Category Archives: Medieval Readers

The Medieval Origins of the Modern Footnote

Last week I posted a blog on note-taking in medieval times. It showed how individuals who wanted to jot down a note dealt with the absence of notepads and scrap paper. As in our modern day, the urge to write down a note in medieval times often came while reading a book. And so the margins of the page grew into a prime location where the reader could vent his objections or – albeit more rarely – express his or her approval.

The present post deals with the logistics behind this “window dressing”: it shows how a reader with many important things to say kept track of his marginal comments. Particularly, it deals with a serious problem that came with adding notes to the page: how to connect a particular comment, placed among a dozen others, to the specific text passage it refers to. The clever system that was created for this purpose lives on as our modern footnote.


Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century) – Source

The crux of our footnote system is the presence of a symbol that connects the note to the relevant location in the text. Curiously, in medieval times it was quite common not to have such connections in place, perhaps especially in the earlier period (Fig. 1). When few remarks were added to the page, a reader could deduce with relative ease to which passage a marginal note referred. It helped if a text was in popular use or known by heart, as many medieval works were. In such cases the note made sense instantly because the reader was familiar with the referenced literary context. Moreover, as long as notes were few and short, a reader could simply insert them – interlinearly – over the relevant word or passage (Fig. 2).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (9th century)
Fig. 2 – Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v
Fig. 3 – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century) – Source

Cleverly, in this system the very position of the remark identified the word to which it referred. However, as the number and size of such comments increased, it became impossible to place them between the lines. The great blank space provided by the margins was now drafted into service. It is here that the absence of a proper reference system was felt. As the marginal body of remarks and critique began to accumulate, the page became a real messy place, a labyrinth in which it became impossible for readers to find specific pieces of information (Fig. 3). In came the footnote.

Dots and lines
Connecting a marginal remark to the relevant passage in the text was usually done with a duplicated symbol, called a signe de renvoi: one was placed in front of the marginal note, the other near the word or passage that the remark commented upon. While it is hard to deduce a clear pattern of development, it appears that in the early stages of using such footnotes scribes and readers resorted to plain symbols rather than letters or numbers. These symbols varied considerably in shape and sophistication. At the high end of the spectrum we encounter complex symbols, such as the reversed letter E seen in Fig. 4 (magnified).

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, fol. 170r (10th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, p. 170 (820-840) – Source

More popular, however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. In Fig. 5 such an omitted line is placed in the margin accompanied by a symbol made up of a line and a dot. It is repeated in the text itself, near the location where the line belonged. This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century) – Source

Scribes used different versions of the line-and-dot symbol. In fact, they had to if they were to produce unique ties between comment and text. When dots were used, their number would increase as more notes were added. Alternatively, the position of the dots could be varied, so that they formed different – unique! – patterns.

Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) – Photo EK

Customising the line-type footnote, scribes usually distinguished one from the other by added circles, which were attached at different locations and in varying numbers. In what is a most unusual find, in a Leiden manuscript we see a scribe practicing his dot and line footnote symbols (Fig. 6). It shows variations in the number and pattern of dots, as well as in the treatments of lines.

Closest to our modern system of footnotes, finally, is the use of letters to tie a marginal remark to its proper location in the text. In some manuscripts we see the entire alphabet running down the margin. Fig. 7 shows a page from a manuscript with works by Horace (left column) to which a high volume of notes were added (right column), all of which are connected to specific passages with the letters A to Z.

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r
Fig. 7 – Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100) – Photo EK

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries such classical texts were most commonly used in a classroom setting. The instructors who used the books, typically in a monastic school, had many things to explain to their students, as the notes show. It made sense to organise such added information in a clear manner, and the alphabet came in handy in this respect. Some pages in this particular book contain more footnotes than there are letters in the alphabet, which challenged the system. In such cases the user added into the mix symbols made from lines and dots.

