Dirty Medieval Books

When you use something for a thousand years, it is bound to get dirty. Medieval books often show stains and marks on their pages, usually from readers who did not always take very good care of the objects. Medieval books also collected a lot of loose dirt, which sometimes falls out when you thumb through their pages as a modern-day book historian – naturally with clean hands, though preferably without white gloves (here is why). While this dirt is often simply junk, the bits and pieces – twigs, pieces of leaves, dried flowers, pins – may also have had a function. A dried leaf from a tree may for example have been stuck between the pages to serve as a bookmark. In that sense junk can be seen as as a cultural artefact that adds to our understanding of medieval books and their users. Here are some examples of useful dirt.

1. Fingerprints
Considering that every medieval books was handwritten and that their makers will have had inky fingers, you’d expect a lot of ink stains on the page.  Surprisingly, medieval pages are almost always free from such stains, perhaps because scribes were careful where they put their dirty hands. Every now and then, however, you encounter an ink stain (Fig. 1).

Leiden, University Library, BPL MS 191 A (13th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL MS 191 A (13th century) – Photo EK

The one seen in Fig. 1 is special because it accompanies an inky fingerprint. This encounter is thrilling. When you place your own finger on top of it, you are suddenly closely connected to a person that lived hundreds of years ago. More importantly, the stain in Fig. 1 adds to our understanding of the book in which it features. Crucial in this respect is the observation that the stain is produced by printers’ ink, which is much blacker and “silvery” than what medieval scribes used. The individual who was attached to the finger was therefore likely a printer. This set of observations prompts an intriguing question: why did a printer in the midst of printing a text feel the need to consult this manuscript? While speculative, the answer may well be that he was actually printing the text on these medieval pages (a work by Bonaventure), meaning that he may have used the handwritten copy to set his type from. This useful information flows directly from dirt that was inadvertently left behind on the page.

2. Leaves and twigs
If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have been introduced to elaborate medieval bookmarks, such as carefully designed parchment disks, glued-on tabs marking the start of a new text or section, or strings of parchment that could be “draped” between pages to identify key passages (see this post). However, medieval readers also produced makeshift bookmarks, made from essentially anything that they found lying on their desk or on the ground, as we still do today. So, we sometimes encounter twigs or pieces of straw, which no doubt ended up in the book to mark a certain page (Fig. 2).

Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185 (15th c)
Fig. 2 – Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185 (15th c) with twig bookmark – Source

Perhaps an even more natural choice for a bookmark would be a leaf from a tree. I found a particularly nice one tucked away in the back of a volume placed in the chained library in Zutphen, the Netherlands (Fig. 3). The leaf has become hard and may well be as old as the sixteenth century, the date of the book in which it is found. In fact, it feels and looks like a piece of plastic in the shape of a leaf. It may have been put in the back of the book so as to make it easier to find a ready bookmark when it was needed.

Zutphen, Librije, leaf bookmark in early print - Photo EK
Fig. 3 – Zutphen, Librije, leaf bookmark in early print – Photo EK

3. Sand
Not so commonly found in medieval books, yet often seen in their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts is sand; sometimes lots of it. In fact, when I looked at an account book from 1717 in the Leiden archives not so long ago, a little mountain of sand had piled up when I wanted to close the book (Fig. 4). This is because the sand was used to dry the ink. Text would be added to such account books even after the pages had been folded and bound into an actual book. When a new entry was made (on a blank page), sand was sprinkled on top to as to prevent an offset on the facing page. As with the fingerprint, it is thrilling to touch this sand, knowing that the last person running it through his fingers was an eighteenth-century scribe.

Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) - Photo EK
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) – Photo EK

4. Pins
The same account book in Leiden contains many receipts: actual proof of payment made by the municipal government to people working in the town hall (their wages), schools (for the purchase of books) and guards. These receipts (small strips, just a bit bigger than what you get in stores today) were kept in bundles for convenience. There is no easier way to do this than pushing a pin through them (Fig. 5). Pins were also use in both early-modern and medieval books to mark a page. They would not necessarily have to stick out from between the pages: the “bulkiness” of the pin would sometimes be sufficient to guide the reader to a specific page (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (inside)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Regional Archives, SA 8207 (dated 1717) –  Photo EK
Maastricht, Regional Archives, Collection 18.A Box 834
Fig. 5 – Maastricht, Regional Archives, Collection 18.A Box 834 (16th century) – Photo EK

5. Paint
The prettiest “dirt” I encountered – and the only time I found it – is seen in Figs. 6-7. The page in question contains a decorated initial (out of view). After the scribe had copied the page, the decorator would add these with a brush and paint. As he was moving his hand towards to location where he needed to add decoration, in a particularly attractive shade of blue, a drop fell from the brush he was holding. It produced a perfect circle in the lower margin. Interestingly, while such blobs can be removed quite easily when they have dried (with a gentle flick of a knife), this one remained. Not only during the production process of the book, but also throughout the object’s centuries of use. I like to think that the previous users of the book shared my feeling that this blue blob is just the prettiest thing ever.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (13th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (13th century) – Photo EK
Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (detail)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 64 (detail) – Photo EK

6. Cat paws
Every so often one encounters dirt that is perhaps not particularly insightful as to how a medieval book was used or produced, but it does provide surprising information about the owner, namely that he had a cat (Fig. 8). While this final example brings a “tongue in cheek” conclusion to an otherwise serious post, it does show that books apparently lay open on a desk unattended by the owner. Curiously, it is not the only example of a cat having free access to an open manuscript. Less well known than this inky-cat-paws manuscript (which went viral after my tweet back in 2013; more here) is another book “touched” by a cat, currently kept in Balliol College Oxford (Fig. 9). Here, too, we find evidence of a cat walking over an open book, although this time the paws were dirty, not inky.

