X-Rays Expose a Hidden Medieval Library

Readers of this blog probably know that early-modern book bindings contain hidden treasure: fragments cut from medieval manuscripts, ranging from small snippets to full pages. The fragments were placed inside bindings to reinforce the bookblock and to provide support for the boards (see this post I wrote about it, and this one as well). This recycling process – plain-old slicing and dicing, really – was common practice, old-fashioned as handwritten books had become after the invention of print. In fact, medieval pages are found in as many as one in five bindings of printed books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  While the stowaways are normally hidden from our eyes, we sometimes get to meet them face to face when a binding is damaged (Fig. 1).

Leiden_UB_583_x_x
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, 583, printed work (16th century) with medieval fragments inside (12th century) – Photo EK

But what to do with the thousands of fragments that are hidden from us in bindings that are still in pristine condition? This simple question became the drive behind the development of a method to examine fragments without removing or damaging the bindings. The method, which was presented this week, encompasses medieval book history (executed by me) and Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (developed by Joris Dik, Delft University).This post gives you an exclusive look behind-the-scenes at how we managed to digitally leaf through invisible pages and gain access to a hidden library.

The plan

Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection - Photo Julie Somers
Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection – Photo Julie Somers – Source

In the spring of 2014 I was asked to write a short piece about ideas or approaches that could potentially change a scholarly discipline, even if they were not yet feasible.  I wrote about how we might be able to access a hidden medieval “library” if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings (Fig. 2). Take their carriers– printed books whose bindings are enforced with the fragments – and give them a ride on the luggage belt at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Let’s give them a bit of x-ray love, I suggested, half jokingly (here is the piece I wrote).

Then I remembered that a fellow member of The Young Academy, Joris Dik, developed an x-ray technology that enables researchers to look through paintings, in search of the earlier stages of the composition. Joris and I secured funding through The Young Academy to transport his Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (or MA-XRF) scanner to Leiden University Library, an institution that greatly supported the unusual kind of research we were planning to undertake. We dubbed our endeavour the “Hidden Library” project and on October 4th, 2015 we started firing away at early-modern bindings in Leiden University Library.

The theory

Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath
Fig. 3 – Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath – Composed from images in this source

The Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (MA-XRF) technology was developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University, in collaboration with industrial, academic and museum partners. The machine was designed in such a way that it could be transported to a museum in a few crates. There it would be used to show hidden paint layers in paintings by Rembrandt and other old masters. For example, in collaboration with partners in Antwerp Joris Dik successfully showed an unfinished self-portrait by Rembrandt, which was hidden underneath a painting of an old man (Fig. 3) – here is a more recent Rembrandt discovery. A thin beam of X-rays is used to scan the object, charting the presence and abundance of various elements below the surface. Theoretically, the technology ought to make it possible to show medieval inks as well, even when they are covered by a layer of parchment, paper or leather – the most common materials that hide medieval binding fragments from our eyes. But would it?

The practice

The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University
Fig. 4 – The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University – Photo EK

The answer to this question came very quickly after we hit the switch: yes. However, interdisciplinary research often comes with complications. Yes, we see text, but no, we could not read it. And so a series of experiments were undertaken by the team (which also included two research assistants, Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden). For one thing, we learned that the distance between the head that released the x-ray beam and the fragment in the binding was key to our success (Fig. 5). A device was built that allowed us to adjust this distance between head and fragment with half a millimeter (the image was taken before it was completed).

The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19
Fig. 5 – The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19

Another variable we had to master was the length of time needed to scan the fragment. The head was moving back and forth in front of the scanner (Fig. 4), but how slow did this movement need to be? How long should the scanner scan before moving on to the next bit? When was it clear enough for me to read? Ultimately these nuts were cracked, meaning we were able to see a fragment through a binding. In fact, we managed to do it in such a way that the text was clear, legible and datable, as the following examples show (Figs. 6-8).

Example 1: fragment underneath paper
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11 (16th-century): 15th-century fragment visible underneath paper cover – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 2: fragment inside a parchment binding
Fig. 7 – Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19 (16th century): 15th-century fragment seen inside a parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 3: large fragment inside parchment binding
Fig. 8 – Leiden, University Library, 180 E 18: large fragment inside parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö

We ultimately scanned around twenty different early printed books. This seems a modest amount, but the main aim of the Hidden Library project was to discover if we could indeed expose bindings to x-rays and reveal the medieval fragments inside. In that respect the project was a success.