The last word: numerals
So where are the medieval footnotes that make use of numbers, like we do today? Curiously, I have not been able to find them, which kind of makes sense. Roman numerals would not be suitable for the task. Placed out of context, as a symbol initiating a segment of text (i.e. the marginal comment) they would easily be mistaken for a letter – which they are, graphically speaking. Moreover, a high Roman numeral would quickly take in a lot of space – not what you want in a note symbol. Arabic numerals were far were less popular than Roman numerals, even in the later Middle Ages. Readers may not have felt comfortable enough with these new numbers to use them in the margin. In fact, some scribes in the later Middle Ages are still confused by the zero. The leap from alphabet to numerals – from the medieval to our modern system – appears to have been taken in the age of print.

Medieval Notepads

We are surrounded by pieces of scrap paper. We chuck tons of them in the waste bin each year, leave them lying on our desks, use them as bookmarks, stuff them in our pockets, and toss them on the street. And so we usually do not have to look hard or long when we need a piece of paper for our shopping list or for writing down a thought. This was very different in medieval times. Writing material – of any kind – was very expensive back then, which meant that scribes used a paper or parchment sheet to the max: everything was used. As a result, there was nothing obvious lying around on one’s desk that was suitable for scrap material. So how did the medieval person make notes?

In the margin

Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century), Photo Julie Somers – Source

The most common and sensible location for putting down thoughts, critique or notes was the margin of the medieval book. Consider this: you wouldn’t think so looking at a medieval page, but on average only half of it was filled with the actual text. A shocking fifty to sixty percent was designed to be margin. As inefficient as this may seem, the space came in handy for the reader. As the Middle Ages progressed it became more and more common to resort to the margin for note-taking. Notably, the thirteenth century gave birth to two particularly smart book designs that accommodated such use. Both types are connected to the emerging university, which makes sense as this was a note-taking environment par excellence – then and now.

The first of these is seen in Fig. 1, which shows a page of a law manuscript that actually contains two kinds of texts. Found in the two central columns is the Digest of Justianian, written in a slightly larger letter. Draped around it, in a smaller letter, is the commentary to this work: these are the notes of smart teachers from the past, put there collectively to help the reader make sense of the law. This specific style of presenting two works on the one page, where the glosses (commentary) are presented as “square brackets”, is called textus inclusus. An Italian reader in the thirteenth century added his own two-cents to these “prefab” opinions that came with the book: in Fig. 1 we see them scribbled between the two central columns.

London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century) – Source

The second thirteenth-century book layout that was specially designed to accommodate note-taking is as clever as the text on its pages. We encounter it first and foremost in manuscripts with works by Aristotle, although the design would spread to other domains, including law and medicine. As seen in Fig. 2, the margins surrounding the Aristotle text (which form the two central columns) were left completely blank by the scribe. The tiny writing that is seen there now is from a student in the Arts Faculty, where the works of Aristotle formed the main textbook, called the Corpus vetustius (the old corpus).

If you look carefully you see five vertical commentary columns marked by thin pencil lines, which allowed for five “pillars” of notes. Cleverly, in this page design the start of the note could be placed at the same height as the Aristotle line on which it commented, not just one time, but five times over! Larger comments were placed in the larger blank areas in the lower margin. Some of these Aristotle textbooks contained up to twenty “zones” for notes, which would ultimately be connected to the main text with the help of symbols resembling our current footnotes.

Yellow sticky notes 

Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth
Fig. 3 – Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth – Source

As stated, paper and parchment sheets were commonly used to the max, meaning no redundant material was left that could be used for scraps. However, when the animal skin was turned into parchment sheets such redundant material was left over. In the process the outer rim of the dried skin was removed, because these “offcuts” were deemed unsuitable for writing on. The material was too thick for a regular page and its surface was slippery and translucent, not to mention that most offcuts were too small for normal pages. They consequently ended up in the recycling bin of the parchment maker.

