Chain, Chest, Curse: Combating Book Theft in Medieval Times

Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe? You’re probably not inclined to do this, because the object in question might be stolen. The medieval reader would nod his head approvingly, because book theft happened in his day too. In medieval times, however, the loss was much greater, given that the average price of a book – when purchased by an individual or community – was much higher. In fact, a more appropriate question would be whether you would leave the keys in the ignition of your car with the engine running when you enter Starbucks to order a coffee. Fortunately, the medieval reader had various strategies to combat book theft. Some of these appear a bit over the top to our modern eyes, while others seem not effective at all.

The least subtle but most effective way to keep your books safe was to chain them to a bookcase. Walking around in a “chained library” is an unreal experience (Fig. 1). There is nothing like seeing a medieval book in its natural habitat, where the chains produce a “cling-cling” sound when you walk too close to them – a sound that must have been familiar to medieval users of chained libraries.

The chained library of Hereford Cathedral
Fig. 1 – The chained library of Hereford Cathedral – Source
Fig. 2 – Zutphen, “Librije” Chained Library (16th century) – Photo EK (more here)

While there are only a modest number of chained libraries still in existence today (in my own country just one remains, Fig. 2), many of the medieval books we consult in modern libraries were once part of such a collection of “imprisoned” books. Objects that were once chained can be identified with ease, either from the attached chain (Fig. 3) or from the imprint it left in the wood of the book binding (example here, lower edge). The links of the chain are remarkably crude and clunky, although they have a certain charm as well (Fig. 4 and image all the way at the top, taken from this source).

University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84 (15th or 16th-century chain)
Fig. 3 – University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84 (15th or 16th-century chain) – Source
Zutphen, Librije Chained Library - Photo Julie Somers
Fig. 4 – Zutphen, “Librije” Chained Library (16th century) – Photo Julie Somers

The primary reason for chaining a book was, obviously, safekeeping. Just like phones and tablets on display in modern stores are fixed to their display tables with straps, these precious medieval books were bolted to the library that owned them. This feature of stabilitas loci (to allude to the Benedictine ideal of staying in one location your entire life) turns the chain into something interesting beyond the strictly book-historical. It shows, after all, that the text inside the object was available in a public or semi-public place, such as a church or a cathedral. In other words, chains (or traces of them) suggest how information was accessed.

Book chests
Not all chained books were part of a real library – say a room with one or more bookcases. The famous seventeenth-century “Gorton Chest” from Chetham’s Library shows that books were also chained inside a book chest (Fig. 5, more here and here). This particular example was made in 1658 to contain 68 volumes that were purchased from the bequest of Humphrey Chetham. The lot made up the full extent of the parochial library of Gorton Chapel.

Fig. 5 – Manchester, Chetham’s Library, Gorton chest, made in 1655 – Source

While book chests were a common phenomenon in medieval times, most of them did not actually feature chains. Surviving specimens suggest that the majority were merely wooden boxes, often enforced, that were fitted with one or more locks. The one that still survives in Merton College library, dating from the fourteenth-century, is a good example of such an object (Fig. 6). The theft-prevention plan of these chests was simple yet effective: the filled object was too heavy to move or steal, while the locks kept the contents safe from theft. In a sense, the heavy and enforced chest is the equivalent of a modern safe. Similar chests were used for other kinds of precious objects as well (here is one not made for books).

Oxford, Merton College, book chest (14th century)
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Merton College, book chest (14th century) – Photo EK

Considering these two practical theft-prevention techniques – chaining your books to something unmovable or putting them into a safe – the third seems kind of odd: to write a curse against book thieves inside the book. Your typical curse (or anathema) simply stated that the thief would be cursed, like this one in a book from an unidentified Church of St Caecilia: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act” (source and image). Some of these book curses really rub it in: “If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgement the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ” (source).

Book curses appear both in Latin and the vernacular, including in non-Western traditions, like Arabic (example here). Fig. 7 shows an Anglo-Saxon curse from the second half of the eleventh century, in a manuscript donated to Exeter Cathedral by bishop Leofric. This combination (of curse and donated book) is encountered more often. The inscription at the bottom of the page in Fig. 8 notes that the book was donated to Rochester Priory in Kent by Ralph of Stoke. The notation ends with a short book curse.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 2.16 (12th century)
Fig. 7 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 2.16 (12th century) – Source
British Library, Royal MS 2 C.i (written c. 1220)
Fig. 8 – British Library, Royal MS 2 C.i (written c. 1220) – Source

These two cases suggest that the receivers of the gifts felt compelled to treat the given object with extra care. A similar sentiment is encountered in some books that were copied by individuals who were, for some reason, important to a religious house. In the early twelfth century, one Humphrey was precentor in Rochester Priory, Kent, meaning he lead the congregation in singing during the mass. He is also known as a scribe who copied a number of books for the community in a particularly dazzling script. One of these books he copied bears a curse as well as a note “In memory of Humphrey the precentor” right below it (Fig. 9). The apparent significance to the community may well be the reason why a curse was added.

Fig. 9 – British Library, Royal MS 5 B.xii (dated 1115) – Source

Book curses raise a lot of interesting questions. Were they indeed favoured for books of special significance? Are we to understand their presence as a sign that librarians and book owners really thought the inscriptions were effective? And if they were, why not place them in all books contained in the library? No matter the answers to these queries, there is a certain optimism embedded in such notations: the writer of the note apparently believed that a gentle reminder would bring potential thieves around and they might consequently not take the object.