Challenges for the future
Before we start thinking that this method will enable us, starting right now, to trace thousands of new fragments, we are forced to take a reality check. First of all, the second variable – of how long a binding needed to be scanned in order to reveal its hidden treasure – remains a practical road block between science and unveiling a medieval source that has never been tapped into systematically. The images you see in Fig. 6-8 were each produced with over 24 hours of scanning time. A shorter period makes fragments visible, but not legible, as seen in Fig. 9 (which shows the same fragment as in Fig. 6, yet exposed significantly shorter).

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11
Fig. 9 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, short exposure

Secondly, another problem is to distinguish between the text on the front and back of the fragment. Depending on the composition of the ink, it may or may not be possible to separate the two sides of a leaf. Iron, for example, will be returned from both sides of a leaf, producing a peculiar image like the one seen in Fig. 10. One has to look for elements that only show the side closest to the beam, which in this case is calcium. Consequently, this particular fragment is seen in its most optimal form when only calcium is shown, as is the case in Fig. 6.

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron
Fig. 10 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron returns text from both sides of leaf at same time

So yes, the new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper. However, the method is not yet perfect in that it comes with challenges that need to be overcome, of which the long exposure time is the most significant. To stay within the analogy of this post, while the door to a virtual medieval library has been opened by the MA-XRF technique, we need to find a way to enter and take a look around as quickly and efficiently as we would in a real library.

Credits
The interdisciplinary research introduced here was executed by Joris Dik (Delft University) and Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University) in close collaboration with the University Library Leiden. Fundamental in our research was the help of the library’s conservator, Karin Scheper (who is, by the way, a guest blogger for medievalbooks). Two research assistants worked with us for the duration of the project: Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden. The project was financed by De Jonge Akademie (The Young Academy), a branch of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen (The Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences). Two formal publications, providing a more detailed description of the research and its results, are planned. Various national Dutch news outlets have paid attention to the project (newspaper, radio [start at 9.50 min] and television [start at 20 sec.]).

“To conserve or not to conserve, that is the question”

From time to time this blog shows damaged manuscripts. One may be inclined to think that books are better off in pristine condition. However, Karin Scheper, conservator at the University Library Leiden, explains why it is sometimes better to leave a book be. Here is an intriguing guest post about useful disrepair and the upsides of damage. Enjoy! Erik Kwakkel

Custodians and owners of old books will sometimes have to make tough decisions. They want their books to be used – why else would they have them? – yet they also want them to be preserved for the future as well. In the case of manuscripts and early printed books, the materials themselves are old and often fragile, and part of the textblock or binding may have come apart. While in most cases it would technically be possible to repair the damage, this is not always the best option for the book or the user. Instead, a conservation specialist may advise to simply box a book and not treat it at all, or propose minor treatment and consolidation only of the fragile state. Is that a result of sparse conservation budgets, or can there be other reasons?

A conservator evaluates the severity of the damage. Not all deterioration processes are progressive, and some damage may have occurred centuries ago without causing problems. Other conditions, such as deformations or splits in flexing materials may cause severe threats and further loss of material. The book’s current use, its historical value, and its relation to a collection are of course factors of importance when making conservation decisions.

The book as a physical object contains much more information than its contents alone; this blog demonstrates that in every posting. In spite of the fact that an increasing number of manuscripts and old prints are available online, the material object remains valuable – and may even become more valuable. One of the unique values of the physical book is that it contains historical evidence that is not accessible in a digital format. With a damaged object this information may be more easily accessible than in a well-preserved or restored book. The damage itself may reveal historical circumstances or shed light on former use, and in addition, damage may provide access to the interior of the structure. This can teach us what materials were used and what decisions the original bookbinder made, and it may connect the book to a certain region or time frame. Damage can be beneficial for book historians, and repairing damage may deprive them of valuable information. One way to safeguard such evidence is extensive documentation of the object prior to conservation treatment. However, if the condition of the book allows it, minimal intervention is an attractive option that respects the book’s integrity, and sometimes doing nothing may even be the best decision for the moment.

Three cases from the Leiden university collections illustrate such preservation issues and address the question whether the benefit of a conservation treatment outweighs the benefit of not treating a book.