Dubrovnic, State Archives (15th century). Pic: Emir O. Filipović
Fig. 8 – Dubrovnic, State Archives (15th century). Pic: Emir O. Filipović – Source
Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192 (15th century)
Fig. 9 – Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192 (15th century), with cat paws – Source

While we are perhaps inclined to regard dirt as an unwanted addition to the medieval book – which is an object that should be spotless, after all – the bits and pieces shown here act as historical clues that shed light on how a book was produced or used. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn with the concept of “damage”. This, too, is often seen as a flaw when encountered in a precious medieval book, while, in fact, it may offer crucial information about how the object was used (see this post). Dirt is an intrinsic part of the historical artefact that is the medieval book and deserves to be studied as such.

Helping Hands on the Medieval Page

We are taught not to point. Pointing with your finger is rude, even though it is often extremely convenient and efficient. Medieval readers do not seem to have been hindered by this convention: in the margins of books before print one frequently encounters a manicula or “little hand”. While the purpose of these “helping hands” was the same (they were usually put there to highlight an important passage), their appearance varies considerably. This is due to the fact that there was no standard format for the hand – beyond the point that it had to resemble one (Fig. 1).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 99 (13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 99 (13th century) – Photo EK

Since the reader was able to shape hand and finger as he or she saw fit, we can sometimes recognise a particular reader within a single manuscript, or even within the books of a library. The charming hands function as a kind of fingerprint of a particular reader, allowing us to assess what he or she found important about a book or a collection of books. This post celebrates the variety encountered in these personal and permanent pointers, from the plain hand to the exotic octopus.

Plain hands
The term “manicula” is somewhat deceptive. Pointing hands are almost never just pointing hands. Usually there are arms attached, which may even be fitted in sleeves. Sometimes these sleeves are elaborate and realistic, with folds and all (Fig. 2). It is an exciting thought that the medieval reader who added this tiny drawing in the margin may simply have looked down and replicated his own arm. If this is true, we may potentially be able to tell something about his status, for example whether he is a monk (wearing a habit) or a private individual. This inference potentially prompts an exciting kind of study, which has never been undertaken. It also makes you wonder what to think of a full figure as seen in Fig. 3. It is tempting to think that we are looking at the reader here – although, realistically, this would probably be pushing it too far.

St Andrews, University Library, Typ NL A85 JT (Antwerp, 1487-1490)
Fig. 2 – St Andrews, University Library, Typ NL A85 JT (Antwerp, 1487-1490) – Source
Bodleian Library, Add. A 15 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Add. A 15 (15th century) – Source

Looking at surviving maniculae in medieval books sparks yet another correction: tiny hands are often not really tiny. The one seen in Fig. 1 takes up much of the marginal space. It is a very natural looking hand, with the digits in just the right shape and angle. There is even a nail attached to the finger – the first I have encountered. As you would expect, pointing fingers are attached to both left and right hands. Without having done any conclusive research on this, it appears right hands are more common than left ones.

Elaborate hands
Not all pointing hands look realistic. The one seen in Fig. 2 is representative of a phenomenon that is frequently encountered: the pointing finger is stretched well beyond human proportions. The reason, of course, is that the tip of the finger needs to point out one particular line – otherwise the system would fail. The fingers of a pointing hand can easily be more elaborate. The hand in Fig. 4 is not only unusual in the size of the sleeve and the notes written on it, what really jumps out is the size of the fingers and the way in which they are fanning out. The reader no doubt meant to point out an extensive passage and so more fingers were drafted into service. He did the same thing elsewhere in the manuscript, this time using an octopus with spread-out tentacles (Fig. 5). Another way to point out more than one line is seen in Fig. 6: just use two hands!

Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century) – Source
Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 5 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century) – Source
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. MS 4935 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Paris, BnF, lat. MS 4935 (15th century) – Source

Exotic hands
Then there are the really exotic hands, which are turned into a visual feast. Fig. 7 shows and an arm that was turned into the body of a dragon, while the hands in Fig. 8 (which look like ladies’ gloves) are attached to the wrong location on the human body. These hands are not just meant to point out an important passage, they must also have been intended to bring a smile on the reader’s face.

British Library, Royal MS 12 E.xxv (c. 1300)
Fig. 7 – British Library, Royal MS 12 E.xxv (c. 1300): dragon with hand – Source, via
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fr. MS 12584 (13th century)
Fig. 8 – Paris, BnF, Fr. MS 12584 (13th century) – Source

Interestingly, while the dragon could easily have been doodled by the reader himself, the depictions seen in Fig. 8 are carefully designed and painted. These pointing hands – the manuscript contains many of them – were probably done professionally. If this inference is correct, it suggests that the reader asked the artisan to insert them during production. This is interesting because it means that the reader already knew what passages he would wanted to have highlighted. It appears he already knew the text well before he owned a copy.

