes, the underpaid and others, was shaken up by the coming of Gutenberg’s printing press, around the middle of the 15th century. The ink pots dried up and the handwritten book slowly turned into an archaic object that was more costly than its printed counterpart. In the 16th century only large choir books (which did not fit on the press) and handsome presentation copies, custom-made for an affluent client, were still written by hand.

And so we see scribes jumping the handwritten ship, many ending up working in printing shops. Here, too, a striking parallel between the medieval and modern world of the book may be pointed out. Medieval producers and salesmen of books had to adapt to the new medium made popular by Johannes Gutenberg, as much as publishers today have to change their ways in a world where pixels are gaining grounds over ink.


Want to know more? Here you will find a Dutch guest blog I wrote for on the same topic. Check out this YouTube movie for a public lecture I did on commercial book production in medieval times. This is the “Bible” of commercial book production in Paris. On English books made for profit, check out some of the essays in this book. Read a great lecture by Malcolm Parkes about (commercially-made) books at universities here.

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

The Proud Reader: Showing Off the Medieval Book

When I started this post I set out to answer a very simple query: what is the oldest photograph we have of a real reader interacting with a medieval manuscript? The quest was sparked by a 19th-century photograph I tweeted last weekend of the Cincinnati Public Library, a picture that is both attractive and powerful. It takes us into a large, dark room, with high ceilings. Light is sprinkled over high stacks of books, which look like matchboxes. Cast-iron pillars hold up the ceiling and give the place the appearance of a cathedral, where readers come to worship the book. In front of a bookcase we see a man taking a book off the shelf. Wearing a white shirt and contrasting sharply with his dark surroundings, he is demanding our attention: the reader is the focus of this scene.

Cincinnati Public Library
Cincinnati Public Library, 19th century

The photograph looks unreal, more likely taken at the set of a Dr. Who episode than in a late-19th-century library. The reason why the image appeals to me, however, is not just because of the otherworldly nature of this black-and-white world of reading, it is also the fact that this moment is now gone. The thrill of this photograph is that it captures a real moment where a reader in the past, an individual who lived long enough ago to make him part of history, interacts with a book. The black-and-white image forms, as it were, a visual piece of reception history, as do the other 19th-century photographs in the Flickr stream of the Cincinnati Public Library, which showcase the inhabitants of this cathedral of the book in different settings of reading.

How marvelous it would be to see past generations interacting with medieval books. What powerful images they would make – looking at Tolkien thumbing through the Beowulf codex, seeing Cotton wandering through his magnificent library, or watching Louis IX of France learning to read from the famous Leiden Psalter. Old photographs do provide us with such “live” scenes, but there are only very few. Two of them show a reader interacting with the early-13th-century Codex Gigas or ‘Devil’s Bible’, the largest book to survive from the medieval period and currently kept in the National Library of Stockholm. Weighing 75 kilograms and measuring an astonishing 890×490 mm, it is as large as a dining room chair, taller than a bike. It was nearly destroyed in 1697 when a fire raged at the Royal Castle in Stockholm, where it was kept at the time. It was saved because it was thrown out of a window, seriously injuring a bystander.

Codex Gigas or 'Devil's Bible'
Codex Gigas or ‘Devil’s Bible’

As we can read on the left image, the man in the two photographs is Gustaf Liljegren, “machinist” (engineer). The pictures give us an inkling of what he thinks of the book: he seems in awe and proud to be able to hold this giant among medieval manuscripts. He was probably asked to stand next to the book to put the object’s size in perspective. In the picture on the left he poses next to it, gently holding open the book at the page depicting Heavenly Jerusalem. He gazes at the image, as if to steer our eyes towards it. In the picture on the right he seems to study the book, while leafing through it. This scene is also posed, of course, because the manuscript is facing the photographer, enabling us to see the two illuminated pages of the book.

We can even go further back in time to meet other readers if we move beyond the photograph. A 19th-century engraving from J.W. Clark’s Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods captures a gentleman reading a manuscript in a chained library – producing a very odd scene.

