Category Archives: Medieval Scribes

Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts

Doodling is something we all do, from time to time, often without realising. Listening to someone on the phone or perhaps attending a meeting (or class), we scribble, rather haphazardly and spontaneously, squiggly lines, random words, and mini drawings. The practice is quite old. Doodled squiggly lines and mini drawings are encountered frequently in medieval books, mostly in the margins or on flyleaves. The one in Figure 1 was added to the lower margin of a manuscript with Juvenal’s Satires. Its style resembles our modern stick figures and it may just be the artistic creation of a child.

Carpentras_BM_368_f64v
Figure 1. Doodle in the lower margin of a medieval page (Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, 368 (15th century). Source

In spite of the parallel with modern times, the rationale behind doodling in manuscripts is usually very different. Exceptions such as the one in Figure 1 aside, the medieval practice of doodling has little to do with boredom or absent-minded pen movements. They are calculated products of the pen, executed with a particular goal in mind.

Why Pen Trials?

The answer to this question lies in the two tools wielded by medieval scribes more than any other instrument. In miniatures scribes are often shown with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other, such as the hermit seen copying text from an exemplar in Figure 2. (Note, incidentally, the handy paraphernalia he has at his disposal, like the slider that helped him keep track of the line he was supposed to copy.) Here we see the scribe using the tip of the knife to keep the parchment in place: using his hands would release oily grease onto the writing surface, which would subsequently prevent the ink from sticking properly.

Royal 14 E III f.6v
Figure 2. Scribe at work, pen and knife in hand (London, British Library, Royal 14 E.iii, 14th century). Source

An equally important use of the knife, however, was to adjust the nib; and it is here that the origins of the pen trial – and the doodle – are found. After some time, a few hours perhaps, the nib became dull and it needed to be cut again in order to produce crisp letters. After trimming the nib, the scribe tested his pen to check that it had the right width and to make sure there would be no streaks of white visible within the strokes of the letters. For this testing process he turned to an empty piece of paper or parchment and scribbled down some squiggly lines or short words. The process was quick and routine among scribes across medieval Europe (Figure 3).

BPL 111 I
Figure 3. Two flyleaves filled with pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 111-I, 13th-15th centuries). Photo by the author

Palette

Pen trials, which are most often encountered on flyleaves in the back of manuscripts, can be quite appealing. As it happened, scribes did not just write down squiggly lines or words when testing their pens, but they even produced modest works of art. In Leiden University Library some great “artistic” specimens are encountered. In the back of BPL 111-I, for example, we find a collection of large initial letters with faces inside them (Figure 3). It includes a letter B with two monks (note the tonsures), a D with a stern-looking lady wearing a pointy hat, a bearded person in a letter S, and a duck containing a long-nosed man. This page and the facing one are filled with dozens of pen trials. The shapes of the letters and the ink colour suggests that the doodles on these pages were produced by a limited number of individuals, perhaps two or three, which is in line with what we commonly see on flyleaves that contain pen trials.

The two pages in the back of BPL 111-I are also in line with broader European traditions regarding the kind of tests they contain. We encounter single letters and words, as well as nonsensical phrases (“e,” “egi de e,” “ego panne,” “autem”). Another popular theme is also found in Figure 3: musical notation (somewhat out of focus near the top of the picture). The square notes of the Middle Ages were perfect for testing the nib, because they naturally showed how wide it was, while the short square shape also invited the scribe to execute a series of quick test strokes. Common also are the little specks visible in Figure 3: you can vaguely see them in the white zone below the initial letters. These result from tapping the quill on the parchment, probably in an attempt to adjust the nib by “tapping” it into shape.

Cambridge_Parker_LIbrary_223_p338
Figure 4. Pen trials by a high volume of individuals (Cambridge, Parker Library, MS 223, p. 338, twelfth century). Source

Scriptorium

While the pen trials in Figure 3 were executed by perhaps two or three individuals, there could be far more scribes involved. Figure 4 shows a page in a ninth-century manuscript. Present in the back of the last quire, it was left blank because the text had already ended. Some three centuries later, likely in the second half of the twelfth century, the page was filled with pen trials by least fifteen scribes. We are probably looking at a group of individuals in the same scriptorium, who favoured very different “doodles” for testing their pen, from alphabets to a small portrait. And the musical notation appears as well, at various locations. A similar case where a large group of individuals share the same empty page is found in a set of manuscripts from Rochester Priory in Kent, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Bodley 340 and 342 (Figure 5). Several individuals from the early twelfth-century wrote down short passages on their flyleaves, including – with a peculiar sense of appropriateness – the phrase probatio pennae, “I test my pen” (near the top of the detail shown in Figure 5).

Oxford_Bodley 340
Figure 5. Pen trials by several twelfth-century scribes in Rochester Priory, Kent (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 340, f. 169v, detail).

Groups of pen trials from a medieval scriptorium can be important sources of information about scribal practices and the backgrounds of scribes. Those in the back of Bodley 340 and 342, for example, show that the scriptorium of Rochester Abbey was filled with individuals who were trained across the European Continent, including in Germany, Holland and Italy (see Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight”). This verdict is based on the letter shapes of the pen trials, which reveal where their makers are from: scribes were trained to produce slightly different letter shapes all over Europe, which shows in the pen trials. By proxy, the page in Figure 5 highlights the ethnical diversity of the monks in Rochester Abbey.