The range of helping hands is remarkable. There were other, easier ways to mark important passages, such as lines and crosses placed in the margin. However, in some cases readers preferred to have a more pronounced signpost. While a tiny line could be overlooked, the hands – particularly if executed with color – really pulled your attention to the thing that mattered. That particular sentiment lives on in modern times, I recently noticed when stopping at a traffic light for bikers in Leiden, The Netherlands, where I live (Fig. 8). “Dear biker”, the modern (sleeveless) manicula expresses, “push the button if you don’t want to stand here all day.” Now that is helpful.

Traffic light in city of Leiden, The Netherlands - Photo EK
Fig. 8 – Traffic light in city of Leiden, The Netherlands – Photo EK

Cracking Codes in Medieval Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box It, Bag It, Wrap It: Medieval Books on the Go

Books in use generally reside in our hands or on our desks. This was not very different in medieval times. However, medieval and modern reading culture take different paths when it comes to books that are not in use. While both then and now the objects are commonly shelved after use, medieval readers had additional storing options: slipping the book into a box, bag or wrapper. Unfortunately, few of these exotic – and fascinating – storage devices survive today. However, the ones that do indicate that many were made with a specific purpose in mind, namely transportation. Here are some popular means of packing up your book to go in medieval times, including the precursor of our modern tablet sleeve.

Box it

StGall_360
Fig. 1 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (11th century) – Source

The book box is probably the sturdiest and most effective means to protect your book against the elements and other hostilities on the medieval road. Such boxes were usually made out of wood, to which ornaments, gems and even ivory cuttings were attached, commonly with nails. A particularly well preserved example is seen in Fig. 1. The box contains a famous book of hymns from St Gall, which was designed to be carried in processions both within the monastery and through the nearby city of St Gall. My recent post on “slim” books showed the actual book found inside this box, a narrow object designed to be held in one hand (post here, image here).

Decoration on the outside of the book box not only made the object look pretty, it also gave it prestige. In fact, ivory cuttings and shiny gems reflected the importance the book had within a monastic community or a church. Book boxes actually bear a striking resemblance to medieval reliquaries, shrines or containers made for holding a relic such as the arm of a saint (example here) or a splinter of the holy cross (here). One type of book box in particular matches this profile very well: the Irish cumdach or ‘book shrine’ (Figs. 2-3).

Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy,  D ii 3 (8th/9th century)
Fig. 2- Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy, D ii 3 (8th/9th century) – Source (collections > RIA)
Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy, D ii 3 (8th/9th century)
Fig. 3 – As Fig. 2 but showing the inside, with Stowe Missal visible

The cumdach often held a small manuscript. The Stowe Missal for which the cumdach in Fig. 2 was made, measures only 150×120 mm, which is a little higher than the iPhone 6 (and a little smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus). The book is very snug inside the box (Fig. 3). The small size matches the object’s anticipated use. The Irish cumdachs were often carried around the neck of a monk who would run up and down in front of the troops right before battle. The book became a charm of sorts, which was to bring fortune in battle. It made good sense to store this ‘secret weapon’ in a sturdy box that could withstand all that bouncing around and even a potential blow of a sword.

Stockholm, Royal LIbrary, Karl XII's "fältbibel" (c. 1700)
Fig. 4 – Stockholm, Royal LIbrary, Karl XII’s “fältbibel” (c. 1700) – Source

The most famous of these is the sixth-century Cathach of  St Columba, which holds a Psalter from the sixth or seventh century. Curiously, while this cathach (‘battler’) is commonly regarded as an object meant for carrying into battle to ensure victory (source here), it is obviously too big to carry around one’s neck: it measures 270×190 mm and weighs quite a bit. Its user probably ran up and down the battlefield with the book under his arm. Taking your book to battle in a protective box remained popular throughout early-modern history, as shown by the “field Bible” of c. 1700 , which was taken on war campaigns by king Charles II of Sweden (Fig. 4).

Bag it
The satchel was another means to carry your book around in the medieval outdoors. They were made of leather and commonly decorated in the manner seen in the famous 9th-century Book of Armagh – which, curiously, has a modern lock (Figs. 5-6).

Dublin, Trinity College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, 9th century)
Fig. 5 – Dublin, Trinity College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, satchel, 9th century) – Source
Dublin, Trinity, College, MS 52, satchel side (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Dublin, Trinity, College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, satchel, 9th century) – Source

Very few such satchels survive but we get an inkling of their use and popularity through medieval texts. A seventh-century tract instructs monks to “Hang your white booksacks on the wall, set your lovely satchels in a straight line” (source). It suggests that each member of this particular community owned a satchel. The same text also explains from what animal the leather came (sheep) and how the skin was turned into a bag: take a square piece of leather, sew it closed except for a single opening, which should be closed by a cover fitted with knobs.

Faddan More Psalter, satchel (9th century)
Fig. 7 – Dublin, National Museum, Faddan More Psalter, satchel (9th century) – Source

In 2006 a particularly old specimen was found in a bog, where it had been resting for 1200 years. Around 800 someone had a portable Psalter made, which came with a leather satchel. Somehow the book fell into the remote bog at Faddan More in north Tipperary, Ireland. Restoration revealed a plain but charming example of an early-medieval book bag (Fig. 7). Because it does not feature a strap, this type of satchel bears a striking resemblance to our modern tablet sleeve: unbutton the flap, slide in your reading device, and be on your merry way.