A slotted spine

Leiden_UB_690F16_spine
Fig. 1 – De historica facultate disputatio by Fra. Robortellus, Florence 1544 (Leiden, University Library, 690 F 16) – Photo KS

In the early sixteenth century a novel method of binding books in parchment was developed in Italy. Books with raised bands always seemed to function more naturally in leather than in parchment; the three-dimensional shape of the spine with its raised sewing supports and the stiffness of the parchment were not a winning combination. Italian bookbinders solved the problem by cutting slots in the parchment at the positions of the raised bands, and they use white tawed leather at these positions instead (Fig. 1). This technique was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and appears to be confined to Italy. (See here for more details about how such bindings were made.)

Both parchment and leather discolour over time, after which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two materials. In addition, the ‘slotted spine’ as a technique is relatively unknown, and it is usually not easy to discern something one is not familiar with. With this particular technique, the characteristics may become more indistinct when the damaged spine of such a book is treated, and as a result an untrained eye may just be under the impression that the repaired binding is meddled with, instead of recognising the distinctive slotted method and thus the provenance. By contrast, the damaged spine of the binding in Fig. 1 invites the user to examine the different materials that are visible. Its construction is sound enough to support the textblock and allows careful use in the reading room; a box protects the binding in the stacks.

Broken but not unstable
In some cases the damage may appear quite severe when in fact the structure is sound and the covering material is not at risk of further loss. The parchment-bound books in fig. 2 are an example of that. The damage is typical of bindings that suffered from too much UV-light on the spine, which caused the material to deteriorate rapidly while the similar materials in the joint and over the front and back covers were not affected.

Leiden_UB_513E19_523D17_615F18_615F19_663E16
Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, 513 E 19, 523 D 17, 615 F 18 and F 19, 663 E 16: The turn-ins (the part of the cover folded over the edge onto the inner surface of the board) of the parchment spines are still in place. These turn-ins did not suffer from the same amount of light and pollution as the spines themselves did – Photo KS

From a book-historical point of view, a new spine would not add anything: it is clear that the original binding was a laced-on full parchment cover. Instead, a new spine would cover up all the information now visible on the spine of the bookblock. Zooming in, we can see the sewing structure and the different materials that are used as spine-linings. For the book on the left, parchment fragments with musical notation were used. For the one next to it, strips of block-printed textile were applied between each sewing support to strengthen the structure. The two volumes on its right side also show the use of block-printed cloth. However, in this case the bookbinder economised – these books are only small, after all – and applied only one lining strip to each volume.

What we can also see in Fig. 2 is that the binder pasted these strips, apparently arbitrarily, between the first and second sewing support in one instance, and between the second and third in the other. This is all the more interesting because the book on the far right displays a very intentional application of materials. Here we see two kinds of materials, cloth and paper. The blue striped cloth is used at head and tail, where strength of material is important to support the endband sewing, and in the middle. The paper strips with their reddish blockstamped decoration are used above and below the central cloth strip, where strength is a little less important. Thus, the structure is well balanced, not unimportant for a book of this size and weight.

This case shows how it is sometimes better to do nothing, or to simply consolidate the condition (e.g. stabilising the damage, making sure that it cannot become worse) without actually repairing the damage. In the case of these parchment bindings, leaving the damage benefits the user and the book itself. Without the rather rigid parchment spine of the binding the book opens more easily and thus its readability improves. This means that the user will not have to put any pressure on the joints when reading, and therefore the book’s structure will hold. A new spine would change the balance and might cause damage to the weaker areas such as the joints, which are currently unbroken. As a by-product of the decision to do nothing, the conservator saves time, which can be invested in those books that are at risk of progressive damage, or are damaged in such a way that their broken structures currently do not allow for use.

Leiden_UB_663E163
Fig.3 – Leiden, University Library, 663 E 16: Parchment binding without a cover spine but with board attachment intact. When the book is opened, the opposite motions of bookblock spine and binding spine are visible. If the book was opened further, a lot of tension would stress the parchment spine (now missing, though the turn-ins are still there) and joints – Photo KS

Too thick to function well
Different binding types have different characteristics, and the materials and techniques used to construct the book influence the objects’ physical properties and its ‘mechanism’. A leather covering, for example, pasted onto the spine of a manuscript, supports the textblock spine when the book is used. A parchment binding that is laced on to the textblock with the binding supports, but is not actually connected to the spine itself, moves away from the textblock spine when the book is opened (visible in Fig. 3) When, in addition, the spine of the binding is stiff and the textblock spine is flexible, a tension occurs which strains the joints. The Greek manuscript in Figs. 4-6 is an example of such an unfortunate combination. One of the joints gave way: the book’s solution to the problem. A conservation treatment aiming to restore the broken joint would only inflict further tension on the other joint and eventually lead to more damage and a repeated intervention. It was therefore decided to leave the damage as it is. The manuscript is accessible and safe to handle, though its uncommon condition may raise some questions at first encounter.