Test Sheets

Sometimes one encounters truly special collections of pen trials. Leiden University Library holds a loose double-leaf filled with an unusual amount of them (Figure 6). Its existence adds significantly to our understanding of medieval pen trials. One may be inclined to think that scribes always turned to empty pages in the back of existing manuscripts and filled them pen trials. While this happened, as the previous cases show, there is also another practice at play. The Leiden sheet suggests that scribes also used loose – i.e. unbound – sheets, which likely lay on their desk. Some of these “test sheets” were repurposed and turned into flyleaves, making it look, to somebody observing the pen trials today, as if they were directly written into the book.

Figure_3_BPL_3327_22
Figure 6. Upper half of a flyleaf filled with dozens of pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3327, 22, 15th century). Photo by the author

This particular test sheet was filled to the brim with several hundred pen trials: there are more than I have ever seen in one location (note that Figure 6 shows only a detail). When one looks carefully, running themes can be observed across the page, sometimes clustered in the same location. There is the large capital letter H that is frequently drawn, especially near the top of the page; and there are recurring human figures as well, such as a grumpy lady, a man with curly hair, and a few bishops. Another theme is the nota sign, the attention sign that is encountered in the margins of manuscripts: quite a few are observed under the two red arches (they look like “nt” with a curly line over top). There are as many as ten individuals at work on this sheet, which suggests this sheet, too, was used in a scriptorium.

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Figure 7. Fifteenth-century test sheet used as flyleaf (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, PER 16). Photo by the author

Another test sheet is seen in Figure 7. It was used by a single scribe, who used the crumbly sheet to write down letters, parts of religious verses, and non-sensicle expressions. Here the earlier purpose is clearly visible through the rough and well-used appearance of the flyleaf. It concerns a piece that was ripped off of a larger paper sheet and subsequently used for testing the pen. At a later stage it was repurposed as a flyleaf. Figures 6 and 7 show us the far ends of the spectrum of medieval test sheets: some were inhabited with words and doodles by a group of individuals, as indicated by the variations in ink color, letter shape, and nib width, while others were tools used by single scribes.

This is an expanded and modified version of a post that first appeared on Leiden Medievalists Blog.

Read more about pen-trials:

Erik Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Continental Scribes in Rochester Cathedral Priory, 1075-1150,” in Writing in Context: Insular Manuscript Culture, 500-1200, ed. Erik Kwakkel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Book Culture (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2013), 231-61.

Me, Myself, and I: The Story of Two Medieval Selfies

Cologny_Bodmer_127_244r_detailSelfies are by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. As shown in a previous post on medieval selfies, some decorators made self-portraits in manuscripts, showing that the practice predates print – albeit without the use of a camera. They did so to identify themselves as the creator of a miniature or historiated initial, or even to exhibit their accomplishments as businessmen, as the early-sixteenth-century commercial illustrator Nicolaus Bertschy appears to do. Other medieval examples of selfies are those by Matthew Paris, the thirteenth-century monk from St Albans, painted in the lower margin of his Historia Anglorum (see here).

That earlier blog post includes two intriguing selfies made by the same person, a monk who calls himself Rufillus. One is found in a copy of Ambrose’s Hexaemeron kept in the Bibliothèque municipale in Amiens as MS Lescalopier 30 (Figure 1). The text discusses the six days of the Creation and Rufillus displays himself inside a green – and rather confined – initial letter D at the outset of the section on the Third Day. Why he shows himself here, when the Hexaemeron is about to discuss the creation of plants and material forms, is unclear.

Amiens, BM, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v
Figure 1. Rufillus inhabiting a letter D (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v, late 12th century). Source

His other selfie is encountered in Cod. Bodmer 127, a collection of saints’ lives kept in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in the Swiss city of Cologny (The Passionary of Weissenau, Figure 2). Here, Rufillus created a more roomy environment, painting himself inside a very large letter R at the outset of the passion of St Martin of Tours (d. 397). Selfies are not frequently encountered in medieval manuscripts, which makes the Rufillus case quite special, given that it entails not one but two “snapshots” of the same person. This post explores what we can learn from the two self-portraits of a monk who is a bit of a showoff – and who is not shy about using the selfie-stick.

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 127, fol. 244r
Figure 2. Rufillus inside a letter R (Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 244r, late 12th century). Source

Rufillus the Illuminator

Helpfully, Rufillus identifies himself by providing his name: in the Cologny manuscript he painted it in white above his brush (accompanied by “Fr.” for frater, monk), while in the crowded Amiens initial the name is written right above the decorative letter with pen and ink. Based on the origins of the two manuscripts, scholars place Rufillus in the late-twelfth century Premonstratensian abbey of Weissenau near Ravensburg in the South of Germany (get up to speed on Rufillus in this article by Solange Michon; a useful enumeration of manuscripts from Weissenau is found here). In secondary literature he is commonly regarded (and explicitly labeled as) an illuminator (see for example here and here). Judging from the decoration in the two manuscripts, which include numerous decorated initials and even some full-page miniatures, he was quite accomplished. In his article Michon shows, by highlighting iconographical – design – parallels, that it is the same person who produced the decoration in both manuscripts.

The Cologny manuscript shows the artisan “in the moment,” hard at work decorating the manuscript (Figure 2). The scene is unusually rich in detail and shows us, among other things, what tools were used by medieval illuminators. In one hand Rufillus is holding a bowl filled with red paint; in the other a brush. Cow horns filled with all kind of paints are placed behind him, while a mortar and pestle are placed nearby for preparing additional pigments. In what is a familiar pose for painters today, his right hand is leaning on his left for stability. That hand is in turn supported by a stick placed on the ground – a selfie-stick! With a healthy dose of irony, Rufillus allows us to observe him as he is painting the initial he is inhabiting. In a rather unusual twist, we witness both the artist at work and the result of his toils. By showing himself applying red paint on the letter R he invites the beholder in his atelier, which is a powerful gesture.