Interestingly, the same optimism is echoed by inscriptions that ask the finder or thief of a book to return the object to its rightful owner. A Middle English note reads: “Ho so me fond er ho so me took I am // jon Fosys Boke” (Whoever found me or whoever took me, I am John Foss’s book) (Fig. 10, information taken from this article).

St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS Lat. F.v.I. N 70 (14th century)
Fig. 10 – St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS Lat. F.v.I. N 70 (14th century) – Source

Notes like this bring us back to Starbucks, where I have seen similar requests stuck to the wall: whoever took my iPad, please return it, or at least return the files on it. Just as in modern times, medieval books were likely also not often returned. In fact, the example of John Foss’s book gives us reason for pessimism: in the inscription the name is written on erasure, meaning that an earlier name, of a previous owner, was erased with a knife. Curiously, this makes John Foss the potential thief of this book. If this is indeed the case, the thief identifies himself by altering the very book curse that was aimed at people like him.

Post-scriptum: more on chained libraries in this post and on the one in Zutphen here. The link to the image of the curse related to the Church of St Caecilia was provided by Elizabeth Archibald (@Elizarchibald).

Medieval Letter-People

The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).

British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Letter G: British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Looking at these unfortunate victims of book decorators – in this case the letter G from the Macclesfield Alphabet Book – may bring a smile to your face, which was probably the aim. At the same time, it is easy to overlook the sophisticated design behind such forced yoga exercises. Moreover, when you look a bit closer at this kind of book decoration, different types of letter-people may be discerned.

1. Inconspicuous letter-people
In the least conspicuous type we simply see one or more individuals hanging about near the text, minding their own business. At least, that is what you would think at first sight. When you start reading it quickly becomes clear that these people and their paraphernalia are actually forming the first letter.

Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)
Fig. 2 – Letter M: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)
Fig. 3 – Letter H: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (12th century)

In the first of these two scenes (Fig. 2), two monks hold up a structure made out of planks. When turning to the text (Gregory’s Moralia in Iob) it becomes clear that the monks and the V-shaped structure form the capital letter M (the first line reads “Mos iustorum est”). Fig. 3 is even more subtle: it shows a monk giving a wax tablet to what looks like bishop. In fact, they also form the letter H during the exchange (the start of “Hieronimus”).

2. Bending reality
Subtle as they are, it is hard to believe depictions like these were not meant to entertain. Some letters made up by human figures appear to take the entertainment factor a step further. In the same medieval set of books as the previous decorations this giant letter Q (Fig. 4) can be found.

Fig. 4 – Letter Q: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)

While the individuals forming the M and H (above) are in a natural pose, this Q is formed by two Cistercian monks (lay brothers, actually) in a most uncomfortable position. The team is chopping wood, with one monk placing an axe on the tree, while the other hits the axe with a hammer. While that must have been a common, real sight for the readers of this book, which was produced for a French Cistercian house, the backs of the  monks are rounded unnaturally in order to form the Q shape. The result is an uncomfortable-looking pose that provokes laughter.

The case of the two monks shows that bending reality can make it difficult to recognise a letter. A similar feeling surrounds a scene in another twelfth-century manuscript, one that shows a man wrestling with a beam (Fig. 5). It looks as if he is trying to lift it on his shoulders, but it appears to be too heavy. The image below it (Fig. 6) plays into the same theme of lifting. In both cases it takes a while before you recognise the letter that is expressed – the medieval reader probably got it much quicker.

Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Letter A: Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century) – Source
Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century)
Fig. 6 – Letter T: Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century) – Source

A closer look reveals an A in the top image (the start of the name “Arfaxath”). It has the same peculiar shape as the A seen to the left of the acrobat and his heavy beam. The unnatural pose reminds us of the two monks chopping wood: reality is somewhat stretched – or rather, bent. Fig. 6, from the same manuscript (a Bible), shows the letter T for “Tobias”, which is produced by two individuals wrestling. It is not hard to imagine that the lifted person is spinning around while making a lot of noise (that is at least how I interpret the red lines coming out of his face).

3. Bending reality further
Near the end of the medieval period manuscripts appeared in which the human body was stretched and bent like never before: model books (see my post Medieval Super Models). These objects presented decorators with ideas and actual models for the large initial letters at the beginning of a text. People (as well as animals) form a common subject matter in these model books. Interestingly, they exchanged real-life, natural scenes with sophisticated constructions that feature multiple people in strange collective acrobatic poses (Fig. 5).

London, British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Letters A, B, C, D: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1504 (1520-30) – Source

The great thing about this kind of decoration is that they are mini stories. They are much more dynamic than the scenes in Figs. 2-4, which show a single, rather static event. The letter B in Fig. 5, for example, shows a small band of people, who have to work hard for this pose. Still, one is making music, another balances on a dragon, while the old lady is supported by an old man. Readers had a lot to talk about when they saw this letter. Is the old man her husband, who is reduced to a (quite literally) supporting player? Is the man with the green jacket fighting the dragon or merely using it as a chair?

Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Letters q, r: Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century) – Source

This theme of a bent reality where the lives of people are played out in unreal stories – while forming a letter – is also seen in other model books, such as the one made by Giovannino de Grassi, who worked at the Visconti court in Italy (Fig. 7). The letter q is made up by two knights on horseback, in an almost postmodern pose, while the letter r that follows shows a cute collection of animals.

With the animal theme the tradition has gone full circle. Animals forming letters are encountered as early as the ninth century (Fig. 8).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12 (9th century)
Fig. 8 Letter T: Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12 (9th century)

This scene shows a dog running away with a fish in his mouth, while forming the letter T (“Tum ego”) – and all this in a dead-serious text by the philosopher Boethius. It shows that entertainment using familiar objects, both humans and animals, is something universal, something that binds decorators from all corners of medieval Europe. It was sure to be a hit with the reader, who was given the chance to have a short “breather” from such heavy texts as Gregory’s Moralia and the complex ideas of Boethius. For a moment an unusual take on reality was allowed to take over and entertain.

Half Full, Half Empty: The Peculiar Medieval Page

Margins are both a universal and remarkable feature of books. From the very earliest specimens produced two millennia ago, to the e-readers we use today, books contain pages that hold both text and a significant amount of blank space. What a strange pair they are: words, the primary reason for the book’s existence; and a vast emptiness present on all sides of the text. A particularly remarkable aspect of marginal space is that there is so much of it in medieval books. My own work on the twelfth century, reflecting broader medieval patterns, shows that pages from that period consist of approximately 50% margin, although in some cases it can be significantly more. This implies, astonishingly, that the majority of medieval books are half empty, despite the fact that parchment was expensive and sometimes even hard to come by. Why is this?


London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century)
Fig. 1 – London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century) – Source

One answer to this question is a simple one: because this is how books were traditionally made. Medieval scribes took over a great deal of material features first introduced by their counterparts in Antiquity. The book as we know it – i.e. an object produced from quires (bundles of folded sheets) – came into existence in the fourth century, as discussed in my post What is the Oldest Book in the World?  The pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek New Testament copied around the middle of the fourth century, measures 381 x 345 mm (height x width), while the text itself only takes up 250×310 mm (height x width). A simple calculation reveals that the text takes up 58% of the page, while 42% is reserved for the outer margins. In other words, a little under half of this magnificent book is empty.

Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250)
Fig. 2 – Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250) –  Source

Going back even further, papyrus manuscripts from Antiquity also included a considerable amount of marginal space. This is seen, for example, in Fig. 2, which shows the remains of a copy of Paul’s Epistles written between 150 and 250 CE. While the margins have been reduced post-production through damage (the edges of the papyrus eroded), the upper margin, which is largely intact, shows how the scribe reserved ample marginal space. The extensive medieval margin is, in one way, simply a continuation of an older practice.

The early papyrus book in Fig. 2 highlights that it was also convenient to have an empty space around the text. It meant that you could fill them with tools that may be helpful when consulting the book. A particularly important reading aid is visible at the top of the papyrus page: the capital version of the Greek letter Mu (looking like an M), which represents the Greek number 40 (Fig. 3). In other words, this is a very early page number (folium number), an instrument that is apparently some two thousand years old and predates the printed book by over a millennium.

Detail of Fig. 1
Fig. 3 – Detail of Fig. 2

There are many other kinds of aids encountered in the margins of medieval books, including cross references to other books or locations in the same manuscript, quotation marks, labels that indicate who the quoted author is, and chapter numbers. A particularly prominent aid is the running title placed in the upper margin. The one in Fig. 4 states “Physicorum”, indicating this is Aristotle’s Physics. This particular manuscript contains several Aristotle texts, which were popular in the university classroom. The student or teacher who was browsing through the book for certain information was greatly helped by these sign posts.

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century) – Source

While the margin did a good job accommodating the relatively short reading aids, it could be challenging to add large amounts of text to the void surrounding the main text. Fig. 5 shows a schoolbook from c. 1100 that was donated to Egmond Abbey near Amsterdam by one Baldwinus, a teacher in Flanders. The text in the book, Lucan’s Pharsalia, was used in the medieval classroom, and it is therefore no surprise that numerous explanatory notes have been added to the text, probably by Baldwinus himself.

Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100) – Photo EK

There is something special about these marginal notes: they are preceded by symbols that are the precursor of our modern footnote (more about this early practice in this post). The symbol links a remark in the margin to a specific location in the main text. The symbol seen in Fig. 5 resembles the number 7 and is perhaps the Tironian note for “et”.

Detail of Fig. 3
Fig. 5 – Detail of Fig. 4

Despite these add-ons, the schoolbook from c. 1100 is not really prepared to hold extensive notes. Baldwinus could have crammed more text in the margins, had he copied in a smaller script or increased the number of lines for the marginal text passages (presently, their number corresponds to the main text). However, this was not yet common practice in his day and age. In the scholastic age, by contrast, when university students needed to add a lot of extra information in the margin, these two tricks were applied, as seen in Fig. 3 – note the tiny script of the marginal notes, as well as the increased number of lines compared to the main text.

