Category Archives: Codicology

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?


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.

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

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.

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.

Strange Medieval Books

Written by hand, medieval manuscripts are very different from printed books, which started to appear after Gutenberg’s mid-fifteenth-century invention of moving type. One difference in particular is important for our understanding of manuscripts. While printed books were produced in batches of a thousand or more, handwritten copies were made one at the time. In fact, medieval books, especially those made commercially, came to be after a detailed conversation between scribe and reader, a talk that covered all aspects of the manuscript’s production. This is the only way the scribe could ensure the expensive product he was about to make was in sync with what the reader wanted. Consequently, while printed books were shaped generically and according to the printer’s perception of what the (anonymous) “market” preferred, the medieval scribe designed a book according to the explicit instructions  of its user.

This principle of one-on-one (of scribe-reader and reader-manuscript) explains why we come across some very strange medieval books. Scribes, especially those that were paid for their work, would accommodate any quirky wish – why on earth not? Here is a selection of five striking manuscripts that are literally outstanding as they are shaped unlike the bulk of surviving medieval manuscripts.

1. Fleur-de-Lis

Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 22 (c. 1555)
Fig. 1 – Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Fonds Lescalopier MS 22 (c. 1555)

This Book of Hours has the most peculiar shape (Fig. 1): its pages resemble lily leaves (the yellow background is a paper sheet used for contrast). Such Fleurs-de-Lis were a symbol for French royalty, which puts this special book in a particular setting right away. In fact, we know it was made for king Henry II of France, who used it for private devotion – the Book of Hours contained prayers and other short texts, which were read at set times during the day. Not only does the very shape of the pages testify to the object’s royal patron, so too does the high quality of the decoration (more images here). The manuscript handles extremely well: it measures only 182×80 mm and has a limited number of pages (129 leaves), which means it is light and easy to hold for a long time. Evidently, even during private devotion Henry II was treated like a king.

2. Codex Rotundus

Fig. 2 – Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS 728 (1450-75)

This is one of the most peculiar medieval book formats out there (Fig. 2). While you’d expect to see some corners on a page, the Codex Rotundus lacks any at all. Like the previous item, it concerns a Book of Hours, an instrument used for private devotion. Currently kept in the Dombibliothek at Hildesheim as MS 728 (more here), it was originally made in a Bruges workshop for Adolf of Cleves, whose monogram is engraved on the clasps. Adolf was the nephew of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, which puts this book in a courtly environment, like the previous item. The pages are only 90 mm in diameter, which means this manuscript was designed as a true portable item, perhaps to be brought to church during journeys away from court. The page design came with its own challenges for the binder, however, who had to add no less than three clasps to keep it closed.

3. Heart-Shaped Book

Kopenhagen, KB, Thott MS 1510 (c. 1550)
Fig. 3 – Copenhagen, KB, Thott MS 1510 (c. 1550)

It kind of makes sense to put love poetry in a heart-shaped book (Fig. 3). Still, very few of them survive. Medieval paintings show actual readers prominently showcasing their heart-shaped books, suggesting it must have been a tradition (an example is found here). Copied in the sixteenth century, this particular one from the Danish National Library is the oldest manuscript with love ballads in Danish vernacular (more information here). It contains 83 of them, all composed at the court of King Christian III. The contents may be royal, the appearance of the manuscript certainly is not. In fact, with its scruffy script and mishmash layout, the heart book is far removed from the high-end manuscripts presented so far. Moreover, judging from this added marginal note, the life of the individual who read the book was far removed from the comforts of court: “May God end and turn my misery into a good and happy ending.” He sounds heartbroken.

4. Narrow Books

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (c. 1100)

This book is unusual in more than one way. It concerns a hymnal, which was carried through the church during processions (Fig. 4). This is why the book is fitted in a box, which was removed when the pages were used to sing from. What is perhaps more striking about this object is its dimensions: the pages are unusually tall and narrow. Medieval scribes were very strict about the relation between a page’s height and width. It more or less resembles our modern standard in that the width is about 0.7 of the page height (which is 1.0). The narrow format made it possible to hold the book with one hand: the pressure of its weight pressed down on the palm of the hand, not on the finger tips. This tall and high “performance” format was also used in early-modern theatres, and some educators favoured it for use in the classroom, as discussed in a previous blog.

5. Miniature Books

London, British Library, Stowe MS 956 (c. 1540)
Fig. 5 – London, British Library, Stowe MS 956 (c. 1540)

And then there are the miniature books. This tiny object holds an English translation of the Psalms and is only 40 mm in height – less than the short side of your credit card (Fig. 5). It was owned by Anne Boleyn, whose life was cut equally short thanks to her husband Henry VIII, recognisably depicted on the opening page. There are several types of movable books (see this blog “Books on the Go”). As the “loops” on the binding show, this book was designed as a girdle book, which means that it likely dangled from Boleyn’s belt. Although some great specimens survive (see this blog post), such small books were infrequently made in medieval times. This was in part because they could not hold much text and it required particular skills to write such small script. In fact, research shows that less than 1% of surviving manuscripts measure less than 150 mm in height.