Amiens_Lescalopier_30_detail
Figure 3. Rufillus’ name in Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v. Source

Rufillus the Scribe

While the common designation given to Rufillus by scholars is illuminator or decorator, the second selfie suggests that he was also a scribe. After all, in as much detail as he presents himself as an illuminator in the Cologny manuscript, he shows himself as a scribe in the Amiens codex (Figure 1). In this depiction, too, the paraphernalia of the trade are clearly identifiable, this time the scribe’s: a sheet of parchment, a reed, and a knife to hold down the parchment as well as to cut the nib of the pen. While Rufillus placed himself on a bench in the Cologny painting, the Amiens scene shows him seated in a scribal chair, one that supports his behind as well as the parchment sheet he is writing on. It seems appropriate, in this light, that Rufillus signed his name with pen rather than brush: he stayed in his role. The key observation to make here, however, is that our monk appears to have been active both as illuminator and scribe in the scriptorium of Weissenau (more about such a combination here).

The name “rufillus” written above the Amiens painting provides additional information. Let’s look at it again, this time from up close (Figure 3). The ink used for his name has a brown colour, deviating from the deep-dark black ink of the main text. In other words, main text and name were copied at different moments. The same is suggested by the observation that the pen used for writing the name was much thinner. Moreover, the nib used for the name reveals an imperfection not seen in the main text: the flawed nib produced a thin white line in the central stroke of the letter l. This is obviously a later cut or even a different pen. These observations make sense. In the production of a manuscript the copying of the text came first, followed by the execution of the decoration.

Evidently, Rufillus signed his name when he completed the painting, not while he was copying. This is telling, I think. Rufillus could have identified himself better and more explicitly through a scribal colophon, which is where copyists provide details about themselves (see this post). By contrast, he is far less traditional and added his presence not with pen but with brush. By doing so he inserted the motif of the scribe into the visual narrative of the book, even though its topic did not call for it. This somewhat inappropriate behaviour is amplified by the fact that he then identified this scribe as himself. Through his action, Rufillus squeezed himself into Ambrose’s text and climbed onto the podium of the Church Father. He purposefully attracted attention to his person.

Rufillus_StGall127_AmiensLescalopier30
Figure 4. The monk Rufillus in two historiated initials (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v, left, and Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 244r, right).

Rufillus the Person

Each of the two manuscripts shows that Rufillus is not lacking in confidence and that he does not mind breaking with the monastic virtue of modesty. It is in the combination of the two selfies, however, that we learn things we otherwise would not have known about him. For example, with Amiens alone we could not be sure that Rufillus produced the decoration in the manuscript as well. After all, the decorator could have produced a portrait of his colleague the scribe, in praise of his activities, or even a generic picture of a scribe at work. Had Cologny been by itself, there would not have been a reason to infer that Rufillus was also involved in scribal activities. Where the two selfies really become quite telling, however, is in the realism they entail. There are striking commonalities that suggest the decorator aimed to provide a realistic depiction of himself, which fits the bill given his pronounced self-promotion.

Striking similarities in his appearance are for example the pronounced eye lids, the shape and colour of his hair (bright red and with recesses), and the sharp lines across the cheeks, starting next to the nose and giving his face a thin appearance (Figure 4). With only one selfie the red hair would have been striking, but the repeated occurrence suggests that Rufillus really was a red-headed monk. This is, of course, why our scribe-illuminator calls himself Rufillus, which is derived from the Latin rūfus, meaning “red-haired” (see also here). In other words, our scribe-illuminator is using a pseudonym, one derived from a pronounced feature in his appearance – his hair. For a person who should strive to be modest and for whom the monastic community ought to be more important than the individual in it, relating one’s identity to a bodily feature seems peculiar. Yet, in light of what we have learned about Rufillus, it is no surprise.

Bloomington_LillyLibrary_Ricketts20
Figure 5. Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, shown as scribe (Bloomington, Lilly Library, Ricketts 20, fol. 1v, c. 1200-15). Source

Rufillus the Old Man?

A third manuscript exists that was copied and illuminated by our anonymous red-headed monk, although it is not usually mentioned in discussions about Rufillus and his self-portraits. The codex in question is Bloomington, Indiana University, Ricketts 20 (Peter Lombard, Commentary on the Psalms), which is assumed to have been produced in c. 1200-15, a few decades after Amiens and Cologny, and which was part of the library of Weissenau Abbey (Figure 5). In the description of the manuscript in his Gilding the Lilly (p. 60), Christopher de Hamel identified the scribe and illuminator as Rufillus (his assessment is quoted in this manuscript description). One can see from the handwriting that Rufillus was older when he made the Bloomington manuscript: his firm hand, with which he once produced such sharp and disciplined script, appears shaky and weak.