Like book boxes, satchels had a life far beyond the Middle ages. Fig. 8 shows a 17th-century specimen made of cloth that holds an Arabic devotional book. It belonged to a Turkish soldier captured by Venetian forces in 1668. Like the book box, this charming piece of ‘apparel’ carried a religious text into battle, although in this case the book was likely meant for private reading rather than as an aid to victory.

Stockholm, National Library (17th century)
Fig. 8 – Stockholm, National Library (17th century) – Source

Wrap it
If you wanted to carry your book on your body instead of in a box or bag, for example because you needed to consult the text frequently, the girdle book was your device of choice. The binding of these books came with a wrapper, which kind of flows from the leather of the binding itself. It allowed the user to wrap the manuscript into the leather, which produced a watertight package. A knot was attached to the end of the wrapper. The carrier of the book slipped it under his belt so he could carry the book on his body. Many of these girdle books are small and light objects, which made it easy to dangle the package from your belt. A particularly well preserved specimen in Yale’s Beinecke library shows how well such wrappers protected the book (Figs. 9-10).

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century)
Fig. 9 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century) – Source
Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century)
Fig. 10 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century) – Source

This particular book was written in England during the fifteenth century, though the binding may be continental. It measures only 100×80 mm (a little bigger than a credit card) and contains Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, a sixth-century text discussing such topics as free will, virtue, and justice. These may not be the usual topics to have ready at hand while walking the streets of a late-medieval city, but someone found such use important enough to have it made portable – and at the ready at all times.

Stockholm, Royal Library
Fig. 11 – Stockholm, Royal Library (16th century) – Source

Other girdle books were objects that could be attached to the owner’s belt with a knot, but their wrappers were not meant to protect the book. The wrapper seen in Fig. 11 leaves much of the book exposed to the elements. This book was made in the very late sixteenth century, when the production of girdle books was in decline. By then its protective function may have have been replaced by fashion: exposure – being seen with a book – may well have been what the owner was after. There was a price to pay, however, as the book is too large and heavy to carry around with convenience. In fact, attaching this object to your belt may have cause unwanted exposure as well: there was a good chance the book’s weight brought down your pants.

Postscript: this older post shows how medieval texts moved through Europe and how you can tell from barely-visible marginal notes.

Medieval Speech Bubbles

This blog frequently highlights parallels between medieval and modern technology and media. My recent posts on SpamGPS and Selfies in medieval times are good examples of that. As odd as this may sound, as a medieval book historian I see such parallels with modern concepts all the time: all you need is a pair of eyes and a little imagination. A few days ago, however, I encountered (and tweeted) a parallel I had never seen before: a drawing with the appearance of a page from a modern comic book (Fig. 1, tweet here).

British Library, Stowe 49 (14th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r (c. 1300) – Source

The drawing from c. 1300 shows a group of people walking, some of them with a walking stick in their hand. You can almost hear the sing-songs in the background. As it turns out, this merry scene bears more than one parallel to a modern comic book story.

Speech bubbles
According to the description of the British Library we are looking at a group of travellers conversing in English. What the description does not mention, however, is something that is rarely seen in medieval drawings: the different parts of conversation are given the appearance of speech bubbles. That is to say, just like in modern comic books, sentences are visually connected to the individual who utters them, by means of a tiny line (Fig. 2).

British Library, Stowe 49, fol. 122r, detail
Fig. 2 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r, detail

Also in parallel to modern comic books, the story that unfolds is funny and familiar. The art historian Lucy Freeman Sandler has devoted considerable attention to this scene (a transcription and literal translation is found in this publication). Using her work, while rewording her literal translation, the following conversation may be overheard:

The figure on the left starts, with a strange mantra: “They die because of heat, they die because of heat.” Then the two young people on his right speak, probably addressing their father [according to Sandler], who is walking behind them: “Sir, we die of cold!” The father, carrying a heavy toddler, orders them to stop whining: “Behold your little brother in front of us, he is only wearing a hood.” (He is right, because he is otherwise naked.) Then the toddler speaks, uttering universal toddler sounds: “Wa we”. Finally the two children in the back come into play (Fig. 2). “Sir, I am carrying too much weight,” says the one on the left.  The one on the right closes the conversation by comparing his own misery to that of his brother and father, stating “It is not they who carry the heaviest burden.”

The Middle English scene is familiar to many of us. We are shown a family en route to an unknown location (as if it were an alternative version of the Canterbury Tales). The young ones are verbally poking at each other, and complain about the temperature and the weight of their suitcases. It is the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare: being on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on.  “Are we there yet?”

Banderole

Lons Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 (
Fig. 3 – Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 – Source

Books before print had another way to make a silent figure on the page speak: the banderole. This clever device gave the decorator the ability to make someone deliver a short statement. Short, because it had to fit on a tiny scroll (see a collection of them here and in this blog post). In Fig. 3, for example, we see a fool repeat the words whispered in his ear by the devil: “There is no God” (Non est deus). The speaker holds the tip of the scroll in his hand, so as to claim the words as his own. It also happened that the speaker was pointing at the banderol, often touching it with his finger.

Schøyen Collection MS 33 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Schoyen Collection MS 33 (14th century) – Source

Such points of contact (holding the scroll or touching it) were particularly important when an image presented more than one speaking person. It allowed the viewer to identify who was saying what. Fig. 4 shows a classroom where two teachers appear to be in a lively debate. One is holding the scroll, the other is pointing at it, each firmly securing the text to their own person.