The examples in this post have shown different ways in which the margin, that handy device inherited from Antiquity, was put to good use by scribes and readers. However, it has not discussed why medieval margins were so large. Why keep as much as half of the page blank? Surely a quarter would be sufficient to add notes or tools?  While there are manuscripts that exhibit pages with tiny or no margins, there are not many. Leiden University library owns one of these exceptions: an early-eleventh-century schoolbook made from scrap parchment, the pages of which were filled to the brim (Fig. 6).

Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)

Interestingly, the teacher who copied this book diverted from the medieval convention related to page design in that he opted not to add substantial blank spaces. His use of scrap parchment (offcuts that were left over after the regular sheets were cut from the animal skin) indicates this was a low-cost book project. In other words, making maximum use of the available space on the page is likely motivated by cost considerations: it ultimately limited the number sheets necessary to copy this collection of (classical) texts.

While the choice for large margins may have a basis in a shared idea of perfect proportions, something modern book designers would call the “golden ratio” (see herehere and here), the notion of convention is probably the ultimate drive. There are plenty of conventions in medieval book production that don’t have an obvious explanation. The relative dimensions of the page is one of them: the width of medieval books tends to be about 70% of its height (see my Books on a Diet post for some curious exceptions), but why is this so? And why do quires predominantly consist of four folded sheets? Why are page numbers placed in the upper rather than lower margin? The bottom line is that large margins may simply have been something that medieval readers had come to expect from the object in front of them.

Postscriptum – This post was written in celebration of a conference devoted to the medieval margin, which I attended in June 2015 (details and abstracts here). More on the unusual Leiden scrap manuscript in the essay I wrote for this volume. Also make sure to check out this blog by the Marginal Scholarship project. I owe the title of this post to Julie Somers.

Medieval Bargain Books

If you are like me, you probably have two types of books on your shelves: some are new, others are second-hand. The two are very different entities: new copies are expensive, pristine and present a current publication; second-hand ones, by contrast, are damaged, may smell of cigars, and potentially present an older edition of the text it holds. Apart from the cigar smell, not much has changed since medieval times. In that era, too, books were bought both new and pre-owned. And like today, their value differed greatly. We know this in part thanks to a rare yet familiar piece of information that is sometimes encountered in a medieval book: the price tag (Fig. 1).

Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 12th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK

Valuating books
The medieval bookseller carefully set a value on the new and second-hand books that he offered for sale. While it is difficult to deduce what factors were precisely in play in this valuation process, availability and looks were probably deemed very important. Manuscripts with illustrations or with a decorated binding may, for example, have been more expensive than plain copies bound in a parchment wrapper. Unlike today, less important was the text’s edition (there were no publishers, editions, or even title pages) or how pristine the copy in question was (it was common for medieval readers to jot down notes, so few copies were truly pristine).

Surviving price tags, while rare, add a real-world dynamic to these inferences and assumptions. The tags are usually found on the first page of the book, commonly at the top or bottom so that they could be easily found (Fig. 1). Book owners sometimes added these prices to their book  inventories, which therefore provide a great source of information about the value of books – even when the copies themselves no longer exist (Fig. 2).

London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century – Source

On this page the books owned by Symonis Bozoun are listed (column on the far left) and next to them the price he paid for them (column on the far right). Bozoun (d. 1352) was prior of the Benedictine cathedral priory at Norwich and the page enumerates the books he personally owned. Such lists show that customers valued knowing what they paid for a book, which may also explain why price tags sometimes remain in surviving copies.

Plain price tags
There are roughly two types of price tag. First there is the plain one, which merely presents a number expressing how much money needed to be forked over in order to own the object (Figs. 1, 3 and 4). The one in Fig. 1 reads “2 s[olidus]” (= shilling) and seems a real bargain. The manuscript in Fig. 3 was sold for “15 s[olidus]” (the note at the top of the page) and was thus considerably more expensive.  With “8 s[olidus]” the manuscript in Fig. 4 was priced “mid-range”.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 104 (13th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 104, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK
Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 186 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 168, 13th century (text) and 16th century (tag) – Photo EK

Such plain tags are almost always found in second-hand copies. That the manuscripts above were sold second-hand can be determined from the handwriting: while the price tags date from the fifteenth century (Figs. 1 and 3) and the sixteenth century (Fig. 4), the books themselves were copied in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (see the captions). This implies, of course, that the copies were several centuries old when the bookseller put these tags in. It also shows how the texts they contain – Claudianus (Fig. 1), excerpts from Priscian (Fig. 3), and Macrobius’ commentary on The Dream of Scipio (Fig. 4) – remained valuable, even though reading and learning practices had evolved considerably between the books’ production and resale.

Complex price tags

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (commercial book atelier, 1325-1350) – Source

The second type of price tag, which is even more rare, brings us to the heart of the commercial book trade (Fig. 5). Rather than presenting a single amount of money that needs to be paid, placed there by a bookseller, it provides an itemised bill that covers all stages of book production. Take this one, found in Cambridge, Peterhouse College, MS 110:

Pro pergamo 27 quat. precium quaterni iii d. Summa vi s. ix d.
Pro scriptura eorundem viz. xvi d. pro quaterno. Summa xxxvi s.
Pro luminacione viii d.
Pro ligacione ii s

This “price tag” provides a wealth of information: it shows us how much was paid for the parchment (3 pence per quire, or 6 shilling and 9 pence total), for the copying of the text (16 pence per quire, or 36 shilling total), for the illumination (8 pence) and for the bookbinding (2 shilling). In this case it was the book’s owner who wrote these expenses down, likely to keep track of how much he paid the artisans who executed the different stages of book production. It was more common, however, that such itemised bills were drawn up by the individual who coordinated the book project, a person called “libraire” in medieval French account books and “stationer” in English ones.