Bloomington_Lilly_Ricketts 20
Figure 6. Bloomington, Lilly Library, Ricketts 20, fol. 45v (c. 1200). Source

Another initial letter in the same manuscript provides a bit of history about its origins (Figure 6). A person is shown holding an open book in which the following is written: “Rodolfus plebanus de Lindaugia. q[ui] nobis dedit hu[n]c libru[m],” “Rudolf, parish priest of Lindau, who gave us this book” (source, with minor correction in the transcription). The painting shows the person who “gave” the manuscript to Weissenau abbey. Because the maker of the book, our Rufillus, is commonly regarded as a monk of Weissenau, this inscription would suggest that Rudolf paid for the materials, which is a bit of stretch but possible. Had our anonymous monk not been so firmly tied to Weissenau abbey in secondary literature, this inscription could indicate that Rufillus and Rudolf were one and the same person: he first made the manuscript, then donated it to the abbey. If this speculative inference were true, it would place our red-headed scribe-illuminator outside the abbey of Weissenau – and turn the letter O in Figure 6 into a third selfie, showing Rufillus as an old man.

Rufillus and the Weissenau scriptorium:

  • Jonathan James Graham Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 16-17.
  • Walter Berschin, “Rufillus von Weissenau (um 1200) in seiner Buchmalerwerkstatt,” in: Walter Berschin (ed.), Mittelateinische Studien II (Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag, 2010), pp. 353-56.
  • Christopher de Hamel, Gilding the Lilly: A Hundred Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts in the Lilly Library (Bloomington: The Lilly Library, 2010), p. 60.
  • Solange Michon, “Un moine enluminateur de XIIe siècle: Frère Rufillus de Weissenau,” Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte 44 (1987), 1-7.
  • Solange Michon, Le Grand Passionnaire enluminé de Weissenau et son scriptorium autour de 1200 (Genève: Slatkine, 1990).
  • Elke Wenzel, Die mittelalterliche Bibliothek der Abtei Weißenau (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998).

Selfies and self-portraits:

The Architecture of the Medieval Page

It may seem a stretch to compare page design with architecture, but the comparison really works, I think. Looking at the medieval page, it is not difficult to regard it as an engineered construction: a convoluted space defined by columns and corridors, with rooms inhabited by thoughts and ideas (Figure 1). Nothing encountered on the medieval page is a coincidence. Everything is there for a reason and serves a specific purpose; and so, too, is the manner in which the text was spread out over the page. Like other material features of the manuscript, page design is usually reflective of how the book would be used, but in their choices scribes also responded to the preferences – demands, even – of the individuals who would ultimately use the manuscript.

Readers, in turn, preferred their books – and the pages in them – to be formatted in certain ways because they planned to use them for performing particular tasks: to educate or be educated (teachers and students), to entertain or to be entertained (minstrels and courtiers), or to gather a body of information and consult it (scholars, preachers, physicians, lawyers). How and where words were placed on the page – their size and script, and their location – were important considerations in this process of turning the book into a tool that was up to the task. Indeed, it can be argued that a page’s design was (and is) key to a book’s success. What are some of the variables in play? And how did the choice for a certain design affect, positively and negatively, the manner in which the medieval book could be used effectively?

OXford_Bodleian_LaudLat.9_16r
Figure 1. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud lat. 9, fol. 16r (Commentary to the Bible, 1220-30). Source

Blueprint

If the page is a building, its foundation was laid in an early stage of a manuscript’s production. After the scribe had figured out how to tackle a particular book – he knew how it would be used, having had input from the patron or the monastery’s librarian – he would start designing the page by grabbing two tools that were fundamental for what the page would ultimately look like. The first was a pointy device that allowed him to punch holes in the parchment or paper leaves, which appear like dots along the long edges of the book. The second was a tool with which he could add ruling to the page. Up to c. 1150, a sharp object was used to produce gutters – indentations in the parchment – which created pathways for the lines of text flowing out of the pen. After that date a piece of lead or a pen and ink produced the ruling (this miniature shows a scribe using a ruler to produce the ruling; at the top of this post is another).

Connecting the dots in this fashion, the scribe placed a web of lines on the page (Figure 2). The resulting grid formed the outline of the future text: it defined – and confined – the number and location of the columns, the number of lines they would hold, as well as the dimensions and positioning of the four margins. Even the ultimate presence of reading aids was construed during this early production stage. An extra line was added in the upper margin to guide the running title, if one was planned, while in preparation for marginal commentaries extra ruling was added to the marginal space (both not present in Figure 2). In a way this grid of horizontal and vertical lines functioned as the blueprint of the manuscript: it defined the ultimate page even before a single letter was written down on it. The still empty lines, yet to be complemented with words, determined what the book would look like and how it could be used later.

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Figure 2. Ruling pattern, showing two pages with horizontal and vertical ruling, and marginal prickings. Source

Rooms and Corridors

The quill would bring this blueprint to life: it placed words onto the ruling, thus producing text and meaning. The main text of the book could be flanked by commentaries, which in turn formed additional columns. When several commentaries were present, the design of the page can be quite daunting – and must have been a nightmare to produce (see for example Figure 1). However, this complexity is relative. The example in Figure 3 shows a central text column, written in a large letter and deep-dark black ink, which contains the biblical text (the page shows St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians). Around it, in equally dark ink, Peter Lombard’s commentary to St Paul’s letter is encountered. This part was produced in Paris during the second half of the 13th century and illuminated in the Du Prat workshop (source).

The margins around this text and commentary remained empty until 1412, when an additional commentary by Peter Tarentasia was added to the page in a smaller script. The result is a complex page, but also a remarkably organised one. After all, the information was placed in relatively isolated text compartments – “rooms,” as it were – which were separated by blank corridors. In other words, it was crystal clear to the reader what was what: the larger size of the letter identified the main text, while the smaller script of the commentaries as well as their positioning on the page, identified the occupants of the other rooms. Complex manuscripts like these, which present a textus inclusus or “square-bracket” glossing pattern, contain pages inhabited by a maze of corridors, which “snake” between the columns and sometimes even underneath or above them.

