Hidden Treasure, or How Destruction Creates Beautiful Things

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

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

Middle Dutch fragment in binding

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

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

Hebrew fragment peeking through a hole

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

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

Common but not Ordinary: The Leiden Dioscorides Examined

This week one of my MA-students expressed he wanted to write his thesis on MS VLQ 1 in the Leiden University Library. The manuscript in question contains an alphabetized version of Dioscorides’ De materia medica. It belonged to a copy presented in several parts, but the others have all been lost, it seems (VLQ 1 contains the Preface and Acorus through Ficus maritima). It was made in or nearby the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino in the late eleventh century. This monastery is known for its high-end illuminated manuscripts written in Beneventan script. Thumbing through VLQ 1, however, quickly shows that this is not such a book. Not a single decorative element is encountered in the manuscript and the parchment is of particularly poor quality: some folia contain pronounced follicle patterns, translucent patches or a yellow discoloration; others contain cuts or gaps at the edge of the page.

The manuscript’s most notable feature, however, is the mix of scripts on its pages. The first scribe, who copied f. 1r to f. 13v, line 36, includes such familiar Beneventan letter forms as the a that looks like ac, the enlarged e that looks like a t with a circle on top, and the ti ligature. Curiously, the two remaining hands in the volume used Caroline Minuscule. The first of these takes over in line 37 of f. 13v, halfway through a sentence (see image). The transition is marked by a “barred” capital “P” in the margin, contemporary and perhaps executed by the first hand. A third individual copied the remainder of the manuscript (f. 32v). The script suggests the first scribe was trained in the Beneventan zone (Monte Cassino and its surroundings); the others came from elsewhere.

Transition from Beneventan to Caroline at f. 13v

Monte-Cassino expert Francis Newton relates the coexistence and mixed application of Beneventan and Caroline in Southern-Italian scriptoria to status and the purpose of a book. High-quality manuscripts with gold and colored initials, which he calls Nobilissimi or most noble books, are always copied in Beneventan script. This category consists of display books and liturgical manuscripts. One step down in the hierarchy there are the Notabiliores, or more notable books, commonly with patristic and classical contents as well as contemporary medieval texts, predominantly written in Beneventan script entirely. The lowest tier on Newton’s ladder is a class he calls Viliores, or more common books. This is where we may situate VLQ 1. These manuscripts, which may be partly written in Beneventan and partly in Caroline, contain works on such topics as dialectic, grammar, law and medicine. These plain objects were likely made for school use or scholarly pursuit.

Thus, the Leiden Dioscorides is common but not ordinary: the object holds an every-day text that was produced under unusual circumstances, in a scriptorium where scribes from different origins found common ground in the books they copied. I can’t wait to see what the MA-thesis will uncover about this most intriguing book.

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

Strangers at a Party

Talking about medieval manuscripts in front of a camera is really tough. This verdict shot through my head as I was taping podcasts in the Palaeography Room at the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies recently. The activity seems no different than demonstrating the beauty of the handwritten book to a group of students or an audience of lay people, something I can do with my eyes closed. You lift a manuscript out of the storage box and explain the significance of its features, as passionately as possible, while flipping pages. In actuality, however, the rolling camera brings unusual pressure to the event.

Not only is a continuous flow of clear and clearly projected observations needed – hesitation is deadly as it would mean having to repeat the ordeal – but while speaking one has to also identify and formulate the next thing to say. These two simultaneous mental processes are accompanied by a third, I quickly found out. Soon after I had started, an evaluative voice in my head began to ask questions: from ‘Did I say this correctly?’ and ‘Will the viewer be able to make out the detail I just pointed out?’ to the more worrisome ‘What will you say next, Erik?’ and ‘Did I just scratch my nose?’

It did not help that I had not seen the material in front of me before: the manuscripts and fragments had introduced themselves briefly to me only an hour before, while climbing out of their boxes and shaking off their envelopes in the curator’s office, relieved to be out in the open again. Yet while the items and I had had a pleasant conversation, I did not really know them. In fact, presenting them in front of a camera to a potentially very large online audience felt like introducing a complete stranger to a busy party. Who were they? Where did they come from? What made them tick? And why again had I invited them?

As is often the case with public speaking, it is exactly this intellectual challenge of thinking on your feet and not exactly knowing what you will say next or how you will tie an observation to your train of thoughts, that makes it so much fun to do. And so I pressed on and taped 5-minute podcasts on the Paris Bible (‘Written in a letter of only 2 mm high, comparable to a modern newspaper!’), a student textbook (‘Not a single unabbreviated word on this page!’), manuscript fragments (‘Behold, hidden treasure in a bookbinding…’), layout (‘This scribe really knew what he was doing.’) and the transition from Caroline minuscule to Gothic script (‘Look at these two letters biting each other.’).

What I have learned from the experience? You’ll be alright if you are able to forget the camera. You do better without judging what you say as you say it. And it helps to pick items that have pronounced features and that relate to the theme of a podcast in a clear manner. But most of all, that introducing strangers at a party can be a lot of fun.

Added 9 May, 2012:

History SPOT published a blog entry describing the filming of these movies from the perspective of the camera man.

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

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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