Interestingly, these small, scrappy slips of parchment were sometimes sold to clients. Offcuts were used for text with a short lifespan, such as letters and drafts. In addition, it was used when a text was “utilitarian” and did not need to be produced from regular – more expensive – parchment. An example is seen in Fig. 3, which shows a short description strapped to a bone that belonged to a saint. Such “relic labels” were important because of course nobody wanted to mistake the big toe of St Peter for that of St Paul. Such information was scribbled on the parchment strip, usually in low-quality (fast) handwriting.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (France, 13th century) - Photo Giulio Menna
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (13th century) – Photo Giulio Menna
Birch bark strip used by the student Onfim, dated 1240-1260
Fig. 5 – Novgorod, Museum of History, birch bark strip 202, from pupil Onfim, dated 1240-1260 – Source, blogmore

Offcuts were also frequently used by students and scholars, for example for taking notes in the classroom (Fig. 4, more here). In fact, in De discipline scholarum, a guidebook made in the 1230s for students and teachers at the University of Paris, it is explained how a student should bring such slips of parchment to class for taking notes. Interestingly, some of these slips have survived because they were pasted in a student’s textbook, like the one seen in Fig. 4. These are truly the medieval equivalent of our “yellow sticky notes”. The practice of bringing scrap material into the classroom was a much broader medieval phenomenon, as is shown by the famous birch bark notes that survive from 13th-century Russia. Fig. 5 shows funny “stick figure” doodles drawn by the student Onfim as he was sitting, bored no doubt, in class.

The last word: notepad
There is evidence that multiple parchment offcuts were sometimes bound together, by pricking a hole in them and pulling a cord through. These bundles, which essentially form a true notepad in the modern sense of the word, could be of considerable size. A specimen in the Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg consists of thirty slips. A type of notepad that was even more popular in medieval times was the wax tablet (here is a collection of them). These, too, were often tied together into a bundle, forming a notepad of perhaps six or so “pages” (Fig. 6, note the holes for the cords on the left side). Smart pages, that is, because the contents could be erased from the soft wax (with the flat back of the stylus), presenting vacant space for fresh thoughts.

Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768
Fig. 6 – Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768 (4th-6th century) – Source

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.


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.

Location, Location: GPS in the Medieval Library

Books love to hide from us. While you were sure you put your current read on the kitchen table, it turns up next to your comfortable chair in the living room. As you handle more books at the same time, it becomes increasingly challenging to keep track of their location. In the Middle Ages it was even more difficult to locate a specific book. Unlike today, medieval books lacked a standard size, so you couldn’t really make neat piles – which sort of brings order to chaos. Finding a book was also made difficult by the fact that the spine title had not yet been invented.

So how did medieval readers locate books, especially when they owned a lot of them? The answer lies in a neat trick that resembles our modern GPS : a book was tagged with a unique identifier (a shelfmark) that was entered into a searchable database (a library catalogue), which could subsequently be consulted with a handheld device (a portable version of the catalogue). Here is how to plot the route to a specific book in the medieval library.

The most effective tool for retrieving a book in medieval times was to give it a number and placing it in the correct sequential order on the shelf. It is still common practice in modern libraries, for good reason: as long as the shelver puts the object back in the right spot, you will be able to find it again quickly. Such book numbers – shelfmarks – come in various forms. The more books a library owned, the more complex the shelfmarks became (had to become, actually). The most simple type merely stated that the book in question was the “twelfth volume” in the cupboard, as seen in the image at the top of this post (British Library, Royal 10 A.xi).

Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 941 (14th century), flyleaf
Fig. 1 – Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 941 (14th century), flyleaf with title and faint shelfmark “A” (15th century) – Source

Similarly, in small collections books were marked with single letters. In Bethlehem Priory near Brussels each item in the small library of Middle Dutch (i.e. non-Latin) books was given a letter, which was placed on an empty page in front of the manuscript together with a short title. The first volume in this mini library was a late-fourteenth-century copy of works by the mystic Hadewijch (now Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 941). On a flyleaf we can still faintly read “Visiones haywigis. A”, showing it was the first book on the shelf (Fig. 1).