Figure_1_KBH_71A22_180r_low-res
Figure 3. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 71 A 22, fol. 180r (Lombard, Glossa in epistolas Pauli, 1250-1300). Source

Pillars

The manuscripts in Figures 1 and 3 are so complex that it is difficult to say how many text columns they consist of. Evidently, however, in both cases the main text is copied out in a single column, a firm pillar written in a bold letter. Most medieval manuscripts hold either one or two columns of main text. Three or four are occasionally encountered. Usually it concerns a dictionary or encyclopedia (read about an example of four columns here). A page with more than four columns is extremely rare. In fact, I only know of one such manuscript (Figure 4). It is kept in Amiens and holds a concordance of the Bible, a tool that enabled readers to identify where in the Bible certain concepts and figures were mentioned.

The entries in this manuscript – often a name followed by a bible book and a chapter number – are short, which is why the scribe decided to place five of them on a single page. The book measures 310×208 mm and is thus not even unusually large, which tells you just how small the script is. Equally remarkable, the page has room for a sixth column, which is crammed into the outer margin. Here the reader could add remarks; one was added on the spread seen in Figure 4, all the way in the top left corner. In the lower margins, too, there is room planned for comments. A grid of square boxes is seen here, produced by pencil lines. This is a popular design for university textbooks, which contain many such penciled squares, sometimes over forty of them on one page. They act as comment boxes in which the student could jot down his notes (this is an example of such a manuscript; more about this practice in this blog post).

Figure_2_Amiens_BM_95_31v-32r_low-res
Figure 4. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, 95 (Concordance, c. 1300). Source

The page as a house, the scribe as its architect: they are attractive comparisons, which highlight just how much an effective page depended on crafty design, careful planning, and meticulous calculations. Like an architect, the scribe made sure to create a comfortable home for future inhabitants.

More on medieval page design:

Raymond Clemens & Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 14-17 (“Preparations prior to writing”). Discusses layout and the preparation of the sheets.

Erik Kwakkel, “Decoding the Material Book: Cultural Residue in Medieval Manuscripts,” in The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches, ed. Michael Van Dussen and Michael Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 60-76. Discusses the rationale behind the choice of a manuscript’s materials features.

Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018), pp. 30-70 (“Filling the Page: Script, Writing, and Page Design”). Overview of page design through case-studies.

Elaine Treharne, “The Architextual Editing of Early English,” in A. G. Edwards and T. Takako (eds.), Poetica 71 (2009), 1-13. Architectural context used as a metaphor in the editing of medieval texts.

The Secrets of Medieval Fonts

One of the fundamental things in a medieval book is letters – those symbols that fill up page after page and that make up meaning. Each one of us human beings writes differently and considering that medieval books were made before the invention of print, it follows that the scripts they carry show a great variety in execution styles. This is perhaps the most amazing experience of spending a day going through a pile of medieval books in the library: the immense variation in the manner in which the text is written on the parchment pages.

No surviving artefact underscores this point of variation better than advertisement sheets of commercial scribes. The one in Fig. 1 was produced by Herman Strepel and through it he shows off his expertise – and in a sense his merchandise – to customers who visited his shop. The blank back shows that the sheet was hanging on the wall, like a menu in a fast-food restaurant. He even wrote the names of the scripts next to the samples, in appealing golden letters, like a good businessman (more about advertisements from the medieval book world in this post).

Writing Sheet
Fig. 1 – Advertisement sheet for scripts, c. 1450 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45) – Source

In this wild party of letter shapes roughly two categories of variation can be observed: first, the shape of medieval letters differs because they belong to different script families; and secondly, their precise execution varies because the scribes opted for a particular size, thickness, quality, and pen angle. Remarkably, this variation is still preserved in our modern notions of typefaces, which represent the families, and fonts, which express the variation within these families, for example concerning size (for their meaning, see here).

If we forget, for a moment, that letters themselves convey meaning, these two levels of variation – choice of script and of its execution – comprise perhaps the greatest value: letters show us when a manuscript was made. This information comes in extremely handy considering that the title page was not yet invented. But how do we find it? Welcome to the secretive world of handwritten letters from the Middle Ages.

Tick, tock
Medieval script tells time, although usually not very precisely. Take for example the three major script families from the medieval period: Caroline minuscule (Fig. 2, sample 1), Pregothic script (Fig. 2, sample 2), and Littera textualis or Gothic script (Fig. 2, sample 3).

script samples
Fig. 2 – Three medieval script families: St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 14 (9th century); Leiden, University Library, BPL 196 (12th century); London, British Library, Arundel 28 (13th century)

Despite the fact that these three families are relatively easy to distinguish and identify, they were used for extensive periods of time: Caroline (nr. 1) from c. 800 to c. 1050, Pregothic (nr. 2) from c. 1050 to c. 1250, and Gothic from c. 1250 to c. 1500. In other words, merely identifying the family of handwriting is not enough to pinpoint when precisely a book was made. To get that information one needs to do more – and this is where things start to get a bit more complicated.

Data
To know when a book was copied, one needs to investigate where in the timespan of a script the sample in question can be placed. Does a style of writing fit better in the early stages of a script, is it representative of the end of its life cycle, or perhaps rather somewhere in the middle age? To be able to answer this question one needs to know how the font in question developed over time. This is the kind of research I have been doing over the last few years, called quantitative paleography because it uses a high volume of verifiable data. Thus it is possible to map how Pregothic evolved by tracking,for example, the letter pair de (Fig. 3, magnifying glass).

