Category Archives: Fragments

Life Beyond the Grave: The Leiden Apocalypse Fragments

A while ago, this blog devoted a post to medieval manuscript fragments, parts of sheets that were cut up and used to support bookbindings. New fragments appear on the radar frequently. Just yesterday, for example, new fragments of Old French verse texts emerged at the University of St Andrews. Leiden University Library, my go-to place for looking at manuscripts, has hundreds of them, in various languages. Four seemingly insignificant strips, which I studied a while back, can be used to show just how important it is to take fragments seriously and to have a look at them when you study a text tradition. The strips in question, now sealed in plastic, once belonged to a Middle Dutch copy of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse. Apart from being disseminated as part of the Bible, the book also has a separate transmission, as is the case in Latin and other vernaculars. However, only six such manuscripts survive in Middle Dutch. This immediately elevates the Leiden fragments, which bear shelfmark BPL 2454 (13) and can be dated to 1350-75, to an important – seventh – witness of the tradition.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS BPL 2454 (13), fragment 1

The oldest surviving manuscript, kept in the St Petersburg Library of Sciences, can be dated to 1325-50. The Flemish book historian Willem de Vreese found it in a pile of Middle Dutch manuscripts that were left under a dripping pipe in a forgotten part of the library. He was given permission to defrost the chunk of ice and “liberate” the twenty or so medieval books – like Han Solo being freed from carbonite. The best known manuscript, however, is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS néerlandais 3, made around 1400 in Flanders, most likely in Bruges.

Paris, BnF, MS néerl. 3, f. 12r

The Paris manuscript is of great interest because it is the only one that is illuminated. It contains twenty-two breathtaking full-page miniatures, considered prime examples of “pre-Eyckian” realism. Equally remarkable is the manuscript’s layout: each book opening contains a miniature on the right page, with on the facing page the corresponding text – a chapter from the Apocalypse. Text and image thus form a diptych. For the Apocalypse tradition this is very unusual. In fact, it is found in only one other manuscript, a Latin copy made in Tours shortly after 800 (now Trier, Stadtbibliothek MS 31).

Trier, Stadtbibliothek, MS 31 (c. 800)

Back to the Leiden fragments. While not much of the original manuscript survives (the smallest of the four strips measures 41×12 mm, the largest 16x107mm), they provide crucial information about the decoration program of the Paris manuscript. The strips connect to Paris in two ways. First, they are illuminated as well, setting the Leiden and Paris copies apart from the other five. More notably, however, the fragments seem to present another instance of the unusual diptych tradition: the page out of which the strips were cut contained on the back the text of Chapter 12, while the front side held an image pertaining to Chapter 11. Certain elements from f. 12r of the Paris manuscript, presenting the image to Chapter 11, can be clearly made out in Leiden. Note for example how the crawling figure attacked by devils in the lower part of the Paris page (displayed above) is found on one of the Leiden strips as well – moreover, the man with his eyes closed is the same one as the individual being decapitated in Paris.

BPL 2454 (13), fragment 4

We can learn quite a bit from these small snippets. Most importantly, the Leiden fragments suggest that the decoration program in Paris is not unique. The diptych presentation, it seems, may have been more widespread in Middle Dutch vernacular. Also, the diptych design not only made use of high-quality miniatures, but apparently also accommodated plain colour drawings, as on the Leiden fragments, which were much cheaper. Readers who purchased such books thus seem to have been given a choice. Given that Leiden is the oldest one, predating Paris by several decades, the Middle Dutch diptych tradition, modest as it may have been, could potentially have had a long life, one that at least goes back to the early second half of the fourteenth century. Most importantly for us fragment lovers, however, is that the tiny Apocalypse remains show there is life beyond the grave, like the message of the text itself.

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

Hidden Treasure, or How Destruction Creates Beautiful Things

If you have worked with medieval or early-modern books you will likely have encountered them: tiny pieces of medieval parchment sticking out of bindings, and parts of manuscript leaves glued to the inside of boards. This hidden treasure is what makes handling pre-modern books in their original bindings so thrilling and addictive.

Such fragments of medieval manuscripts form a most useful research object for the historian of the book, and, indeed, for the historian of human communication. They are the heavily damaged remains of objects that do not survive because they were cut up to be used as binding support. When Gutenberg invented moving type, handwritten books became old-fashioned overnight. All over Europe they subsequently became the victims of recycling at the hands of binders: like cars at a scrap yard, their bodies were mutilated and diminished until nothing was left. It is not easy to cut up parchment quires, but judging from the evidence staring at us through the cracks in the leather today, book binders excelled at it.

Middle Dutch fragment in binding

And bless their hearts for persisting! Rather than disappearing into the pots and pans of glue makers, the dismembered books were to have a second life: they became travelers in time, stowaways in leather cases with great and important stories to tell. Indeed, stories that may otherwise not have survived, given that classical and medieval texts frequently only come down to us in fragmentary form. The early history of the Bible as a book could not be written if we were to throw out fragment evidence. Moreover, while ancient and medieval texts survive in many handsome books from before the age of print, quite often the oldest witnesses are fragments. At the very least a fragment tells you that a certain text was available at a certain location at a certain time. Stepping out of their leather time capsules after centuries of darkness, fragments are “blips” on the map of Europe, expressing “I existed, I was used by a reader in tenth-century Italy! (But look at me now…)”

The frequent emergence of new fragments and the importance of their contribution to the history of medieval text and book production prompts the exciting question of what else may be out there for us to discover? It is thus important to take these damaged goods seriously and describe the fragments in as much detail as one would with a full manuscript. That said, it is not easy to make sense of the remains. Binders seem to have particularly enjoyed slicing text columns in half, as if they knew how to frustrate future researchers best. Identifying what works these unfulfilling quotes come from can be a nightmare. Dating and localizing the remains can cause insomnia. Nevertheless, they are thrilling experiences, and great tools for getting others, including the public at large, inspired. Next week the department where I teach, Book and Digital Media Studies at the University of Leiden, is taking 15 students to Rolduc Abbey, where dozens of fragments have emerged (including those pictured here). Whatever the outcome of our work on these remains will be, it will surely be a most satisfying experience.

Hebrew fragment peeking through a hole

So while we might feel sorry for all those cows that died in vain, on the whole, the knife of the binder created beautiful things: sources that can add significantly to our understanding of medieval text culture as well as very effective ambassadors for the intriguing object that is the medieval codex. To the fragment we say: “Live long and prosper!”

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