To provide such tallies, the artisan who copied or decorated had to keep track of how many quires he had already completed. From time to time we encounter penciled notes that helped the artisan do just that. In Fig. 6 we see (faintly) how the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis jots down how much money he is owed by the libraire (just above the line in ink at the very bottom). As a subcontractor working for different booksellers Jehan had to make sure he got paid for his sweat and tears.

Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)
Fig. 6 – The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71 A 24 (13th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist

Price tags add considerably to our understanding of the medieval book trade. They not only show how much medieval books differed in price, but we can even relate these differences to specific material and textual features of the books in which they survive. The perhaps most striking thing about medieval price tags, however, is that they allow us to trace second-hand copies and observe how much cheaper they were than new ones – a dimension that remains understudied in current scholarship. Ironically, today these medieval “bargain” books usually fetch enormous sums of money at auction houses (10 million is no exception, see here). Equally ironic, while in the trade of modern second-hand books older price tags usually devaluate a copy, their presence in medieval manuscripts usually increase their value considerably.

Postscriptum – See this blog for more information on commercial book production in medieval times; here you can read about book advertisements and spam. This piece discusses another rare source for book prices, colophons at the end of texts. I traced the price tags in the Leiden manuscripts (Figs. 1, 3 and 4) via Peter Gumbert’s catalogue of the BPL collection (here). More about the medieval book trade in my “Commercial Organisation and Economic Innovation,” in The Production of Books in England, 1350-1530, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, 14 (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), 173-91.

Rare Medieval Name Tags

A word of warning: this post may make you want to weep. Last week I blogged about tiny pieces of parchment, paper birch bark, and wood that were filled with short messages from individuals in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (check out Texting in Medieval Times). The snippets – from a soldier’s request for more beer to a duke’s shopping list – were made cheaply and with little care because the messages on them were not meant to be kept long. Although such ephemeral material doesn’t normally survive, it forms an important historical source: it provides a rare glimpse on everyday life in medieval times.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnummer 519, Inv. nr. 3384 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnummer 519, Inv. nr. 3384 (15th century) – Photo EK

More than in any other medieval document I have seen, such an intimate view of medieval life is provided by a type of written object I encountered for the first time this week (Fig. 1). When visiting the restoration lab at the regional archives in Leiden (Erfgoed Leiden en omstreken) my eyes were drawn to a photograph on the wall that showed a tiny strip of paper from the fifteenth century. I returned the next day to order up the slips from the vault and see for myself what they were all about. Here is the powerful story of a collection of medieval name tags, which may be best consumed with a tissue handy by.

Name tags
The fifteenth-century strips are written in Middle Dutch and kept in the archive of the medieval Holy Spirit Orphanage in the city of Leiden (Dutch: Heilige Geest- of Arme Wees- en Kinderhuis). Founded in 1316, the orphanage was connected to the parish of St Peter (more here). The building is still there and is situated less than 100 meters from the massive Church of Hoogland (Hooglandse Kerk), which can be seen towering over the city from miles away. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the charitable organisation was responsible for the care of foundlings and children.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 1 (15th century)
Fig. 2 Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 1 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 2 (15th century)
Fig. 3 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 2 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 3 (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 3 (15th century) – Photo EK

The paper slips, some of which are as small as 10×30 mm, add a real-world dimension to what we know about medieval orphanages. The examples above read: “This child is named Bartholomew” (Fig. 2: Item Dit kint heeit bartelmeis), “Job is his name” (Fig. 3: Job ist geheten), and “This child’s name is William” (Fig. 4: Dit kint hiet Willem). Each slip shows a pair of holes as well as the indent of a pin, which explains what we are looking at: name tags pinned on foundlings’ clothing as they entered the orphanage. As far as I know, this is the only surviving collection of medieval name tags, and it is a mystery why they were kept in the orphanage’s archive for five centuries.

Who wrote them?
The tag collection can probably be divided into two categories. Some were probably written by one of the masters of the orphanage. The ones seen in Figs. 2-4, for example, are done by an experienced, professional hand. Others, however, are written in a less experienced hand. These may well have been written by the parents. This is supported by the observation that these tags provide more details about the child (Figs. 5-6).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 4 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 4 (15th century) – Photo EK
Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 6 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 6 (15th century) – Photo EK

The one seen in Fig. 5 (again with a clear pin mark) reads: “This child is called Cornelius and belongs to a painter whose wife is a wool comber” (Dit kijnt heet cornelis dit hoet een schilder een schilder toe sijn wijf is een kemster). On the tag in Fig. 6 we read “This child is baptised and her name is Mariken” (Dijt kijnt is ghekorstent ende haerren name is mariken). Both show how some children – whether found in the street or dropped off at the orphanage – entered the orphanage with some family history attached, literally.