1156-57 BM Charleville BM 246 B, f. 138v (detail) (1)
Fig. 3 – Letter pair “de” in Charleville, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 246 B (dated 1156-1157).

Here the two elements of this letter pair, which was written down in 1156 or 1157, are touching one another, albeit only slightly. Just twenty years earlier these same letters would still have been written fully separated. This becomes clear when we gather data from manuscripts that bear a date (like the one in Fig. 3), which they do every now and then. When this data is gathered one can deduce, with statistical support, when certain features were born or when they died. Thus data shows, for example, that the touching of de is first encountered in the period 1150-1175. The process, which I dubbed “kissing” in this free downloadable book (which also shows how the method works), continues until the two letters fully overlap. This is called “biting” by script experts (Fig. 4, magnifying glass).

BL Arundel 28
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, MS Arundel 28 (1250-1300)

In fact, the pair highlighted in Fig. 4 has moved so close together that they share the central vertical pen stroke: the right side of d is also the left side of e. The two have literally become inseparable, because separating them would leave one of them incomplete. The data – gathered from 342 dated manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 – shows how biting emerged at different moments in different letter pairs: first in pp, then in de and do, and subsequently in some others. (Fig. 5). It shows how even a single script feature needed time to spread to all corners of the script.

Kwakkel_McKitterick_Thomson_Turning_Over_a_New_Leaf_Page_207
Fig. 5 – Kwakkel, “Biting, Kissing and the Treatment of Feet”, p. 207 – Source

Secret – not
The average medieval scribe knew a number of scripts by heart. Commercial producers of books, discussed at the outset of this post, aimed to please a diverse clientele and will therefore likely have known more fonts than any other type of scribe, including the monk (Fig. 6). The latter was very conservative: he did not often have a broad palette of scripts and he was disinclined to adapt his manner of writing on command. Still, even within single scripts monks show variation in the style of execution. Interestingly, he poured into something from his cultural-historical background in the shape of letters, revealing to the attentive beholder when precisely he wrote a book, even when he did not give this piece of information away explicitly.

British_Library_Royal_4_b_i
Fig. 6 – Scribe at work: London, British Library, MS Royal 4 B.i (Rochester, 1100-1125)

How the letters were formed may also reveal other things about the scribe, for example where he or she lived, or even that it was a hasty book project. Unveiling this hidden information in handwriting is difficult, because letter shapes do not easily give up their secrets. Still, the increasing popularity of Digital Humanities and the tendency of modern script experts to map the development of handwriting with the help of verifiable data makes it increasingly more difficult for scribes to hide their secrets.

Postscriptum – In response to some helpful remarks on Twitter, I am aware, of course, that scripts and fonts – as used in the title – are not the same thing. However, I like the comparison of the two, and used it here, because just like medieval script, a font relates both to the notion of family (Times New Roman) and its execution (e.g. a 12 point letter). More on fonts and typefaces here (via John Mulloy, @MulloyJohn).

Cracking Codes in Medieval Books

Reading a medieval book may not seem so different from reading a  volume from your own bookshelf: just pick it up, flip to the first page, and start reading. However, apart from the fact that you cannot really hold the average medieval book in your hand – a single volume often weighs as much as a whole pile of today’s books – there is also a problem that occurs when you actually start to read. It turns out you need to decode quite a bit. The first round of decoding happens when your eyes meet the page. The letters on it are shaped very differently from what our brains usually process, so the CPU in our head starts to spin like mad, perhaps even encouraging us to give up. See what happens when you read this snippet from the famous Leiden Glossary (Fig. 1). When you’re done with that, try Thomas Aquinas’ autograph, written in what is appropriately called a ‘littera inintelligibilis’ – indecipherable script (Fig. 2).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 69, fol. 24v, detail
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 69, fol. 24v, detail (late 8th century) – Source: photo UBL
Vatican Library, Vat. Lat. 9850, autograph Aquinas, 1260-1265
Fig. 2 – Vatican Library, Vat. Lat. 9850, autograph Aquinas, 1260-1265 – Source

The paleographer Lowe defined the first of these as a Pre-caroline Allemannic minuscule, which means it dates from before the establishment of Caroline Minuscule, which came around shortly before c. 800. It is relatively easy to decode the latter with our modern brains. This is because early printers in Italy used Caroline as a model for the Roman typefaces, which ultimately became our Times New Roman. Because we read a version of Caroline on our computer screen every day, we can sort of make sense of a medieval page from the ninth century (Fig. 3).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF MS 30, fol. 22v (9th century)
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF MS 30, fol. 22v (9th century) – Source: photo UBL

However, even when you are able to read such easy ‘typefaces’ from before the invention of printing, for example because you happen to be a medieval book historian, there is a second coding problem to overcome, which is much trickier: letters and words are frequently abbreviated with symbols. In fact, sometimes the text of a full page or even an entire book is written in code. Like any cypher, you can only read it if you know the key.

Abbreviations
Decoding abbreviated letters and short common words is not rocket science, nor will it have been for medieval readers. Some of these abbreviations are actually still in use today, like the ampersand in the first line of Fig. 3, which starts with ‘Ignibus & ignis’. The ampersand abbreviates the word et (and), from which it, in fact, evolved (more on the genesis here). Less frequent words could also be abbreviated, but this practice was tricky in that the medieval scribe had to judge whether the book’s reader would understand the abbreviations – otherwise the text could not be decoded. Students in the scholastic environment of the emerging universities were masters in coding and decoding words (Fig. 4).