Leiden, University Library, BPG 50 (early modern), Commentaries by Procopius of Gaza.
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BPG 50 (early modern), Commentaries by Procopius of Gaza – Photo KS
Leiden_UB_BPG50_opening
Fig. 5 -Same as Fig. 4, open  – Photo KS
Fig. 6 - Same as Fig. 4, view on the spine
Fig. 6 – Same as Fig. 4, view on the spine – Photo KS

These examples show that damage is not always a problem that needs to be solved. They do not, of course, represent all conservation issues, or every reason for choosing not to treat damage. However, if they inspire the reader to think about physical characteristics and the sensitive condition of an old volume, these objects already serve a purpose that a completely restored volume would not.

Judging a Book by its Cover

What a clever device the book is. It is compact and light, yet contains hundreds of pages that hold an incredible amount of information. Moving forward or backward in the text is as easy as flipping a page, while the book’s square shape and flat bottom facilitates easy shelving. Still, the object is useless if the information it contains cannot be found. And so tools were developed to help the reader do just that, such as page numbers, running titles, and indices. As familiar as these aids may be, they are older than you think. The page number, for example, is encountered in papyrus manuscripts made some two thousand years ago (see this older blog post).

Crucially, to look up information in a book you must have first located the object. And so the shelfmark was invented, the equivalent of our call number. By the end of the medieval period it had become as clever as the book to which it was added: letters, digits, and even colour coding was used to guide the reader to a particular manuscript (see this post on GPS in the medieval library). This post explores the medieval roots of yet another tool for finding a specific book, one that is as popular now as it was in medieval times: title and author information displayed on the spine and dust jacket.  How did the outside of the medieval manuscript communicate what was hidden inside?

1. Text on leather

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292
Fig. 1 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292 (c. 1100) – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover (detail)
Fig. 2 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover, detail (14th century)

Why make things complicated? The easiest way to identify a manuscript was to simply jot the title on the front cover, straight on the leather of the binding (Figs. 1-2). Although one might imagine that this is how the tradition of our modern cover information began, there are too few original bindings left to know for sure. The manuscript seen in Figs. 1-2 is important as it shows that the practice goes back to at least the fourteenth century.

The manuscript shown in Figs. 1-2 was copied around 1100 and still has its original binding. Interestingly, this tells us that for 200-300 years users were quite content with an “anonymous” book, which did not provide a clue to what information it contained. This is all the more striking when you consider that during these three centuries the library where the object was held, in the abbey of St Gall, harboured several hundred books. How on earth did the monks find their way to the texts contained within this binding?

2. Title labels

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, front cover
Fig. 3 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237 (9th century), front cover – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label (14th century?)

Writing text on a manuscript’s cover, as seen in Fig. 2, was not easy. The structure of the leather could be coarse and the surface uneven, which made it potentially difficult to write the title information legibly. More importantly, when the leather had a dark color, a black title may simply not be visible. In such cases it made more sense to write the information on a parchment or paper slip – a label – that was subsequently pasted on the cover, as is still common practice in libraries today.

The manuscript in Figs. 3-4, which features a parchment label, shows how incredibly effective this practice was: it clearly reads Liber ethymolo[giarum] Isidori, telling the reader that he was about to open Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. These paste-on labels could be quite extensive (Fig. 5). In fact, some book owners preferred to have the entire contents displayed on the outside, even if the object held ten works (Fig. 6).

Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29
Fig. 5 – Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29 (10th-11th centuries), label 15th century – Source
Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20, label on front cover (15th-century)
Fig. 6 – Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20 (13th century), label 15th-century – Source

As detailed as these labels are, they exclusively list the titles of the works contained by the manuscript, not the authors’ names. It appears as if the librarian who labeled these manuscripts judged the title (and not the author) to be the best identifier of the object.