The only parchment tag provides a particularly detailed history (Fig. 7).  It reads “My mother gave me an illegal father, which is why I was brought here as a foundling. Keep this note so that they can pick me up again later. I was baptised and born on St Remigius day.” (Mijn moeder min een onrecht vader gaf daer om ben ic voer een vondelinck gebracht, bewaert dit briefken v[…] opdat nae min weder halen sal ic ben gedopt ende op Remigius dach geboren.) As in the case of Fig. 5-6, it is very likely that the information on this note was provided by the parents, probably as they dropped off their child.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 5 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, slip 5 (15th century) – Photo EK

Accompanying booklet
The ten or so surviving slips are kept together with a fifteenth-century booklet, in which they may, in fact, have traveled through time. The title on the first page tells us what we are dealing with: “The Child Book: How the Children Came Here” (Fig. 8: Item dat kijnderbock hoe dat die kijnder hier ghecomen sijen).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet (15th century)
Fig. 8 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet (15th century) – Photo EK

The booklet forms the counterpart to the labels, for it registers the orphans and provides information about the location where they were found. We may presume that the foundlings entered the house, often as babies, were tagged, and then processed. However, the entries in the book also contains brief reports from individuals who found foundlings in public spaces and came by to drop them off at the orphanage. The stories on the fifty-odd pages are truly heartbreaking.

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1492)
Fig. 9 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1492) – Photo EK

On page 33 the following entry is found (Fig. 9). “Item, a child came to us without a name on the Thursday before the feast of St Peter in Chains. And we named it Peter, in the year 1502, for he was found in the Church of Our Lady under a bench.” (Item ons is en kijnt an ghekoemen sonder maem des donnersdacx voer sijnte pieters dach ad vynckula [St Peter in Chains] ende vij hietten pieter int jaer [1502] ende vas gheleit in onsser frouwen kerc onder een banck).

On page 7 a story with unhappy ending is penned down, by two scribes under the heading “anonymous” (sonder naem) (Fig. 10).

Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1491)
Fig. 10 – Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384, booklet entry 2 (dated 1491) – Photo EK

The first writes “Item a child was found in the church of St Peter and we named it Luke, on the Sunday before St Luke [= 18 October] in the year 1491. It looked like a newborn child to us, and it had been placed on the altar of St Agnes.” A second hand, in a slightly browner ink, added a short line, sometime later: “Luke died around St Catharine’s day [= 25 November] in the same year.” (Scribe 1: Item een kijnt ende vas ghevonden in sinte pieters kerc ende wij hietent Lucas op die zonnendach voer sinte Lucas anno [1491] ende was een nuo borun kijnt als ons dachten ende lach op sinte aegten altaer. Scribe 2: Lucas starf omtrent sinte katrinen dach actum voerseit.) The second scribe then crossed out the entry in the register.

These narratives form a powerful accompaniment to the paper slips. They report how and where the foundlings were found, and when they came to the orphanage with a paper name tag pinned on their clothes. Handling the paper slips in the archives is a heartbreaking experience: to think that they were made for the sole purpose of providing information about a child whose life was about to change dramatically. The handwriting underscores the emotions that must have been felt by the parents: the text is written in a scruffy manner, often with mistakes in spelling and grammar. For them it must have been a difficult task to write down these mini histories, in more ways than one.

Postscriptum – More on the history of the orphanage in Kees van der Wiel, ‘Dit kint hiet Willem’. De Heilige Geest in Leiden – 700 jaar vondelingen, wezen en jeugdzorg (Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2010), which also features some of the slips. With many thanks to Erfgoed Leiden for letting me photograph the name tags and use them for this post; and to Ed van der Vlist (Royal Library, The Hague) for his help with some readings. Just to emphasise, while I studied and transcribed them, I did not discover the tags, which featured in an exhibition some years ago.

Texting in Medieval Times

We all do it a few times per day: shooting a friend a text message with our phones. Doing so has become routine and we don’t really think about it: just grab your device, hold it up, and type a few words quickly and on the fly. Both the speed and short lifespan of text messages are responsible for its most peculiar features: they are written in a special language of short words and a high volume of abbreviations, and they come with the built-in understanding that there will likely be typos included. Interestingly, this hurried and cursory manner of communicating was quite common in medieval times, while its roots can be traced back to Antiquity. This post shows how people sent each other short messages before the invention of electricity and the phone: hastily, cheaply and with a modest amount of attention. “My soldiers have run out of beer, please send some!”


British Museum, 1986,1001.64, aka Tab. Vindol. II.291 (dated to 97-103 CE)
Fig. 1 – British Museum, 1986,1001.64, aka Tab. Vindol. II.291 (dated to 97-103 CE) – Source

The idea for this post was sparked by an image of a wooden writing tablet that was written almost two thousand years ago (Fig. 1: I encountered it in a news letter from calligrapher Patricia Lovett). The tablet was dug up some time ago in a Roman army camp just south of Hadrian’s wall, in the north of England. Some 400 wood tablets with correspondence were found in the house of the commander, Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort. Remarkably, the tablets are only 1-3 mm thick, about the size of a modern postcard (more about the fortress here and about the correspondence here).

The one in Fig. 1 is particularly charming and personal. It invites the commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her sister’s birthday party. The latter writes: “On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival. […] Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.” (Source) Astonishingly, with this tiny scrap of no more than 223 mm wide we have in our hands a two-millennium-old text message sent between two sisters, concerning a matter as trivial as a birthday. As scholars have remarked, this is one of the oldest surviving specimens of a woman’s handwriting, which makes the tiny scrap even more memorable.

