Category Archives: Medieval Scribes

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.

Medieval Super Models

This post is devoted to a particularly attractive and rare kind of medieval manuscript: the model book. A feast to the eye, the object is filled with drawings and paintings that were meant to show scribes and illuminators how to decorate letters, paint initials, or add large segments of decoration to the page. Within this tradition, two types of model books can be distinguished. Some functioned as instruction manuals. In such books, the drawings might be accompanied by a narrative or explanation that instructs the artisan how to proceed, usually in a step-by-step process. Other model books appear to have merely functioned  as  a source of inspiration: they present a wide array of shapes and drawings from which the artisan could take his pick.

The level of sophistication among surviving model books varies considerably. On the lower end of the spectrum there are pattern books that merely show how to make enlarged letters with some minor flourishing. On the higher end, by contrast, there are copies with high-quality stand-alone designs and sophisticated historiated initials inhabited by figures and scenes. Evidently the requirements of the artisans varied; and by proxy, so did the taste of medieval readers. It is this variation that makes model books so fascinating, both as physical objects and as cultural artifacts. This blog illuminates the breadth of the genre – and shows off the attractiveness of these medieval super models.

Plainly decorated letters

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 439, fols. 30v-31r (1510-1517)
Fig. 1 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 439, fols. 30v-31r (1510-1517)

To start at the lower end of the spectrum, some model books merely showed scribes how to execute a certain script or how to draw plain enlarged capitals – the most basic kind of decoration. The book opening seen in Fig. 1 is from Gregorius Bock’s Scribal Pattern Book, which provides instruction on both fronts (more about the manuscript here). Produced in 1510-1517, the first part of the small parchment book contains a series of alphabets in different scripts, some of which are clearly influenced by print typefaces. The second part contains decorative initials arranged in alphabetical order. In the introduction to his manual, Gregorius adds a dedication to his cousin Heinrich Lercher Wyss of Stuttgart, who was scribe to the Duke of Württemberg. The arrangement of the material shows how Heinrich likely used the book: he would thumb through its pages until he had reached either an alphabet or capital letter to his liking (more about the context here).

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 83-1972 (c. 1175)
Fig. 2 – Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 83-1972 (c. 1150-1175)

While Brock’s letters are a pleasure to look at, especially for the book historian, it was not exactly rocket science. More complex – but still relatively plain – are the models provided by a much older pattern book in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Fig. 2; more here). This appears to be the oldest surviving pattern book for initials: it dates from c. 1150 and was produced and used in a Tuscan workshop. The choice is much more limited than in the previous example: the Cambridge copy does not provide multiple alphabets, nor does it present a wide range of initials (in fact, only about twenty are present). Interestingly, some manuscripts survive in which we encounter decorated letters that could well be modelled from this or a similar model book (like British Library, Harley MS 7183).

Elaborately decorated letters

London, British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century)
Fig. 3 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1504 (1520-30) – Source

On the more upscale end of things is the model book known as the Macclesfield Alphabet Book. It was made and used in fifteenth-century England, apparently for the transmission of ideas to decorators or their assistants (full digital copy here, information podcast here). The artisans were offered quite a lot of choice, given that we encounter no less than fourteen different alphabets on its pages. What makes this book so special, however, is their quality and the manner in which the letters are designed: their shapes are produced by human figures. As in other modelbooks that include letters made out of people (Fig. 3), the figures are shown in most uncomfortable positions, as if doing yoga exercises.

A similar subject matter is encountered in the alphabet book of the Italian artist Giovannino de Grassi (Fig. 4 and image at the very top). This book was created at the Visconti court and features both initial letters and stand-alone drawings. The Visconti’s were known as important patrons of the arts and so it makes sense that we see their generosity extend into the world of book production. Giovannino was known for depicting exotic animals in their natural habitat and this book features such images as well. His pages provided models for other artists who wished to replicate his realistic depictions.

Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century) – source

Marginal decoration
Even more sophisticated are model books that show how to create elaborate decoration that runs in the margin along the length of the page. These border decorations, with their curly leaves and unexpected turns, could be tricky to produce. The so-called Göttingen Model Book, made around 1450 (Fig. 5, left), provides a solution to this problem. Its pages not only show, step by step, how to build a 3D leaf pattern, they also present detailed instructions like the following:

The foliage one shall first draw with a lead or a point. Then one shall outline the foliage with a pen and with very thin ink or with thin black color. Then one shall polish the foliage with a tooth, so that the color can be applied smoothly, but not too firmly. Then one shall paint it with the colors, one side right and the other side left or reversed, with a brush, namely light red and green. […] (Source of transcription)

Göttingen, Universitätsbibliothek, Uffenb. MS 51 (left) and Gutenberg Bible (right)
Fig. 5 – Göttingen, Universitätsbibliothek, Uffenb. MS 51 (left) and the same decoration executed in an actual book, a  Gutenberg Bible (right)

The drawings and narrative clearly complement one another. From time to time the instructions mention something like “as it is shown here” or “as the image shows”. A model book can hardly be clearer than this: while the alphabet books shown above were more or less meant to simply inspire the artist, the Göttingen book really takes the artist by the hand and guides him through each step of the production process. The instructions apparently worked well, as is shown by a surviving Gutenburg Bible that contains these very leafy borders (see Fig. 5, right, and more here).

The final point
Models are crucial in any learning process. Observing how something is done helps you acquire a skill you lack as much as it encourages you to develop further those you already have. Moreover, there is an additional use to these pattern books that has not yet been mentioned: the beautiful letters and shapes could also be browsed by readers looking for a good image for their newly acquired book. Patrons visiting artisans’ shops could well have been given these objects to find out what the book-maker was capable of providing. Given its many uses, it is hardly surprising that the tradition shown in this blog is also encountered in other cultures, including Byzantine and Arabic book production.

One particularly unusual Arabic specimen deserves to make the final point of this post. The fragment shown in Fig. 6 presented Arabic decorators with models of scenes from the New Testament (more here). It figures that the artisans, used to decorating the Quran, needed a little inspiration when it came to the Bible. This specimen is also interesting because it presents a type of instruction not seen in Western copies, as far as I know: some of the figures have been outlined by tiny holes, meaning that the sheet could be used as “tracing paper” (click the image to see this closer). While this ultimate instruction method took all potential flaws and creativity out of the modelling process, it allowed decorators with lesser talents to produce something beautiful.

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 553 (1400-1700)
Fig. 6 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 553 (1400-1700)

 

Post-scriptum 16 September, 2014 –  I wish to thank Giovanni Scorcioni (@FacsimileFinder) for providing the Hi-Res image in Fig. 4.

Post-scriptum 19 September, 2014 – Mari-Liisa Varila (@mlvarila) alerted me to a 17th-century equivalent to the Arabic “tracing paper” specimen (here you’ll find more information). More about this technique, which is called pouncing, here.

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.

Strange Medieval Books

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

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

1. Fleur-de-Lis

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

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

2. Codex Rotundus

HildesheimDombibliothek728
Fig. 2 – Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS 728 (1450-75)

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

3. Heart-Shaped Book

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

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

4. Narrow Books

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

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

5. Miniature Books

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

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

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