Interesting in light of the comic book parallel is that the banderole was not always held in or close to the speaker’s hand: it could also flow from his or her mouth. While such cases are less common, they have a strikingly modern appearance because of the banderole’s white background, which creates the illusion of a real text bubble (Fig. 5).

Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century) – Source, found via
Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek Ms. barth. 42
Fig. 6 – Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. barth. 42 (12th century)

Not all banderoles present such a “live” text. Some label a scene, while others clarify the identity of a person. For example, the banderole in Fig. 6 introduces the twelfth-century illuminator Guda, who decorated the book in question, but it does not present direct speech (more about the image in this post). Instead, it is the medieval equivalent of tagging a person in an image.

No bubbles
Then there are, finally, manuscripts where direct speech is written in mid air, unsupported by a banderole or a bubble. In order to relate the uttered text to a given person, the scribe wrote the lines in such a way that they appeared to flow from the speaker’s mouth. The result are wavy lines of text that dance across the page. A great example is seen in Fig. 7. This miniature is part of a cycle on the life and work of the scholar Raymond Lull (d. 1316). Here he is shown discussing with Thomas Méysier, his student and disciple. The images in the cycle were made under personal supervision of Thomas, who also compiled the contents of the manuscript, which presents a compilation of Lull’s work called the Electorium parvum sue breviculum (more here).

Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century) – Source

Although serious in subject matter, the conversation between the master and the student has a funny, almost grotesque appearance. Over a big and authoritative pile of books we see the scholars engaged in a lively discussion. Arguments fly across the page. It looks like the scribe is trying to help the viewer keep track of the discussion through the use of different colours (red and black). Also, the scribe presents the conversation in such a way that each component begins with a line that sticks out slightly. Cleverly, the extended tip is found next to the speaker’s mouth, leaving no doubt as to who is saying what. No bubble required.

Acknowledgments – I wish to thank Thijs Porck (Leiden) for his help with the Middle English translation of the scene in Fig. 1. My PhD student Jenneka Janzen (Leiden) introduced me to the Karlsruhe manuscript in Fig. 7.

Medieval Apps

How about this for a truism: a book is a book, and something that is not a book is not a book. This post will knock your socks off if you are inclined to affirm this statement, because in medieval times a book could be so much more than that. As it turns out, tools were sometimes attached to manuscripts, such as a disk, dial or knob, or even a complete scientific instrument. Such ‘add-ons’ were usually mounted onto the page, extending the book’s primary function as an object that one reads, turning it into a piece of hardware.

Adding such tools was an invasive procedure that involved hacking into the wooden binding or cutting holes in pages. In spite of this, they were quite popular in the later Middle Ages, especially during the 15th century. This shows that they served a real purpose, adding value to the book’s contents: some clarified the text’s meaning, while others functioned as a calculator or, astonishingly, allowed the reader to tell time. These fascinating add-ons  – which are really not that different from the apps on our smartphones – turned a static handwritten book into an interactive object.

The Volvelle

British Library, Egerton MS 848 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Egerton MS 848 (15th century) – Source

A volvelle is an instrument that consists of one or more rotating disks mounted on the page. Volvelles allowed the reader to make a variety of complex calculations, such as the position of the sun and the moon, or the precise date of Easter – which was, like the volvelle, a moving feast. The one seen in Fig. 1 contains no less than three revolving disks, which are pinned to the page in a central point: two show the cycle of sun and moon (note the charming depictions at their pointers), while a third presents the Zodiac.

In spite of its simplicity, the device provides a surprising wealth of data, which could be read if one knew how to interpret the dials. However, volvelles were not always crude instruments providing dry data. Some are actually a pleasure to look at (Fig. 2). Others added an entertaining touch to the moving parts. The one in Fig. 3, for example, calculates the date of Easter, a popular application of the volvelle, but in this case the answer is pointed out by a spinning lady.

Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal .833 Ger. (early 16th century)
Fig. 2 – Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal .833 Ger. (early 16th century) – Source, more here
British Library, Harley MS 941 (15th century)
Fig.3 – British Library, Harley MS 941 (15th century) – Source

The oldest volvelles are connected to the scientific explorations of Raymond Lull, a thirteenth-century scholar, who introduced the clever device from Arabic scholarly culture. It explains why the earliest volvelles date from the 13th century (there are no older manuscripts that hold them, as far as I am aware), but also why the oldest ones are found in books holding works by Raymond Lull. These oldest specimens are less sophisticated: they have a limited number of disks and present less data on and around the dials (see a Lull specimen from the early 14th century here).

Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg (15th century) – Photo EK, source

Such crude medieval computers could make a page very bulky. It is surprising, however, how much volume a volvelle could take up without compromising how well the book could be handled.The one I encountered in an archive some time ago even makes use of pieces of wood, giving it the appearance of a real instrument, but also adding a certain clunkiness (Fig. 4).