Wooden shaft with nib excavated at Vindolanda
Fig. 2 – Wooden shaft with nib excavated at Vindolanda (late Antique) – Source

Produced with wooden pens with stuck-on nibs (Fig. 2), the 400 surviving text messages also include correspondence from the field, likely sent by courier.  The sub-commander Masculus writes to Flavius Cerealis, his superior: “Please, my lord, give instructions as to what you want us to have done tomorrow. Are we to return with the standard to the crossroads all together or [only half of us. Also,] my fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.” (Tab. Vindol. III 628, more here). This great (oldest-surviving?) order for beer, no doubt meant to be thrown out, survives because the earth preserved the wood on which it was written.

Middle Ages

Leiden, Bibliotheca Thysiana, Archive found in book binding (15th century)
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Bibliotheca Thysiana, Inv. Nr. 2200 H, Archive found in book binding (15th century) – Photo EK

Similar short logistical messages survive from medieval times, although their manner of survival is different. Fig. 3 shows waste material discovered in a book binding by students of Leiden’s Book and Digital Media Studies MA-program, for which I teach. A total of 132 paper slips were pressed together to form a board made out of “cardboard”. Quite unusual is the origins of the material: the recycling bin of a small court near Heidelberg, belonging to an unknown duke. The material is not your usual archival material – charters, accounts and whatnot – but mostly concerns ephemeral material that is mostly lost from medieval times: “yellow sticky notes” that were sent from one servant to another, such as the one seen in Fig. 4. The scrap was written by the chamberlain (“hofmeister”) and it requests the amount of six guilders from the duke, whose servant is the recipient of the message.

Fig. 4 – Leiden, Bibliotheca Thysiana, Inv. Nr. 2200 H, Chamberlain note from 1461 (front)
Leiden, Bibliotheca Thysiana, Chamberlain note from 1461 (back)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Bibliotheca Thysiana, Inv. Nr. 2200 H, Chamberlain note from 1461 (back) – Photo Giulio Menna

The back of the message (Fig. 5) also adds to our understanding of this hidden world of medieval text messaging. It shows to whom the note needed to be delivered (“kamermeister”) but also that it was folded into a small package for transportation (note the two folds). Another interesting note is a request to purchase some wild roses in Heidelberg, while making sure “to include some that are still in the bud.” (More about this case in this blog post.) Many of these slips were produced from recycled charters or account books. The messages were either written on their back (verso), or on a strip that was cut from their (blank) margin, as still visible in Fig. 5 (note the half words next to the word “kamermeister”). Why use a good sheet of paper if the message would be deleted immediately after use?

Time Capsule
Both the Vindolanda tablets and the medieval scraps that emerged from an early-modern binding form a time capsule with everyday conversations that do not normally survive from the past. We meet every-day people doing every-day things. Their manner of expressing themselves is untainted in that they do not try to be literary or witty, but merely convey a short message. They are part of a type of writing that was produced for short-term use and, ultimately, destruction. In that sense the messages from Antiquity and medieval times are not unlike the class notes I blogged about in the past, scribbled down by students and young children (Fig. 6) – more about notes and the bark sample in this post.

Birch bark strip used by the student Onfim, dated 1240-1260
Fig. 6 – Birch bark strip used by the student Onfim, dated 1240-1260 – Source, blogmore

The parallel with the birch bark notepad is striking for another reason as well: it confirms that individuals in the past selected cheap materials for items that were meant for short use only. In that sense it makes perfect sense that the “text messages” discussed above were written on things that were just lying around: thin pieces of wood and slips of waste in a recycling bin.

While the caches from Vindolanda and Leiden are remarkable, there are actually plenty of time capsules still out there. The average archive in Europe will contain several boxes filled with medieval waste material, which usually include a wide range of recycled “transitory” material, such as letters and notes (Fig. 7).

Maastricht, Archives, Box 384 (medieval waste)
Fig. 7 – Maastricht, Archives, Box 384 (medieval waste) – Photo EK

If the paper and parchment slips are the medieval equivalent of our modern text messages, written in a cursory fashion and forgotten about almost immediately after receipt, these archival boxes are like the memory chips of our phones. They allow us to read conversations deleted hundreds of years ago, connecting us to real medieval individuals doing real medieval things.

Postscriptum: as pointed out by Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond), similar to the genre discussed in this post is the ostrakon tradition from Antiquity, whereby short texts (quotes, notes and drafts) were written on pieces of broken pottery. Sarah forwarded this specimen with a quote from Homer; other examples are found in this Tumblr post I wrote some time ago.

Book on a Stick

Both medieval manuscripts and their modern counterparts are designed to accommodate human readers. Our two hands can keep an open book under control with ease by applying gentle pressure on the outer margins of the pages. Release the pressure with your right hand and a page lifts up in the air, just enough to conveniently flip it. With a rustling sound it travels from right to left, moved along by an impatient reader that is left in suspense for a second or two. The proportions of the page, too, are designed to accommodate consumption by human beings. Our eyes can handle only a small number of consecutively placed words, no more than eight or so, depending on the size of the letter. As a consequence, medieval page design shifted to presenting a text in two columns rather than one, a transition that occurred over the course of the twelfth century.