Larger libraries – exceeding 26 books – needed a more sophisticated shelfmark system. A particularly clever one is found in manuscripts that were placed on lecterns, like those used in chained libraries  (Fig. 2). The shelfmarks had two components: a letter pointed to the appropriate lectern, while a number indicated the book’s position on the shelf. Because manuscripts were placed on both sides of the lectern, a bit of color was added – literally – to distinguish between the sides. Red numbers referred to books placed on the right side, black ones to those on the left.

Chained library "De Librije" in Zutphen, The Netherlands
Fig. 2 – Chained library “De Librije” in Zutphen, The Netherlands – Photo EK
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100), binding 15th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100, binding 15th century) – Photo EK

The shelfmark tag on the front cover of Lucan’s Pharsalia in Fig. 3 (“Q 2”) is a variation on this theme. Here the letter was made red so as to indicate on what side of the lectern the book was to be placed. It shows that the fifteenth-century owner of the book, the Benedictine Abbey of Egmond, near Amsterdam, owned a lectern library. Much like a modern GPS, the tag “(red) Q 2” ties the manuscript to a unique location: it is the third book on the right side of the sixteenth lectern.

Having a location tag is only useful, of course, if there is a searchable database from which the book’s location may be retrieved. How would you otherwise get to Lucan’s Pharsalia in the library, or even know it is present there? The library catalogue is such a database. Up to 1200 the contents list of a monastic library was usually merely an inventory: it marked the presence of a book, but not its location. The later Middle Ages saw a surge of real catalogues, listing books and their location. Some of these catalogues were written out in books (as we will see in a moment), while others were pasted to the wall in the library.

Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (wall catalogue, 15th century) – Source

A particularly big wall catalogue survives from Lopsen Abbey near Leiden: it originally measured 800×590 mm (Fig. 4). The books in this list are numbered sequentially (1, 2, 3, etc.) within categories such as “libri refectoriales” (books read during the meals) and “libri devoti et utiles” (books for personal, spiritual development). However, there is no clear indication as to where the object may be found (the same in this wall catalogue). Readers had to wander through the library to find the right section and then start counting to find the book they were looking for. Not very efficient.

By contrast, other late-medieval catalogues are very clear about the location of a book. From several monastic libraries in the Forest of Soignes just outside of Brussels, catalogues survive that actually refer to the sophisticated type of shelfmark seen in Fig. 3. The ones from Zevenborren Priory (now Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MSS II 1038 and 7602, both early 16th century) refer to books on both the “black side” and the “red side” of the lectern.

Book cupboards in Hereford Chained Library
Fig. 5 – Bookcases in Hereford Chained Library

Handheld device
The catalogue of the lectern library in another abbey in the forest, nearby Rooklooster Priory, is the cleverest of the lot. It comes in the form of a book with a peculiar shape (now Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS II 152). It is long and narrow, a format that indicates it was made for handheld use, as research has shown. Curiously, the shape of the pages resembles the long inventory slips on the side of book cupboards in chained libraries (see the wooden frames clearly visible in Fig. 5). The hand-held Rooklooster catalogue must have been copied directly from such slips on the side of the lecterns.

What a clever tool the user ended up with. The open catalogue in his hand presented two columns, one for books on the “black” (left-hand side) side of the lectern, another for books on the “red” (right-hand) side. Moreover, each column is divided into two halves. The top half lists books placed on the upper shelf of the lectern, the lower half those on the lower shelf (these shelves were placed under the lectern, as seen  in Fig. 6).

Cesena, Bibliotheca Malastestiana
Fig. 6 – Cesena, Bibliotheca Malastestiana: lectern with shelf – Source

Standing in front of a lectern with his handheld device, the reader knew precisely which of the volumes in front of him was the one he was looking for: he could identify it without even opening it. This particular medieval catalogue is not unlike a modern navigation system, with “GPS coordinates” directing readers to such works as Ambrose on the Psalms (Black A 1) and Augustine’s Civitate Dei (Red A 5). The only difference is that it never ran out of batteries.