Cogwheel

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century)
Fig. 5 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

Volvelles are not the only instruments mounted onto the medieval book. Fig. 5 shows a page from a manuscript containing various texts about fortune telling. The page holds a text on Geomancy, which is a method of divination that allowed someone to calculate one’s ‘key number’. Random rows of numbers were drawn up  and marked down (as seen on the page), after which they were connected by lines. The number you ultimately ended up with was then looked up in a table with lunar and solar information, which was also included in the manuscript (image here).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

There was another method to calculate this number: by turning a wheel (information here). It is here that the Oxford manuscript becomes relevant for us. Remarkably, the user of the book carved a hollow space into the wooden front board of the binding and fitted a pair of cogwheels into it (Fig. 6). Turning these produced the number that could subsequently be looked up in the table.

The last word: sundial

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Brox._46.10 (17th century)
Fig. 7 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Brox._46.10 (17th century) – Source

The last example of an instrument that was added to a book also has to do with the sun. Like an iPad, the book in Fig. 7 has a smart cover. The front of the sheepskin bookbinding is not filled with blind-stamped decoration, as was often the case, but rather a sundial was pasted on it. The reader could put the book in the sun and place a stylus on the cover, which would reveal what time it was. While it may not have been a very practical clock, the cover reveals that it was likely used to this end: the ‘footprints’ of the stylus are still visible (note the small circle and the black stain near the letters IHS, at the bottom). Moreover, the severity of the stain suggests the book was frequently used to tell time.

Just like our modern smartphones, the medieval book could be a versatile tool that combined contents with an untold number of applications – giving the scriptorium the feel of an App Store.

Books on a Diet

We’re all familiar with that most popular of New Year’s resolutions – and the one that is broken most frequently afterwards. While many oversized medieval books look like they enjoyed life to the max, this post is devoted to a relatively rare kind of manuscript that is much slimmer than what you would expect (Fig. 1). “Expect”, because the relative proportions of manuscripts – the width in relation to the height – form a surprisingly stable feature in medieval book production. In fact, the vast majority of surviving manuscripts have the same relative proportions as our modern paper: their width is around 70% of their height.

British Library, Harley MS 5431 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Harley MS 5431, 230×85 mm  (10th century) – Source

This stability ought to surprise you. While readers of printed books had little choice as to the physical appearance of the object they read, owners of manuscripts handled a book that was made especially for them. Consequently, they would commonly have specified what it should look like. You would think that medieval readers might go overboard and abuse this freedom of choice, ordering polka-dotted books with pink letters written upside down on triangle-shaped pages. The opposite turns out to be true. Book owners before print are predictable in that they mostly opted for regular features: their choices are typical, as if they conform to unwritten rules.

This striking act of conformation results from what is a main driving force behind the chosen physical features: the anticipated use of the object. For example, if you anticipated that you would scribble an excessive amount of notes in your book, you would specify to the scribe to extend the size of the margins. And if you knew that you would take a book with you when you left the house, it would make sense to have that copy produced in a suitably small format. This strong link between form and function is good news for us: we may infer that narrow books– sometimes called “holsterbooks” – were put on their diet for good reason.

Ivory Decoration

Frankfurt am Main, Goethe Universität, Barth MS 181 (14th century)
Fig. 2 – Frankfurt, Goethe Universität, Barth MS 181, 402×250 mm (14th century) – Source

One reason to slim books down had to do with their binding; or more precisely, with its decoration. The most prestigious decorative element of a medieval binding was ivory plaques, slabs of tusk on to which elaborate scenes were cut (Fig. 2). They were attached to both the front and back of the manuscript, usually embedded in the wood of the boards. Book projects that involved this costly decoration commonly produced manuscripts that were much narrower (or taller) than the norm. The plaques themselves had to be narrow given the limited width of the tusk. Interestingly, however, manuscript makers appear to have preferred the book to be equally narrow. This was probably done for visual reasons: it looks better when the relative proportions of book and decoration are in sync. Moreover, keeping the book slim meant that more visible space was covered with ivory.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53 (c. 895)
Fig. 3 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53, 395×323 mm (c. 895) – Source

This tendency to keep a book narrow when ivory decoration was added is mentioned in a remarkable account by the historian Ekkehart of St Gall (d. 1022). Referring to what is now St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53 (Fig. 3) he states that this manuscript was made tall and narrow for good reason. Among the abbey’s treasures, he reports in his chronicle, were two ivory plaques. They once belonged to emperor Charlemagne (d. 814), who used them as a wax tablet, which he kept next to his bed. When it was decided in St Gall that the plaques would be used to decorate the bookbinding of a newly produced Gospel Book, the scribe was asked to design the book in such a way “that it matched the shape of the ivory”. Interestingly, Ekkehart noticed that it was narrower than usual, because he addresses MS 53 as “our tall Gospel Book”.

Books for soloists

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (11th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360, 255×80 mm (12th century) – Source

A second reason to produce a slim book in medieval times is pragmatic rather than artistic. When one examines what these oddly tall manuscripts contain, as I did in a journal article published in 2012 (details here), it turns out that a fair number consist of texts that were sung by soloists during the church service. Take the Cantatorium and the Troper, two frequently-used musical books. When one limits the view to the period before 1200, as I usually do in my scholarly work, it turns out that all surviving copies are formatted in the slim format discussed here. Another example is the famous St Gall Hymnal, which is not just very narrow, but also very thin (Fig. 4). It is not given a proper binding, but it is stored in a book box, not many of which survive from medieval times.