This relationship between book design and human anatomy is seen most vividly in a particularly peculiar bookish object that thrived in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the hornbook (Fig. 1).

Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625)
Fig. 1 – Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625) – Source

This charming device is a primer: a text used by children as they were learning to read. It contains the alphabet (naturally), but also a small collection of short texts, such as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary (more here and here). Its design reflects perfectly how the material format of books was customised for use by human beings: its user could easily grab a hornbook with one hand and hold it up at eye height. With his other hand the user could then duplicate the letters before his eyes. Two important things stand out when one observes the tradition: the variety of materials used to produce hornbooks – which were made of such materials as wood, lead and gingerbread – and its time of invention, which predate the proposed origins in current scholarly literature.

The heart of the hornbook is text, albeit a very small amount of it. In fact, it may well be the shortest read to survive from the early-modern period. Most hornbooks from that time are made out of wood. The pupil’s “required readings” were printed on a sheet of paper that was subsequently covered by a thin piece of horn for protection – hence the object’s name. The result is a remarkably sturdy object, which you can drop without damaging it, a minimum requirement for something used by young kids.

Washington, Library of Congress, 102.3 (18th century)
Fig. 2 – Washington, Library of Congress, 102.3 (18th century) – Source

Several surviving hornbooks show that the device was also used to teach kids to add and subtract. The one seen in Fig. 2, which dates from the eighteenth century, has a nifty add-on: an abacus. This particular specimen shows the end of the hornbook’s development, which appears to have become more sophisticated over time. The one in Fig. 2 contains another novel feature: the sheet of paper can be removed from behind the horn and replaced by another text, which may perhaps even be found on the reverse (here is another example). This late model is rather like an iPad with several apps loaded, one of which can even be updated when needed!

Other hornbooks were made out of even sturdier materials, such as ivory and lead (Fig. 3). The last one must have been particularly cheap and easy to produce, probably with the help of a mould. This specimen shows that the hornbook was subject to mass production, like its cousin, the printed book.

Timeline Acutions, Lot_903 (17th century)
Fig. 3 Timeline Acutions, Lot 903 (17th century) – Source

Quite different is the hornbook seen in Fig. 4. This wooden slab could be used to produce a gingerbread hornbook, handle and all. The tradition of this particularly tasty type of hornbook goes back to the seventeenth century. The English poet Matthew Prior (d. 1721) mentions it in one of his poems: “To Master John the English maid / A horn book gives of ginger-bread / And that the Child may learn the better / As he can name, he eats the letter / Proceeding thus with vast delight / He spells, and gnaws from left to right” (source). Although a peculiar book, the gingerbread version of the hornbook probably wins the prize for best didactical tool: what better reward than to eat the letter you were just able to read out loud?

Columbia University Library, RBML, Plimpton Hornbook 6 (England, 18th century?)
Fig. 4 – Columbia University Library, RBML, Plimpton Hornbook 6 (England, 18th century?) – Source

Medieval origins
While the heyday of the hornbook was no doubt the early-modern period, the scholarly literature will also tell you that this bookish device was in used in the fifteenth century, during the late medieval period. In fact, publications on the topic stress that there are also handwritten – medieval – versions of the device. Peculiarly, I wasn’t able to find one, except for this early-sixteenth-century specimen. Even illustrations showing hornbooks “in the wild” date from the seventeenth century at best, such as the pair hanging from the chapman’s basket in an engraving from 1646 (Fig. 5).

Annibale Carracci, 'Tavolette, e Libri per li putti’ (1646)
Fig. 5 – Annibale Carracci, ‘Tavolette, e Libri per li putti’ (1646) – Source and more

So is the hornbook a post-medieval invention? I was about to draw this conclusion, given the lack of evidence predating the early-modern period, when I coincidentally encountered the following illustration in a 14th-century Italian manuscript with an unidentified devotional text about Mary, the mother of Christ (Fig. 6-7).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canon. Misc. 476 (14th century).
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canon. Misc. 476 (14th century) – Source
Detail of Fig. 0.
Fig. 7 – Detail of Fig. 6.

The image shows Christ being brought to school by his mother. He is bringing his “textbook” to class: a hornbook, which dangles from his wrist by a string, just like many of the later specimens did (see the hole in the handle in Fig. 1). Quite intriguingly, we are shown a real medieval snapshot of how children carried their hornbook to and at school. More importantly, it shows that the hornbook was indeed a medieval invention. Some further digging revealed additional visual evidence of hornbooks being used in before the age of print (Fig. 8).

Columbia University, Plimpton MS 184 (15th century)
Fig. 8 – Columbia University, Plimpton MS 184 (15th century) – Source

The manuscript, which was produced in Germany in 1440-1460, shows a teacher holding up a hornbook, using it to show Arabic numerals to a pupil in front of him. The German text bubble next to the scene is very positive about this teaching moment: “With calculus and numbers, I can be a star in arithmetic!” While it was produced somewhat later than the Italian example in Fig. 6, the setting in which the hornbook was used is the same: a context where basic information about letters and digits is conveyed to young pupils. While no actual hornbooks appear to survive from the medieval period, these visual representations show that educating young children was also the driving force behind the production of hornbooks in the age before print.

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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