3. The fenestra
Paper or parchment title shields were sometimes placed under a thin piece of horn (bone), for protection (Figs. 7-8). The so-called “fenestra” (window in Latin) was secured to the wooden cover with nails: it was clearly going nowhere (Fig. 8). This type of cover information can be seen as the next step in the process of providing efficient book titles: a clear and permanent label, hammered into wooden boards with nails. It is a far cry from the on-the-fly title hastily written directly on leather (here is another example).

San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century) – Source and more
San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra
Fig. 8 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra

The fenestra is often found on manuscripts that were part of a well-organised library. It may therefore contain quite a bit more information than merely the title or the author. The one seen in Fig. 8 is from the library of the Carthusian house of Syon in Middlesex, England. The label is clever and reads:  “V. Beda de gestis Anglorum. Idem super actus apostolorum et epistolas canonicas. 2o fo et prassini”. The main piece of information concerns what is found inside: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Bede’s commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and on the New Testament’s Canonical Epistles.

However, it also mentions the first words of the second folium: secundum folium [incipit] et prassini, the second folium starts with “et prassini”. These words formed a unique identifier, for no two copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will have had these very words at the start of the second leaf. This technique was commonly used to identify unique copies for inclusion in a monastery’s book inventory or library catalogue. It is probable that this is the reason why the fenestra contains the phrase: to link this specific book to the monastery’s catalogue.

4. Spine titles

Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio
Fig 9 – Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio – Source (Source title image)

Not only was a book’s title and name of the author jotted down on the front cover, it would ultimately also feature on the spine, as any modern reader knows. This part of the tradition has its own path of development. It all started on the fore-edge, the long side of the book that shows the paper or parchment pages. From at least the fourteenth century decoration was added to this location. Few books have been so lavishly decorated as Ordorico Pillone’s, who, around 1580, had the artist Cesare Vecellio decorate the fore-edge of 172 books in his library with stunning designs (Fig. 9). The technique would be perfected in the nineteenth century, when the magically disappearing fore-edge decoration was invented (example here).

In medieval times the edges of the book block were not usually decorated, while the design was commonly modest (Fig. 10-11). Although there are exceptions to this rule, as a potentially medieval fore-edge decoration in Durham shows (more here).

London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (1
Fig. 10 – London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (decoration: 14th century) – Source and more
London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (before 1416)
Fig. 11 – London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (decoration: before 1416) – Source

The manuscript in Fig. 11 shows that medieval fore-edge decoration could serve a functional purpose, because it concerns the coat of arms of Jean, duc de Berry (d. 1416). We may assume the books in his library were positioned with the fore-edge faced outward, as was common practice in many medieval libraries – in fact, this was done until well into the 17th century, as this image shows. How impressive his library must have looked to visitors: dozens of precious books, all evidently owned by the duke.

Given that the fore-edge was facing the reader, this location was also the perfect place to write down the title or author of the work contained by the volume. ‘Quaestiones morales’ (moral questions), a 15th-century hand wrote on the fore edge of an incunable printed in 1489 (Fig. 12). The earliest cases I encountered date from the early fifteenth century, although our view may be skewed because such fore-edge titles disappeared when binders in the early-modern period refitted the books with new bindings.

Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487)
Fig. 12 – Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487) – Source

When books finally turned their backs to the reader, the title ended up where it is still found today: on the spine. Based on my own experience, this practice was not common in medieval times, for the simple fact that manuscripts were not usually placed with their backs facing the reader. Cases from the early-modern period are plentiful. In fact, it became so popular that some readers wrote extensive tables of contents on the backs of their books (Fig. 13).

Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek
Fig. 13 – Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek – Photo EK, more

The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period).

Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the “dust jacket” with title actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century. Curiously, in the same century the Latin titulus was first used for denoting the title of a book (see here), which may also indicate that titles did not exist before then. If correct, this reconstruction suggests that for much of the Middle Ages readers could not tell what texts were found inside a book. Generations of frustrated monks had to wander through the library opening and closing manuscripts until they had found what they were looking for.