Gentleman in chained library
Gentleman in chained library

Then there are paintings, such as the one in which Humfrey Wanley, scholar of Old English, thumbs through an Anglo-Saxon codex. His arm is lifted just a bit too high for comfort: here, too, the reader poses proudly with the medieval book, showing it off to us, the beholders. The perhaps most powerful painting is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Man Holding a Book” (c. 1450). This medieval scene has a very modern feel to it, in part because the reader’s face looks so modern. You could have talked to this guy when you were in the bookshop yesterday.

Rogier van der Weyden, Man with Book (c. 1450)
Rogier van der Weyden, Man with Book (c. 1450)

What the readers in both the photographs and the paintings share is the desire to show off their treasures. The clear-eyed man in Van der Weyden’s painting does so most vividly. His hands lift the book up high, so as to make sure that the most important part of the painting is visible to us. The object is as dear to him as the only other object that features prominently in the painting, his shiny golden ring. Both book and ring are expensive and affordable only by few, which is no doubt the subtext of their presence in the picture. As his counterparts from the 17th and 19th centuries, he is a proud reader.

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

The Traveling Book: Medieval Texts on the Move

In their owner’s backpack, on wagons and in boats: medieval books were keen travelers. With them they carried texts and ideas across the map of Europe, disseminating the sciences, spreading romances and passing on historical narratives. Short texts may have moved from A to B because they were committed to memory, by troubadours for example, but longer texts more likely traveled in the form of ink on a parchment or paper page. Remarkably, while it must have been quite normal for books to physically move between monastic communities, cities and even countries, the phenomenon is almost completely hidden from our sight.

Occasionally we get glimpses into the transportation of books and the rational behind it. Court records show, for example, that when in 1423 a boat with commercial goods was seized in Nice, a batch of paper prayer books was among the confiscated items. When in the late fourteenth century the monks of Herne Charterhouse fled to Brussels to escape the war, they brought their library with them. Patricians in the city subsequently acquired copies of some of the Carthusians’ books: they especially craved after their Middle Dutch religious texts. On the other side of the Alps, in the late eleventh century, Constantine the African entered the abbey of Monte Cassino. He arrived from Africa, where he was born and raised, and he likely took a modest library of medical works with him across the pond. In Italy he would gradually translate twenty-four of them from Arabic into Latin, sparking the birth of modern medicine in a changing Western Europe.

Constantine the African lecturing on Uroscopy (Oxford, Bodl., Rawl. C. 328, f. 3r, 13th c)

Commercial endeavors, wars and emigration: these are all valid reasons for a book to travel. However, in spite of the fact that a fair amount of surviving manuscripts will at some point have been on the road, the objects themselves reveal surprisingly little about their itinerary. An unusual exception are three booklets that would ultimately find a home in Rooklooster Priory just outside Brussels. All three include important mystical tracts: Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 3067-73, fols. 2-14, which includes a sermon by Eckhart; and Paris, Bibliotheque Mazarine, MS 920, fols. 2-45 (Ruusbroec) and 120-144 (two letters by Hadewijch). All three were copied c. 1350 and the ex-libris inscriptions they hold, entered on their flyleafs by Rooklooster librarian Arnold de Short, tell us that they had become part of the priory’s library in the very early fifteenth century. Their journey to the priory was long and windy – and included crossing the border several times.

Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, MS 920, f. 2r (erased German glosses in Middle Dutch text)

Their complex itinerary is evidenced by German glosses and excerpts that were added to the Middle Dutch texts two or three decades after the latter were copied down into the slim booklets. The Brussels booklet contains just a few glosses, suggesting a German reader had difficulties reading Middle Dutch. Similar additions, except more, are found in the first of the Paris booklets. The first two pages alone contain as many as forty German glosses, be it that all of them were erased later (you can still read some of them of you hold the book in a certain angle). The foreign contribution in the other Paris booklet is more elaborate and complex. It entails several short excerpts from religious texts in Latin and German, which were added to pages that were left blank in the last quire of the booklet. All of these foreign contributions date from 1350-75.