The Skinny on Bad Parchment

My favourite activity is to touch, smell, and listen to the crackling sound of cows and sheep that have been dead for a thousand years. That’s right, I am talking about medieval parchment, the standard material for books made between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. Animal skin replaced papyrus (standard up to the fifth century) and would ultimately be challenged by paper, which competed for dominance during the later medieval period. Parchment was resilient, however, and it was even used by early printers, including Gutenberg himself – showing the use of animal skin did not die with the medieval manuscript.

There is a lot you can tell from medieval skin. Like a physician today, the book historian can make a diagnosis by observing it carefully. The best quality, for example, feels just like velvet. It usually has an even, off-white colour, and it makes no sound when you turn the page. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colours. Unlike what you may have thought, looking at imperfect skin is far more interesting than studying its perfect counterpart. This is because a defect tells a powerful story, shedding light on the book’s production and providing clues about its use and storage post-production. Here’s the skinny on bad medieval parchment.


Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century)
Fig. 1 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century) – Source

Scribes were usually not the ones to blame for a manuscript’s bad skin. A fair part of that honor goes to the parchment maker. Preparing parchment was a delicate business. In order to clear the skin of flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame, tight like a drum. If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear. As a result the reader is given an unexpected sneak peek onto the next page – where a dragon may just be introduced into the story (Fig. 1). We encounter such holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were not too bothered by them. Many scribes will have shared this sentiment, because they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them, as if to prevent the reader from falling in.

The jabs of parchment makers – and the resulting holes – were sometimes stitched together. Fig. 2 shows a former rip (a long one) snaking across the page: the scribe has stitched it up like a patient in post-op. Repairing holes was sometimes done more eloquently, as seen in Fig. 3, as well as in the image at the top of this post (Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16). In both cases the holes are not made to disappear, as with the stitching in Fig. 2, but they are highlighted by coloured threads. In some monastic communities this must have been common practice, given that they repaired a lot of books with such “embroidery” (some examples in this Tumblr post). The practice turned defect into art: good-looking bad skin.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century)
Fig. 2 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century) – Photo EK
Uppsala, University Library, MS C 317 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Uppsala, University Library, MS C 371 (14th century) – Source

Another skin problem encountered by scribes during a book’s production was the animal’s hair follicle – the skin organ that produces hair. These follicles show as pronounced black dots on the white page. Often parchment makers or scribes were able to sand them away, producing the desired smooth and cream-colored surface. However, if the follicles had been too deep in a calf or sheep, no dermatologist could have removed the imperfection, let alone the blunt instruments of the scribe. The only thing to do was to write around the patch (Fig. 4). The follicles are helpful because they allow us to determine – from the distance between them – whether the animal was a calf, a sheep or a goat. This, in turn, may shed light on where the manuscript was produced: the use of goat, for example, often points to Italy.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century) – Photo EK

Bad skin may also tell us something about the individuals who owned, read and stored manuscripts. The presence of holes and rips may for example indicate the cost of the materials. Studies suggest that parchment was sold in four different grades, which implies that sheets with and without visible deficiencies may have been sold at different rates. If this was indeed the case, an abundance of elongates holes in a manuscript may just point at an attempt to economise on the cost of the writing support. In other words, bad skin may have come at a good price.

Parchment provides other information about readers as well, for example that he or she stored a book in an unsuitable location. Damp places, for one, would leave a mark on the manuscript’s skin, as is clearly seen in a manuscript I sometimes call the “Mouldy Psalter” – for mouldy it is (Fig. 5). On nearly every page the top corner shows a purple rash from the mould that once attacked the skin. It is currently safe and the mould is gone, but the purple stains show just how dangerously close the book came to destruction – some corners have actually been eaten away. Similarly, if a book was stored without the proper pressure produced by a closed binding, for example because the clasp was missing (as explained here), the parchment would buckle and produce endearing “waves” on the page (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century) – Photo EK
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century) – Photo EK

Apart from such attacks by mother nature, a manuscript could also be scarred for life by the hand of men – those evil users of books. Well known are cases where scribes and readers erased text with a knife, either because the reading was wrong or because they disagreed with it. However, in the wrong hands a knife could easily have a more severe impact on the book’s skin. All those shiny letters on the medieval page were too much for some beholders. The individual that gazed at the golden letters in the manuscript shown in Fig. 7 used his knife to remove some of them. Appropriately, it concerns a copy of Seneca’s Tragedies.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century) – Photo EK

While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (“Must cut out golden letters!”). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.