While these five examples showcase the exceptional in medieval manuscript culture, one ought to keep in mind that the items stand out because the majority of medieval books do not look like this. On an average day (week, month, year) the book historian will not encounter books like the ones seen here. This is important as it underscores just how strictly medieval scribes adhered to very particular – and the same – rules of book production. Remarkably, these rules of book production were not written down but passed on during training, whether in a monastic environment of in the guild system of the late-medieval cities. While the users of the books above may have been keen to own objects that looked different from the pack, their makers knew this is not what a book was supposed to look like – but they penned it anyway.

Secrets of the Heart: Exploring the Dark Side of the Manuscript

In the heart of the medieval book, where the quires are united and meet the binding, great secrets loom in the dark. This is the place where we can read things in the manuscript that cannot be read on its pages: whether it is composite and in what manner it is composite. The question of whether a collection of texts was copied continuously or whether it was formed by binding together independently produced units, is of the utmost importance for understanding the object’s genesis and for “getting” the texts as a collection. Providing an answer to this query is difficult, however, because it depends on facts buried deep inside the quire construction of the book – which may, moreover, not be obtained without upsetting librarians. Nevertheless, one must persevere, treading as carefully as possible, because exploring the dark side of the manuscript pays off.

Composite manuscript: The booklets give themselves away by their varying dimensions.

The first thing to do is assessing whether a manuscript is composite or not. Determining that an object is not composite is easy enough. A collection of texts copied continuously is usually written by the same scribe. Mind you, in such case the book may still be composite, for the scribe may have united individual units he copied in the past. However, if the writing style (duct) and ink color are the same throughout, and especially if all catchwords are in place and in the same style, the text collection was likely copied in one “go”. There is one trap, hidden in plain sight: a book produced by multiple scribes may still be copied continuously. Sometimes a scribe stopped working on a project and another took over. The individuals usually tried to hide such transitions by “breaking” at the very end of a page: the first stopped after completing the last line on the recto side of the leaf, the second started with the first line on verso. Less frequently, the switch may also occur in the middle of the page; or even in the middle of a line. This intriguing scenario can usually not be explained. Was the first scribe suddenly overcome with tiredness? Had the abbey beer of the previous night gotten to him? Did he have a blind date with the rubricator?

Team of scribes: hand switch in the middle of a sentence (lines 8/9).

The domain of composite books is much darker – and more slippery. This is in large part due to the fact that such objects can be composite in different ways. They may consist, for example, of units that were designed and created specifically to be bound together, while in other cases such units were merely united because of their similar dimensions. In some composite books all individual units were in use by themselves before they were bound together, while in others only some of them were, or none at all. Consequently, any two individual units of a composite book (and the texts they hold!) may have very different relations to one another: either they are new neighbors or their kinship predates the volume. Descriptions in manuscript catalogues usually do not clarify such relations. The better ones will mention that a manuscript consists of multiple units, but that is often the end of it. Take the following examples, all taken from existing catalogues: “Latin works on science and mathematics assembled from several 13th-century booklets,” “A miscellany of five separate manuscripts,” “A set of five volumes” and “Three independent manuscripts bound together.” The volumes are composite, but how? How are we to understand “assembled” in the first description? And how meaningful is the use of different terms in these examples (“booklets”, “volumes” and “independent manuscripts”)?

Ultimately these descriptions show that bringing the genesis of a manuscript into play in your research normally requires you to go into the field and observe the object “in the flesh”. There is much to gain when you do. For example, the genesis of the book may tell us something about the availability of exemplars – and thus, perhaps, where we may situate the scribe. A scribe may have had all the exemplars he needed in front of him when he started to copy. Then again, he may not, for example because his hunt for exemplars had been only partly successful. Availability is a key consideration for the manuscript to become composite or not. After all, the scribe could wait until he had all the material he needed and copy everything at once. The result would be a full manuscript if he copied a lot of texts, or a booklet if the planned collection was modest in scope. If there was much to copy but there was a supply problem, he could decide to copy the collection in “installments”. The result would be a series of booklets, all in the same hand, bound together in a single volume. As he was waiting for new material to become available, the scribe could start using the booklets he had already copied, adding new installments as he got his hands on more exemplars. This is a different scenario again, one where some pages within a composite book (consisting of several parts copied by one hand) show wear and tear.

Copy and exemplar in a depiction of Jean Miélot as a scribe.

While the examples provided here may suggest that variation is endless, there are, in fact, only a limited number of ways to produce a composite book. Obviously, knowing the possible scenarios helps to deduce in what way a manuscript in front of you is composite. The first step, however, is to realize that the manuscript you are looking at, even when it is copied by one hand throughout, may be the product of extensive tweaking over a long period of time.

About composite books in general:

P.R. Robinson, “A Self-Contained Unit in Composite Manuscripts,” Codicologica 3: Essais typologiques, ed. A. Gruys and J.P. Gumbert (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 46-69.

About the different types of composite manuscripts and the formation of text collections:

Erik Kwakkel, “Late-Medieval Text Collections: A Codicological Typology based on Single-Author Manuscripts,” in Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice, ed. Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 56-79.

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