The Incredible Expandable Book

Like most objects, books are confined to the space they occupy, obedient as they are to the laws of nature. That is to say, unlike the Incredible Hulk, they do not normally expand beyond the limits of their own physicality. This post will challenge your beliefs if you agree with this statement. It draws attention to types of medieval books that do expand beyond their physical limits: with a flick of the finger or a gesture of the hand the dimensions of these special objects increased dramatically, up to ten times their original size. As if defying the laws of nature, this miraculous expansion increased the available writing space in objects that were principally designed to be small and portable. The examples in this post suggest that this given of “doing more with less” was an important drive behind the clever design of expandable books.

1. The folding almanac

London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century)
Fig. 1a – London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century) – Source
London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century)
Fig. 1b – London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century) – Source

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you are no stranger to small books made for portability. The same goes for the almanac seen in Fig. 1. Produced in England in 1415-1420, it contains a calendar as well as astrological tables and diagrams. The information was used by physicians to diagnose and prognosticate, while the calendar provided information about feasts. Most of these almanacs, some thirty of which survive, look more scruffy than the pretty specimen in the Wellcome Library, which may not have seen much practical use (more here).

London, Royal Society, MS 45 (c. 1400)
Fig. 2 – London, Royal Society, MS 45 (c. 1400) – Source

Folding almanacs were especially popular in late-medieval England, assuming surviving specimens form an accurate representation. The objects are particularly interesting from a material point of view. During production the folding almanacs looked very much like a regular book: the scribe filled regular pages with text. However, in a completed state, when the binding was added, the pages were folded in a very clever way, giving the object an “unbookish” look. The precise manner of folding differed, as Figs. 1-2 show. Both fold in three steps, but the folding sequence is different. The leaves ‘sit’ different too. The specimen in Fig. 2 seems more prone to damage than the other almanac, because the expanding part (the four zones that are slightly lighter) are attached to the actual book by means of a delicate hinge.

2. The accordion book

Copenhagen, Royal Library, MS NKS_901 (dated 1513)
Fig. 3 – Copenhagen, Royal Library, MS NKS_901 (dated 1513) – Source

Both almanacs above provide six times more writing/reading space in their expanded form, which is quite amazing. However, this is still considerably less than another type of expandable manuscript: the accordion book. Fig. 3 shows illustrated specimen (a calendar) made in Denmark in 1513. While in its folded state the object is as small as a matchbox, it expands to a full page of considerable proportions, comparable to a regular-sized medieval book (more information here, facsimile here). Curiously, the calendar has a most unusual way of unfolding: sections of the sheet expand independently, like little flaps from a pop-up book (note the “incisions” on the right half of the object, as seen in Fig. 4 – full image here).

Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 901
Fig. 4 – Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 901, detail – Source

The Copenhagen accordion book is a very small portable object. Even though in its expanded state it became much larger, due to the limited size of the object in its folded state, the expansion produced a relatively small writing/reading surface. The remarkable thing about accordion books, however, is that their surface space could be considerable, even when the actual object (in its folded state) was still of modest proportions. My own Leiden University Library owns a copy from fourteenth-century Russia which is only 120 mm in height. The whole thing resembles the dimensions of an iPhone (Fig. 5). In expanded state, however, the book becomes no less than 3750 mm wide, meaning that the surface actually increases by an astonishing factor of ten.

Leiden, University Library, SCA 38 B (14th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, University Library, SCA 38 B (14th century) – Photo Giulio Menna

It is hard to say what the upside is of this book format. After all, if the same pages had been bound in a regular (non-accordion) fashion, it would accommodate the same amount of text. Perhaps the format was favoured because of a certain ease of use? It is easier, for example, to access the information in the book without using one’s hands. Also, without flipping any pages, the reader had access to a great deal more than the usual two pages of a book opening, which may perhaps have been handy in certain modes of use.

3. Rolls

Manchester, Chetham's Library, Armburgh 02 1024 (1430-1450)
Fig. 6 – Manchester, Chetham’s Library, Armburgh 02 1024 (1430-1450) – Source

What looks like a cigar, is actually the most common and oldest expandable bookish object: the roll (Fig. 6). This object probably held the most information in relation to its dimensions. Rolls had been in use for a long time when the book finally came around in the fourth century (see my post What is the Oldest Book in the World? and more information on rolls here). During the Middle Ages the roll format remained in use longest in administration. It was not until the late thirteenth century, for example, that cities in North-West Europe switched to the book form to write down their income and expenses – the city of Bruges still used rolls for this purpose in the 1280s.