Brussels, Kon. Bibl. MS 3067-73, f. 10r (German glosses)

The Dutch booklets are ‘living’ witnesses of a network through which mystical texts were exchanged between the duchy of Brabant (in particular Brussels) and cities in Germany (Cologne) and Swiss (Bazel). The booklets were made in Brabant in the middle of the fourteenth century. Research has shown that the Brussels booklet was likely commissioned from a commercial scribe by a patrician in town, who also had another part of the composite manuscript made (Part 4, with more Eckhart). After one or two decades, in 1350-75, the tiny booklets traveled to a German reader or community. The latter seems the more likely scenario for Paris, considering it holds not just one but several additions. By the early fifteenth century the booklets had returned to Brabant and were present in Rooklooster Priory.

Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, MS 920, f. 145v (excerpt in German)

This intriguing case of the traveling mystical booklets raises important questions. How were the objects actually transported? They are small (c. 130 mm in height, encompassing only a few quires), so perhaps they were put in a backpack? One of them was folded for a long time, which suggests it was placed in someone’s pocket. Were they made this small for the very reason that they would be on the move? And why did they travel to a different country? Were they gifts for kindred spirits? Did they accompany their owner because he could not part with the mystical texts as he traveled abroad? Or were they possibly commercial items meant for sales? In spite of the lack of answers, the three thin manuscripts form one of the few tangible remains of the spread of Eckhart and other mystical works among lay readers in fourteenth-century Europe.

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

New Evidence of Note-Taking in the Medieval Classroom

When I was going through some manuscripts in the Leiden University Library some time ago in preparation for one of my paleography classes, I came across an unusual medieval object: a small strip of parchment of 100×50 mm with small cursive writing on it. The object was pasted against the inside of the binding, which was likely done during rebinding in the 19th century. This wasn’t a manuscript, obviously, but neither was it a fragment of a manuscript, as one might be inclined to think (I blogged about such fragments some time ago). In fact, it was quite obvious that the small strip had always been this small, as evidenced by the observation that the text stays clear from the edges. Besides its modest proportions, another remarkable trait was the dark-brownish color and the slightly slanted sides of the object. What curious thing was this?


Parchment strip pasted in Leiden manuscript

The short answer is: a schedula (plural schedulae). In the Middle Ages the term was commonly used to refer to a scrap of parchment on which a short text could be written. They were in essence the byproduct of parchment production. The reason for their existence lies in the odd shape of the prepared animal skin. The longer sides were slightly narrower in the middle, which gave them an elongated dent, while the shorter sides had various smaller dents around the location where the head and tail had been. The uneven edge needed to be removed. A well-known image from the 13th century of a parchment maker selling his product to a monk provides a clue as to what precisely was cut away.

Parchment Maker in his Shop

Note how the framed skin in the background has uneven edges that look quite different from the smooth-edged skin in the foreground, which has been cut from the frame and is ready for sale. To get from the former to the latter, long strips were cut off – presto: schedulae. These strips were not only deemed unsuitable for writing upon because of their odd size (long and skinny), but they were also riddled with deficiencies, such as stains, discoloration and translucent patches.

Unwieldy as they were, such offcuts were primarily acceptable for texts of limited length that did not need to look spiffy, such as notes, short draft texts, letters, horoscopes, wills, or an addendum attached to a charter. When used as writing support, schedulae have a very informal (casual, even) air about them, which is also reflected by the grade of script with which they are filled. The shorts texts are often written down in a cursive hand or in a book hand with a cursive “element”. In sum, they were copied at high speed. The casual appearance of the offcut matches the nature of the texts they hold. Notes and drafts, and even letters, were hardly ever made to be kept permanently. Rather, these short bursts of writing served as “short-term memory”. Still, some of the texts written on them show us that the material was not always ideally suited for the purpose. Both Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux apologize for the brevity of their letters: they would love to write more, but were unable to. Knowing the materials they had to work with, we now know why. Charles of Orléans states it even more plainly in one of his letters: “For lack of space, I am writing no more to you.”