Note – A few days after publishing this post I found a great image in which a scribe used three holes in the page to produce the face of a laughing man – turning the flaws into art. More here. Also, since posting this I made a brief YouTube film with the Khan Academy, which shows what good and bad parchment looks like – and sounds (!). Here is the link.

Hugging a Medieval Book

Book historians tend to compare features of the medieval book to body parts. Thus the manuscript’s “head” (top edge) is connected to its “spine” (the back) via the “shoulder” (the area where board meets spine). There are even terms that compare a medieval book’s physical features to human activities or conditions. A large letter with a lively figure inside is called a “gymnastic initial”, while line ruling that is nearly invisible is “blind”. I could go on and explain how other, seemingly unrelated, objects have been used in bookish terminology (the “diaper pattern” is my favourite), but you get my drift. This post takes this projection phenomenon a step further. It shows how one particular feature of the medieval binding eerily resembles a body part, not just in appearance but even in function: the clasp (Fig. 1).

Arm and hand

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2579 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2579 (15th century) – Photo EK

Medieval makers of manuscripts paid just as much attention to closing the book as they did to opening it. In order to preserve the organic pages, which were often made of parchment, it was necessary to keep the volume tightly closed when it was not used. Not only did this keep moisture out, but parchment also has a natural tendency to buckle, especially when handled at room temperature. In fact, parchment pages curl up with so much force that the wooden boards would be pushed open were it not for a smart device designed to keep the lid on: the clasp.

The clasp is like an arm that extends from the one wooden board to the other. Indeed, I find it hard not think of clasps as hugging arms that embrace the leaves, safeguarding them from the harsh reality of medieval book use. Appropriately, the primary purpose of the clasp was to protect the pages. They generated the pressure needed to keep the pages flat, while producing a firm object that could withstand every-day use in a medieval library – like falling off a desk or a shelf. At the end of the arm a tiny “hand” locks into an extension – we could call it a “handle bar” – as clearly visible in Fig. 1. How great that some book binders played with the image of a hand grabbing onto the opposite clasp, as this eighteenth century example shows (Fig. 2).

Book clasp, 18th century (?) -
Fig. 2 – Book clasp in shape of hand, 18th century (?) – Source Daniel Crouch Rare Books

Generally, two clasps were able to contain the force issued by the buckling parchment of a book. However, it was important to get it right as a bookbinder. When the distance between the one end of the arm (the “arm pit”) and the handle bar was too large, there was insufficient pressure. By contrast, if the distance was too little, the book did not close. Medieval manuscripts that have lost their clasps (by far the majority) show what happens to the bookblock when the pressure was too low: unhappy pages with a wavy pattern appeared (Fig. 3).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 96 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 96 (14th century) – Photo EK


Exotic arms
Some readers preferred exotic clasps. A particularly remarkable specimen is seen in Fig. 4. The book it helps to close is tiny, no larger than an iPhone. Made c. 1500, it was designed for the road: it concerns a portable Book of Hours (or prayer book) that was carried around by a pilgrim on his religious pilgrimage. The clasp holding it closed is a skull carved out of bone. The theme is fitting for a pilgrim seeking redemption, finding his way along the dusty roads of medieval Europe. Every time he sat down to open his book he was confronted with his future, which looked rather grim: Memento mori, remember that you will die one day. Better smarten up and keep on going!

Stockholm, National Library, MS A 233 (c. 1500)
Fig. 4 – Stockholm, National Library, MS A 233 (c. 1500) – Source

The exoticness of clasps can also be connected to their number in stead of their shape. Clasps are a must for a peculiar binding known as dos-à-dos (or “back-to-back”). While such bindings usually hold two books bound together at their backs (hence the name), the National Library of Sweden owns a unique variant that contains no less than six books (Fig. 5). They are all devotional texts printed in Germany during the 1550s and 1570s (including Martin Luther, Der kleine Catechismus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp. A book with six arms and hands: it is quite the display of craftsmanship.