The reason for these musical books to be designed so awkwardly (in that they break with the norms of medieval book production) is related to how they were used: handheld – literally, as in “while held in one hand”. As I proposed in the article previously mentioned, the effect of the narrow shape was that the weight of the book rested on the palm when it lay open in your hand. This meant that the soloist could easily hold it up for a long period of time. Regularly shaped books, by contrast, executed considerable pressure on the fingertips and the thumb when you held them in one hand. This is not surprising, of course, because they were not designed for holding: they were supposed to rest on a desk or podium while in use. The thinness of the musical books was helpful in this respect, because it greatly reduced their weight, as did leaving off a binding (think St Gall Hymnal). As with the shift in the pressure points, the weight loss helped the reader holding up the book for a long time.

A long tradition

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 228 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 228 (15th century) – Source

While the examples so far focused on the period before 1200, the practice of making slim books is thriving in the later medieval period as well. In the fifteenth century, for example, we see municipal clerks make narrow literary manuscripts, probably conforming to chancery practices. Moreover, there appears to be a real tradition of slender paper books in Middle English literary culture. The Romance of Richard Coeur de Lion in Douce 228, for example, is the slimmest manuscript I know (Fig. 5). It has been argued (here) that this particular manuscript was made for minstrels, in other words that the object was used hand-held. Having read this post, you now know that this makes perfect sense.

Across the board, ivory decoration and handheld use are two significant factors in this long tradition of making “slim” books. When faced with a slender book, we can therefore speculate: was its binding perhaps originally fitted with ivory decoration? Or, if this seems unlikely because the parchment and handwriting suggests a cheap production, perhaps it was made for handheld use? As in modern times, diets and weight loss relating to the medieval book speak to deeper motivations.

Mary Had a Little Book

For the book historian Christmas is a great season. It means that a lot of so-called “Annunciation” scenes make their rounds on social media, the biblical story in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to God’s son, Christ. There is something very attractive about these scenes for lovers of medieval books. Especially in the later Middle Ages, Mary is shown to be reading when Gabriel breaks the news. The idea was to show her in a holy place engaged in prayer, studies explain (here and here), and to make this connection to the beholder, she was shown with a book.

While this alone tells you a lot about the role of the book in medieval times, the Annunciation scenes have an even more interesting story to tell. They invited medieval decorators to depict a book and a reader engaged with it, life-like and to the best of their abilities. This implies that we get, by proxy, an unusual visual glimpse into the practice of medieval reading: how is the book held, what does the object look like, and what can we tell about its binding? While not every Annunciation scene contains a book, the seasonal images are like spycams intruding into the intimate world of medieval reading.

The tradition

Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (13th century)
Fig. 1 – Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (13th century) – Source

A quick search in public online databases results in hundreds of Annunciation scenes: the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts returns 160 manuscripts (search here), the French Inititale database no less than 274 (check the result here). This group of 400+ manuscripts provides much information about the tradition of a reading Mary. It is striking, for example, just how many Annunciation scenes depict her with a book. Especially after 1300 there are few without it.

Interestingly, the image databases allow us to gauge in what kind of manuscript the scenes are predominantly found. By far the majority are Book of Hours, but there is also a fair share of Psalters and Bibles, as well as some liturgical books such as Missals. The most popular vehicle of this scene, the Book of Hours, is connected to private devotion, as are many Psalters and some Bibles and Missals. After 1300 private devotion is one of the most common settings for using a book. In other words, the readers of these manuscripts were engaged in precisely the same thing as Mary: praying with a book in their hand.

Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 469 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 469 (15th century) – Source

It is significant that both Mary and the medieval reader are engaging with the book as an object during one of the most important scenes from Christian devotional culture: the birth announcement of Christ. The object had obviously become an important religious tool. What is also striking is that Mary is shown interacting with the book in different ways. She is often caught reading, with the book placed either in her hand or on a table or podium in front of her (Figs. 2-3 and top pic, Angers, BM, 2048). In other cases she is simply holding the object in her hand, either open or closed (Fig. 1). In most cases Mary is depicted in a room or a building with arches (Figs. 1 & 3), providing the illusion of a church or a holy place in general. She is often raising her hands in surprise – although to our modern eyes she seems to gesture “No, thank you!” (Fig. 2).

London, British Library, Add. MS 49598 (Benedictional of Aethelwold, 936-984)
Fig. 3 – London, British Library, Add. MS 49598 (936-984) –  Source

While it is really easy to find bookish Annunciation scenes from the later medieval period, when the tradition of a reading Mary was well established, examples from before 1100 are rare. The earliest I have been able to find date from the late tenth century. The oldest is the magnificent St Aethelwold Benedictional (Fig. 3), which was made in 963-984 for Aethelwold the Bishop of Winchester (this is a digitised version). Another late-tenth-century example is the so-called Corvey Gospels in Wolfenbüttel, in which Mary is shown with a very thin book in her hand (image here).

Older examples of a reading Mary do exist, but not in books – at least not to such an extent that I was able to easily find them. A scene dating to the ninth century, for example, is found on an ivory situla, a bucket for the holy water used in the Mass (Fig. 4). It shows Mary looking up from her book to see the angel Gabriel making a gesture of blessing with his hand. The arch above her suggests she is in a room, a holy space, as seen in so many manuscript depictions.