London, British Library, Arundel MS 383 (1250-1300)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Arundel MS 383 (1250-1300) – Source

The students who filled this page with notes abbreviated the words like there was no tomorrow. In fact, in the top segment (in the lighter ink) every single word is shortened with the help of lines, half circles, loops, dots and whatnot. It makes sense that students did this: the remarks are for personal use only, so you could do what you wanted. Moreover, shortening text in this fashion saved time and space. Coded words created room for more coded words.

Tironian notes
In the Middle Ages a peculiar abbreviation language existed, which even an experienced reader at the time was not necessarily able to decipher: Tironian notes. This medieval system of shorthand made use of several thousand symbols, which abbreviated entire words. The language is rooted in Antiquity. The poet Plutarch tells us that Cicero had trained scribes to take down notes at a fast pace, including his servant Tiro – hence the name.

Paris, BnF, lat. MS 11553 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, lat. MS 11553 (9th century) – Source

In medieval times Tironian notes were used by scholars trained at the highest level (see this excellent blog post). During the ninth century, the heyday of the ‘coding’ symbols, scholars used them to add comments to a text or to criticise them, much like the students in the university textbook in Fig. 4, and for the same reason: to save space and to increase speed. Sometimes such marginal additions are substantial, like those found in a ninth-century Bible kept in Paris (Fig. 5: right margin and in between lines).

Very rarely does one encounter a full text or manuscript copied out in Tironian notes. The ones I know are all filled with the Psalms, such as Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, lat. MS 190 and lat. MS 13160, both from the ninth century (Fig. 6). What is really great about these coded pages is that the first Tironian note of each chapter is executed in the same style as a regular decorated letter would be: enlarged and painted (see also the detail all the way at the top of this post). The result is a big and beautiful nonsensical shape – unless you know what it means.

Paris, BnF, lat. MS 190 (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Paris, BnF, lat. MS 190 (9th century) – Source

At first sight it seems an odd practice to write an entire book out in code, which could only be deciphered by scholars who had enjoyed the same high level of training as the scribe. However, perhaps these peculiar books were used to train individuals in the notation system? Monks knew the Psalms by heart, making them the perfect tool to learn the strange language of Tiro. The Latin titles would prompt a memorised text, after which perhaps the symbols would fall into place. It is striking, in this light, that the Psalms in MS 190 are preceded by a kind of dictionary to look up the meaning of the symbols – as you would want to do when learning a new language. Several of these explanatory texts survive, including in other Paris manuscripts (such as lat. 7493lat. 8777lat. 8778 and lat. 8780).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 84 (9th century)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 84 (9th century) – Photo EK

A similar explanatory text is found in Leiden (Fig. 7). The first entries on this page read liber, libellus and librarius (book, booklet and librarian). The symbol for the first looks like a bent line with a dot, in the second the dot is replaced by a comma, while the third shows both dot and comma – a librarian, after all, looks after both books and booklets. Then follow related words, such as parchment (pergamena and, less common, pitacium), page and sheets (pagina, carta, cartula). As this segment shows, the text is not so much a dictionary as a collection of thematic word lists.

Uncrackable code
While not everybody in medieval times would be able to read Tironian notes, probably many scholars could decipher it. However, there is a famous coded book that no one could read but its producer: the Voynich manuscript, which is written in an unknown alphabet (Fig. 8). There is considerable discussion about many aspects of this manuscript, including its precise date (see here) and the meaning  of the text it holds. The latter is perhaps the most striking aspect of the code in which the text is written: no one has been able to crack it.

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 408 (15th century)
Fig. 8 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 408 (15th century) – Source

The manuscript has fascinated scholars for a long time. Until 2013, when news outlets claimed the book had a genuine message (see here), it was not even clear if there was meaning in the madness. Finally, in February 2014 an English professor decoded ten words through the proper names of plants (see here). As intriguing as the book is, from a book-historical point of view it is far less interesting than Tironian notes. After all, while the Voynich manuscript appears to be coded in a highly personal way, placing the book in a relatively isolated position, Tironian notes provide an in-depth look into the fascinating world of medieval scholars. To hear their voices, all you need to do is crack the code.

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.

Production

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

Post-production
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.

Medieval Desktops

We are used to having multiple books open at the same time when looking things up at home or writing an essay for class. Whether PDFs, e-books or old-fashioned paper volumes, switching between books in a smooth movement is something we don’t often think about. This was very different in medieval times. In those days, books tended to resist when you tried to move them: they were heavy as a brick and easily twice that size. A related problem was one of space. The average medieval book has a wingspan of at least half a meter wide when open. Consequently, comfortably placing two books in front of you was a stretch, let alone multiple volumes. In an early-sixteenth-century depiction of Erasmus, the scholar cannot even place a single book on his desk as he is writing a letter (Fig. 1).

Albrecht Dürer's portrait of Erasmus, 1526 (detail)
Fig. 1 – Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Erasmus, 1526 (detail) – source

Interestingly, the challenges of medieval book consultation stands in stark contrast with what we know about reading and studying in the period. Readers browsed through a great number of volumes at the same time, interested as they were in learning different points of view with respect to their topic of inquiry. Sparked by this contradiction, this post explores medieval desktops. How many books are being consulted at the same time in medieval depictions of reading? How are the objects laid out across the available space? In short, how are we to understand the logistics behind the devouring of knowledge in the last four centuries of the Middle Ages? As will become clear, the answers to these questions vary greatly depending on why an individual handled multiple books at the same time.