Stockholm, National Library
Fig. 5 – Stockholm, National Library – Source of photos, GIF by EK (source)

The last word: feet
If clasps can be compared to arms, another feature of the bookbinding must be called “feet”. During the later Middle Ages it became customary to store manuscripts on lecterns. In lectern libraries, which were found in monastic houses and churches, readers consulted books on uncomfortable benches. The libraries often had a semi-public function, with outsiders walking in and out to consult books. To facilitate such use – and to make sure no books were unlawfully removed –  the objects were usually chained to the lecterns (Fig. 7).

The chained library in Zutphen, the Netherlands (De Librije)
Fig. 7 – The chained library in Zutphen, the Netherlands (De Librije) – Photo EK

Books in lectern libraries were not read on a flat surface (such as a desk), but erect – the objects were resting, after all, on nearly vertical stands. This kind of use came with a challenge: the shuffling that inevitably happened when the book was read, wore out the lower edge of the binding. More importantly, since the medieval book block was flush with the binding, the constant contact with the lectern as the reader flipped through the book could easily damage the page. A simple tool was invented to prevent such damage: “feet” – tiny pieces of brass that hoisted the book up and made it hover, as it were (Fig. 8). The feet that are attached to bindings are often shiny. It shows just how much the book was used – and how much damage was prevented by the attached feet (Fig. 9).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS Q 1 (11th century)
Fig. 8 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS Q 1 (11th century) – Photo EK
Fig. 9 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 67 (9th century) – Photo EK

There is something very attractive about these body parts. They show just how much bookbinders and readers were in tune with the needs of the book as an object. They packaged them so that they could withstand rough consultation, while their designs also left room for a certain amount of fun – as the hand-clasp and perhaps even the skull-clasp shows. The hug given by these strong arms protected the book’s most precious cargo, the text, both from accidents in the medieval library and, as much as possible, from the inevitable decay of time.

Smart Medieval Bookmarks

Marking pages for future reading predates browsers and the web. In fact, the practice is much older even than printed books. This post introduces various ways in which monks and other medieval readers kept track of the page at which they had stopped reading – and from which they planned to continue in the near future. What tools were available for this purpose? And how did these differ from one another? Apart from addressing these two queries, this post also reports on a genuine discovery: a new specimen of a rare but particularly smart type of bookmark, which I found in my own University Library here in Leiden. Cleverly, and unlike our modern equivalent, the bookmark in question showed medieval readers not only at what page they had stopped reading, but also in which text column and line they had left off.

Static bookmarks

 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2001 (12th century) - Pic my own
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2001 (12th century) – Photo EK

But let’s start at the beginning. If certain bookmarks can be called “smart”, it follows that others were, well, dumb. In bookmark terms that qualifier must go to types that are fixed to one specific page rather than being able to freely move throughout the book. Fig. 1 shows such a static bookmark, perhaps as old as the twelfth century. It was produced by making a small cut in the corner of the page, after which the emerging strip was guided through a small incision, and then folded outwards, so as to stick out of the book. The result (which you will recognize as the banner image of this blog) was as unmovable as it was destructive to the page – adding to its unflattering qualifier “dumb”.

A slightly less invasive version, no doubt preferred by medieval librarians, didn’t involved cutting but glueing a tiny strip of parchment on the long side of the page (Fig. 2). These so-called “fore-edge” bookmarks could even be filled with extra information, for example what section started at the marked location (“B” for “Baptism” in Fig. 2).