The ironic thing is, of course, that because of their short half-life, schedulae that do survive are valuable. They shed light, after all, in corners of medieval written culture that have remained dark. The strip I encountered demonstrates this perfectly. The text, which can be dated to the thirteenth century, suggests these are notes made by a student, likely while he was attending class. Thus the unpretentious object provide us with a vivid look around the medieval classroom. We see the student pondering various themes that were popular at the thirteenth-century university. He is sparring, for example, with the notion of “propria voluntas” or “self will” and how it relates to sin. We can also see how the student is struggling to keep up with his teacher, writing at high speed in a cursive hand and using a high volume of abbreviations. Thus the strip is a welcome “real-world” addition to what we already know about note-taking from primary sources. De disciplina scholarum, for example, a study manual made in Paris in the 1230s, advices that students bring schedulae with them to class for note-taking. Evidence suggests that the strips were kept with the textbook, folded into the quires.

The Leiden scrap was likely stored similarly: perhaps it fell out when the book was rebound, after which it was pasted in the back. It is right at home in the manuscript to which it is now appended. The host codex is heavy on texts used in education, most of which are also heavily glossed.

Notes in plummet in margins of host manuscript

The most notable of these texts, the first in the codex, is the very study manual from Paris that prescribes the use of schedulae for note-taking. Evidently, the student who filled this tiny parchment strip took the advice in the manual to heart, even though his notes suggest that he did not understand everything his teacher was trying to teach him.

Bibliographical note – If you want to know more about the use of schedulae in medieval written culture, my study on the topic will appear here in September 2012.

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

Common but not Ordinary: The Leiden Dioscorides Examined

This week one of my MA-students expressed he wanted to write his thesis on MS VLQ 1 in the Leiden University Library. The manuscript in question contains an alphabetized version of Dioscorides’ De materia medica. It belonged to a copy presented in several parts, but the others have all been lost, it seems (VLQ 1 contains the Preface and Acorus through Ficus maritima). It was made in or nearby the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino in the late eleventh century. This monastery is known for its high-end illuminated manuscripts written in Beneventan script. Thumbing through VLQ 1, however, quickly shows that this is not such a book. Not a single decorative element is encountered in the manuscript and the parchment is of particularly poor quality: some folia contain pronounced follicle patterns, translucent patches or a yellow discoloration; others contain cuts or gaps at the edge of the page.

The manuscript’s most notable feature, however, is the mix of scripts on its pages. The first scribe, who copied f. 1r to f. 13v, line 36, includes such familiar Beneventan letter forms as the a that looks like ac, the enlarged e that looks like a t with a circle on top, and the ti ligature. Curiously, the two remaining hands in the volume used Caroline Minuscule. The first of these takes over in line 37 of f. 13v, halfway through a sentence (see image). The transition is marked by a “barred” capital “P” in the margin, contemporary and perhaps executed by the first hand. A third individual copied the remainder of the manuscript (f. 32v). The script suggests the first scribe was trained in the Beneventan zone (Monte Cassino and its surroundings); the others came from elsewhere.

Transition from Beneventan to Caroline at f. 13v

Monte-Cassino expert Francis Newton relates the coexistence and mixed application of Beneventan and Caroline in Southern-Italian scriptoria to status and the purpose of a book. High-quality manuscripts with gold and colored initials, which he calls Nobilissimi or most noble books, are always copied in Beneventan script. This category consists of display books and liturgical manuscripts. One step down in the hierarchy there are the Notabiliores, or more notable books, commonly with patristic and classical contents as well as contemporary medieval texts, predominantly written in Beneventan script entirely. The lowest tier on Newton’s ladder is a class he calls Viliores, or more common books. This is where we may situate VLQ 1. These manuscripts, which may be partly written in Beneventan and partly in Caroline, contain works on such topics as dialectic, grammar, law and medicine. These plain objects were likely made for school use or scholarly pursuit.

Thus, the Leiden Dioscorides is common but not ordinary: the object holds an every-day text that was produced under unusual circumstances, in a scriptorium where scribes from different origins found common ground in the books they copied. I can’t wait to see what the MA-thesis will uncover about this most intriguing book.

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