Rolls can be quite long. One of the longest that survives from the medieval period is a mortuary roll that was carried to 253 monasteries, nunneries and cathedrals across England and France during the 1110s (source). Mortuary rolls were produced to commemorate the death of a prominent person, in this case Abbess Mathilda of Holy Trinity Abbey in Caen. Like writing a joint birthday card today, clerics in France would add their say to the roll, which grew and grew, until it finally reached a length of 22 meters (72 feet). Genealogical rolls could also be quite long (Fig. 7), though not as exceptionally long as the mortuary roll made for Abbess Mathilda.

Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 1 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 1 (15th century) – Source

From time to time unusual rolls are encountered, like the one seen in Fig. 8. This one is special because the fourteenth-century object comes rolling out of a book (of slightly later date), which functions as its sleeve. The end of the roll (again holding a calendar) is simply pasted onto the book. The full roll measures an astonishing 130 cm (a little over 4 feet). One wonders whether the owner created this remarkable hybrid because it allowed for easy storage on the book shelf. A book placed among its peers, albeit with an unusual content.

The Hague, Royal Library, 130 E 26 (late 14th century)
Fig. 8 – The Hague, Royal Library, 130 E 26 (late 14th century) – Photo EK

What the Incredible Expandable Books in this post share is an effort to hold a lot of text in an object that occupies a modest amount of space, usually in one’s pocket. When there is a dire need to take information with you on the go, medieval readers were quite inventive, as my post Bag it, Box it, Wrap it shows. Interestingly, the expandable information carrier lives on in our own day. Not only are there still book designers who produce accordion books in the medieval fashion (like Peter Thomas, whose recent email correspondence inspired this post), but the expandable almanac at the outset of this post has actually become ubiquitous in the form of pocket maps, displaying such things as the layout of cities and underground stations.

R. Sutton, Petroleum Pocket Map (1886)
Fig. 9 – R. Sutton, Petroleum Pocket Map (1886) – Source

Echoing the roll hidden in a book, some of these maps hide in (and take on the form of) an actual book, like the 1886 edition that shows the location of oil wells (Fig. 9). As with their medieval peers, ease of use and portability are the driving forces behind getting a lot of information in an object with a tiny footprint. “Doing more with less” is clearly a universal urge.

Medieval Posters

In our modern society there are words everywhere around us, all the time. They are not only written in books – that fair and most devoted carrier of text – but also on walls, where they appear in all shapes and sizes. Judging from surviving paintings, it appears that in medieval times it was less common to have words – text – displayed on walls. Looking at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous fresco Effects of Good Government in the City (1338-1340) one would assume medieval walls to be spotless, both indoors and outdoors (Fig. 1) – here is another example.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340)
Fig. 1 – Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340) – Source

Surviving artefacts suggest, however, that this medieval imagery is deceptive, that the streets we are shown in paintings were probably virtually cleaned by the painter. While rare, different types of posters survive that were once stuck to medieval walls. Curiously, they are often quite functional and bear striking resemblances to posters on our own walls

1. Advertisements
As I have shown in this older blog post, the world of the medieval book was riddled with advertisement; spam even. Medieval scribes and early-modern printers praised their own work in order to draw a crowd to their shops: “If you also want a beautiful copy like this, come and see me across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral”, the entrepreneur-scribe Herneis wrote in the back of a book with stories in Old French, which he had just completed (image here). Herneis tried to lure the reader of this spam message to the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, where a large group of commercial book makers were situated, namely all those who sold books in the French language. For Latin books you needed to go to the Rue St Jacques, in the Latin Quarter where students and teachers lived.

Because tradesmen of a certain kind usually had shops in the same neighbourhood, medieval citizens knew precisely where to go when they needed a book, a candle or a good chair – or all three, the perfect combination. This location sharing by individuals selling the same goods also came with a problem: how to convince the reader to step into your shop and not the neighbour’s? This is where the first poster comes in: the advertisement sheet (Figs. 2-3).

The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447)
Fig. 2 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447) – Source
Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (c. 1400) – Source and more

Both fragments seen here were once part of much larger sheets, which displayed many different types of scripts. It allowed the commercial scribe to show off how well he could write and just how many different scripts (medieval typefaces) he has mastered. The one seen in Fig. 2 even displays letters written in gold, as if to tempt the reader to take a closer look at all the pretty letters on display.