Utrecht, UB, MS 146, fol. 17r (detail)
Fig. 2 – Glued-on parchment strip with letter B (Utrecht, UB, MS 146, fol. 17r)  – source

Dynamic bookmarks
Far more interesting from a book-historical point of view are the more dynamic bookmarks, which could be used at any page of the manuscript because they were movable. An unusual example is seen in Fig. 3, which shows heart-shaped bookmarks that could be clipped onto a page. Interestingly, they were cut out of a thirteenth-century manuscript with a Middle Dutch saint’s life. The culprits were nuns in the 20th century, who clearly did not appreciate old books. Only a small number of pages of this very important manuscript have survived undamaged. When you study the book  in the University Library of Amsterdam, as I did a few years back, a curious collection of full leaves and heart-shaped fragments ends up on your desk.

Amsterdam, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MSS I G 56-57 (13th century)
Fig. 3 – Amsterdam, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MSS I G 56-57 (13th century)

The downside of such clip-on bookmarks is that time tended not to be very kind to them. Since they could be separated from the page, many actually were: they fell out or were never re-inserted by the reader. The solution to the vanishing bookmark came in the form of what is called a “register bookmark”, seen in Fig. 4 (I took the composite image from this blog post). This type, which looks like a spider with its legs trapped, was securely fastened to the top of the binding (as visible in Fig. 4, left), so it couldn’t get lost. Additionally, the bookmark allowed the reader to mark multiple locations in the book.

Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588
Fig. 4 – Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588

Evidently, these two groups of bookmarks – static and dynamic – provided very different approaches to marking information – and thus to a book’s use. Readers who added clip-on or “spider” bookmarks anticipated they would need to retrieve information not from one single page but from a changing number of pages. In other words, movable bookmarks served an audience with a shifting knowledge “appetite”, while the static ones encouraged a more “ritual” use of a book. In other words, both types are telling, in their own way, about medieval reading culture.

Multi-dynamic bookmarks
And then there is, finally, the multi-dynamic bookmark – and the story of how a new specimen of this type was discovered. The qualifier “multi-dynamic”, which is my own, refers to the fact that this bookmark is of the moving type, while at the same time it is able to do much more than simply marking a page. The bookmark’s use is as simple as it is clever. This becomes clear when we look at the bookmark in action, for example in this twelfth-century Bible in the Houghton Library (Fig. 5).

Harvard, Houghton Library, MS 277 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Harvard, Houghton Library, MS 277 (12th century) – source

As you can see, the bookmark consists of two components. As with the spider bookmark, it features a string attached to the top of the binding (in this case the string is a strip from a recycled manuscript page). This allowed the reader to mark a certain page. Nothing new here. The second component, however, is what makes this a smart bookmark: a disk with the numbers 1-4 written on it, fitted in a tiny sleeve. The reader would pull down the marker along the string until the flat top hit the line where he had stopped reading. The disk could subsequently be turned to the appropriate column – an open medieval book usually showed four columns of text – meaning the device marked page, column and line.

Although such rotating bookmarks were used until well into the age of print (see an example here), only about thirty-five have survived according to an inventory published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society (2001). It figures that when in 2005 a tiny specimen of 41×22 mm (the size of two thumbnails) was sold off at Sotheby’s, it went for a stunning $ 11,000 (see pic at the top; more here). Just to illustrate that new specimen still emerge, I recently discovered one in the University Library in Leiden, where it was filed in an early-twentieth-century filing cabinet of the Bibliotheca Manuscript Neerlandica – since moved to a fragment collection with shelfmark BPL 3327 (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 3327 (14th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 3327 (14th century?) – Photo EK

The Leiden artifact shows all the characteristics of a rotating bookmark: a small parchment disk with four numbers and a tiny hole in the middle. Interestingly, it is only the second specimen identified in Dutch collections, although the one in Leiden is clearly the oldest of the two (here is the other). While it is hard to date the red roman numbers with precision, it appears they were put on the parchment in the fourteenth century. The striking difference with the Houghton specimen in Fig. 5 is that the new find comes without its sleeve, which does not survive. It is astonishing still that the tiny disk made it to our day and age. It must have been hidden in the darkness of a manuscript  for several hundreds of years until it got separated and became an orphan – sleeveless and without a home.

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 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

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)

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)


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 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.