Scribes
The first group of individuals who had to manage multiple books were scribes. By definition, a scribe had to have at least two books on his desk: the one he was making (a growing pile of quires, which remained unbound until the very end) and the one he was copying from (called the “exemplar”). While keeping track of the loose quires may have been challenging, of the groups discussed here scribes had it the easiest. After all, the individual was only technically reading one book – the one he was copying from. This explains why their deskspace was of limited size, at least judging from surviving depictions.

Brussels, KB, 9278 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Brussels, KB, 9278 (15th century) – source

In most cases their working space was erect rather than flat (Fig. 1). This famous image of Jean Miélot at work shows how the desktop of the scribe had a 45-degree angle, resulting in an almost erect surface. Clearly visible is also a vertical orientation in the line-up of the books: one was placed above the other. In fact, the desktop in this image is split in half, with the lower half containing the book under production, as well as the scribe’s tools (ink pots and pens), while the upper half holds the exemplar. Miélot obviously needed to go shopping for a larger desk, because we see books laying around on the ground and on a bench.

London, British Library, Royal 18 E.iii (15th century)
Fig. 3 – London, British Library, Royal 18 E.iii (15th century) – source

Interestingly, there are also desks with a horizontal orientation. Fig. 3 shows the translator Simon de Hesdin at work. Although the books are out of sight, the desk clearly provides room for two books. However, they placed next to one another. This may be specially done for the task of a translator, who needed to carefully read the source text and subsequently scribbling down the translation in loose quires or on loose sheets. This way, both books would be right before him: there was no need to look up at a high book platform. (See in this respect also the note added post-publication, below.)

Readers
While it is easy to find images of scribes with a desk full of books,  it is less common to encounter readers in similar situations. That is to say: there are very few medieval scenes in which someone is reading but not writing – where books are present but pens are not. In part, this has to do with medieval study practices. Readers would usually have a pen nearby even when they were just reading. After all, remarks and critiques needed to be added to the margin at the spur of the moment. “Penless” images, while rare, often show a crowded desktop. The scene presented in Fig. 4 shows Christine de Pisan browsing multiple books at a big desk (more about Christine in her study in this article).

Brussels, Bibliothèque, Royale, MS 9009-11
Fig. 4 – Brussels, Bibliothèque, Royale, MS 9009-11

The absence of the pen may result from an urge to depict Christine as an avid reader. This is emphasized, I think, by the various volumes that lay open – note how some open books are facing down, the way we still do today! From the late medieval period a special tool was available for readers who did not like the clutter shown on Christine’s desk: the book carousel (Figs. 5 and 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL Collection
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL Collection – Photo EK
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 195 (15th century).
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 195 (15th century).

These carousels allowed readers to consult multiple manuscripts in a very convenient fashion, by spinning (slowly!) the top part, which moved. The oldest one I could find dates from the fourteenth century (here), but it is possible they were in use even earlier. It is striking that these two scenes show readers – scholars – without pens, even though the second seems to hold an invisible one.

Book hipster
Cleverly, the medieval “spinning wheels” in Figs. 5-6 circumvented the constrictions of the limited space a regular desktop provided. However, what if you need even more real estate than the turning desktop could offer? The answer to this question is perhaps one of the most intriguing and cool pieces of book furniture that survive from the past: the book wheel (Fig. 7).

From "The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli", 1588.
Fig. 7 – From “The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”, 1588.

The image from 1588 shows the bookwheel invented by the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli, whose concept was based on medieval designs. The upside to the carousel is obvious: there was space for a lot of books. This practice is not unlike deciding to hook up a second monitor to your computer, except that the individual is actually watching twelve monitors at the same time – like a trader on Wall Street. I have sat behind one from the 17th century myself and it is truly a majestic feeling to spin the wheel. The click-click sound of the gears hidden inside the device is simply mesmerising.

The last word: laptop
While desktops (in their great variety) are representative of how most scribes and readers handled their books, there is also a surface space that is more exceptional – and that can only be addressed as a “laptop”. The use of such portable desks, which sat on the scribe’s lap, is well documented for the early-modern period (here is one from sixteenth-century Spain; here are a few others). They were used, for example, by noblemen or secretaries drafting documents and letters whilst on the road. It concerns a box with a slightly angled surface, inside which the writing materials were stored, including sheets, ink and pens. Interestingly, this practice – and tool – go back to at least the twelfth century, as Fig. 8 shows. The device contains a hole for the ink pot and inside may well have been blank sheets, in parallel to the portable kits from the Renaissance.

Chartres Cathedral, West Portal (c. 1150)
Fig. 8 – Chartres Cathedral, West Portal (c. 1150) – Source

Apart from the fact that the actual desk space was more limited than what we are used to, the medieval desktop was not so different from ours, including how messy it was. They contained books, both open and closed, as well as writing tools. However, more so than in our present time, desktops were a necessary tool, whether they were packed (as in Christine’s case) or with only one or two books in place (as with most scribes). The medieval quill, after all, needed a stable and even surface. While desktops may seem trivial objects to us, they were crucially important to both medieval scribes and readers.

Note added 22 Dec, 2014: this image of the translator Jean Wauquelin at work (Valenciennes, BM, 772) also shows the translator sitting at two desks with a horizontal rather than a vertical orientation. It raises two questions: was this unusual set-up favoured by translators; and if so, could the reason be that it allowed them to point at the line they were translating, as seen in the Wauquelin image – after all, this would impossible to do with a vertical orientation.