The back of advertisement sheets are empty and in some cases their corners display rusty holes, which suggests they were pinned to a wall. A German sheet from 1516 invites the beholder to “come in if you see something you like”, showing that this particular sheet acted as mini window displays outside of a shop. Because such sheets also presented the names of the scripts, as seen in Figs. 2-3, the client could simply enter and tell the scribe in what kind of script he wanted his book to be written out – for example in ‘fracta’, ‘rotunda’ or ‘modus copiistarum’. These posters show us just how advanced the book trade is even before the invention of print: a jargon had emerged that united artisans and connected clients to commercial makers of books.

2. Maps

Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300)
Fig. 4 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – source and more
Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake)
Fi. 5 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake) – Source

Much better known posters are wall maps, though these too survive in small numbers. The perhaps best known specimen is the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 4), which was produced around 1300 and measures an astonishing 1.5 x 1.3 meters. This particular map was perhaps first put on display in Hereford Cathedral for the benefit of pilgrims, although 17th-century references suggest that by that time it was placed in the library, perhaps so it could be consulted for study purposes (source). The map contains, after all, over a thousand inscriptions and legends, such as that of the Mandrake, with roots for hair – and immortalised by the Harry Potter books (Fig. 5).

Remarkably, the Hereford map is made of a single sheet, meaning the piece of parchment at its heart was once draped around a monster of a calf. Much larger still is the older Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, which measures 3.6 x 3.6 meters and was produced in the late thirteenth century (Fig. 6). This beast of a poster, which would cover a full wall in a modern bedroom, was produced from the skins of no less than 30 goats.

Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (13th century)
Fig. 6 – Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – Source

The Ebstorf map, which was sadly lost in the Allied bombing of Hanover in October 1943, was produced for contemplative purposes for the inhabitants of the Benedictine nunnery of Ebstorf. It allowed the beholder to observe God’s creation, the world, in all its details (more about its function here).

3. Library Catalogues
Surviving artefacts highlight the existence of yet a third category of medieval posters: wall catalogues. Again these are fairly large sheets, sometimes composed of several animal skins. The information on these objects is of a most practical kind, given that it showed readers where in the library they could find copies of certain texts (Fig. 7). As explained in this blog post, the catalogue was one of a series of instruments that helped readers find their way around the sometimes large collection of books in the monastery.

Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century) – Source

The object originally measured 800 × 590 mm and displays the contents of the library of Lopsen Abbey near Leiden, where it was pinned to the wall considering the holes in its corners. The inventory is divided into categories, such as “libri refectoriales” (books read during the meals) and “libri devoti et utiles” (books for personal, spiritual development), while books within these categories are simply numbered with Roman numerals. It shows that this is an inventory more than a catalogue. The absence of proper shelfmarks meant the reader had to go and hunt individual copies when he arrived at the lectern that held a certain category of books.

As you would expect from objects that were attached to damp walls, their backs may show signs of mould, as is the case in another wall catalogue surviving from the Low Countries (Fig. 8, lower left corner).

Deventer_Athenaeum_Library
Fig. 9 – Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, fragment of wall catalogue, back – Photo EK, more here

There was likely much more on display on the medieval wall. The problem, however, is that even if such posters survive, it is difficult to determine that the items in question were just that. To be sure, certain damage needs to be observed, such as pin holes or mould. Quite often we just don’t know for sure if we are dealing with a display sheet, even though there are good reasons to suspect it. For example, the preserver of manuscripts at the Royal Library The Hague, Ed van der Vlist, recently found two heavily-damaged fragments (from the same item) that fit the bill quite well: a single sheet with a text on John the Baptist of which the back remains blank (Fig. 9).

The Hague, Royal library, MS 131 D 1B (15th century)
Fig. 9 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 131 D 1B, front and back (15th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist (KB)

However, while this item may well have been pinned to a wall at some point, the backside does not show any evidence of such an attachment: there is no damage or mould visible. Sadly, the example shows how a particularly fascinating type of written artefact from the age before print, the precursor of our modern poster, may be doomed to remain obscure and understudied.

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.

Chains
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.

Chetham_Library_Book_Chest
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

Cursing
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.

BL_Royal_5_B.xii
Fig. 9 – British Library, Royal MS 5 B.xii (dated 1115) – Source

Optimism
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)
Dijon_BM_15_3v
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.

Dijon_BM_170_59r
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.

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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