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Accession  Nr. 17.190.45 (860-880)
Fig. 4 – Metropolitan Museum, Accession Nr. 17.190.45 (860-880) – Source

Mary had a little book
Apart from providing a peek into rooms where readers are interacting with books, these seasonal images also show us what manuscripts in medieval times looked like. Granted, most objects are shown rather generically, but in some cases the decorator shows us realistic details. It is striking, for example, that many images in which Mary is holding her book show her with a surprisingly small object in her hand (Fig. 1). These are likely meant to represent a portable book, a type of manuscript designed to be carried around.

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection 56.70 (1427-1432)
Fig. 5 – Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection 56.70 (1427-1432) – Source
The Hague, Royal Library, MS 135 J 55 (c. 1460)
Fig. 6 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 135 J 55 (c. 1460) – Source

If we expand our scope and include medieval paintings, we are shown more details of the medieval book as a physical object. Notably, the famous Merode Altarpiece from the early fifteenth century shows Mary holding a book fitted in what is called a chemise binding (Fig. 5). This type of binding allowed the reader to fold the book into a piece of cloth or leather extended from the binding. Only a handful survive, so it is a great coincidence that one of them actually covers up an Annunciation scene – albeit that Mary is bookless in this one (Fig. 6).

Curiously, Fig. 5 shows a second book on the table, with a green bag underneath it. This bag is another medieval artifact that survives in very small numbers: the book pouch, which was also used for carrying a book around. The same velvet pouch is seen in the Annunciation scene by Gerard David (c. 1500) – see it here. Both bookbindings in the Merode Altarpiece indicate that the manuscripts Mary is using are portable. More importantly, the beholder would have recognised them as such. By the later Middle Ages, devotional practices had become a “movable feast” and so books used to that end needed to be shown as ambulant. In that sense too the manuscripts depicted here are very realistic.

Metropolitan Museum, Cloister Collections, 54.1.1 (1405-1408)
Fig. 7 – Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collections, 54.1.1 (1405-1408) – Source

It is interesting that the Merode Altarpiece shows Mary with two books. It appears that this increase started in the fifteenth century and continued into the age of print. The famous “Belles Heures” of Duc du Berry, produced by the Limbourg Brothers in the early fifteenth century, shows Mary in the vicinity of three books as well as a scroll (Fig. 7). In a sixteenth-century woodcut by the famous Albrecht Dürer there are also three books present (here). Both examples give the traditional church environment the feeling of a modest library. Considering that she would soon be with child, to the modern viewer it makes sense that Mary tries to get as much quality time with her books as possible.

The Medieval Origins of the Modern Footnote

Last week I posted a blog on note-taking in medieval times. It showed how individuals who wanted to jot down a note dealt with the absence of notepads and scrap paper. As in our modern day, the urge to write down a note in medieval times often came while reading a book. And so the margins of the page grew into a prime location where the reader could vent his objections or – albeit more rarely – express his or her approval.

The present post deals with the logistics behind this “window dressing”: it shows how a reader with many important things to say kept track of his marginal comments. Particularly, it deals with a serious problem that came with adding notes to the page: how to connect a particular comment, placed among a dozen others, to the specific text passage it refers to. The clever system that was created for this purpose lives on as our modern footnote.

Disconnected

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century) – Source

The crux of our footnote system is the presence of a symbol that connects the note to the relevant location in the text. Curiously, in medieval times it was quite common not to have such connections in place, perhaps especially in the earlier period (Fig. 1). When few remarks were added to the page, a reader could deduce with relative ease to which passage a marginal note referred. It helped if a text was in popular use or known by heart, as many medieval works were. In such cases the note made sense instantly because the reader was familiar with the referenced literary context. Moreover, as long as notes were few and short, a reader could simply insert them – interlinearly – over the relevant word or passage (Fig. 2).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (9th century)
Fig. 2 – Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v
Fig. 3 – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century) – Source

Cleverly, in this system the very position of the remark identified the word to which it referred. However, as the number and size of such comments increased, it became impossible to place them between the lines. The great blank space provided by the margins was now drafted into service. It is here that the absence of a proper reference system was felt. As the marginal body of remarks and critique began to accumulate, the page became a real messy place, a labyrinth in which it became impossible for readers to find specific pieces of information (Fig. 3). In came the footnote.

Dots and lines
Connecting a marginal remark to the relevant passage in the text was usually done with a duplicated symbol, called a signe de renvoi: one was placed in front of the marginal note, the other near the word or passage that the remark commented upon. While it is hard to deduce a clear pattern of development, it appears that in the early stages of using such footnotes scribes and readers resorted to plain symbols rather than letters or numbers. These symbols varied considerably in shape and sophistication. At the high end of the spectrum we encounter complex symbols, such as the reversed letter E seen in Fig. 4 (magnified).

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, fol. 170r (10th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, p. 170 (820-840) – Source

More popular, however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. In Fig. 5 such an omitted line is placed in the margin accompanied by a symbol made up of a line and a dot. It is repeated in the text itself, near the location where the line belonged. This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century) – Source

Scribes used different versions of the line-and-dot symbol. In fact, they had to if they were to produce unique ties between comment and text. When dots were used, their number would increase as more notes were added. Alternatively, the position of the dots could be varied, so that they formed different – unique! – patterns.

Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) – Photo EK

Customising the line-type footnote, scribes usually distinguished one from the other by added circles, which were attached at different locations and in varying numbers. In what is a most unusual find, in a Leiden manuscript we see a scribe practicing his dot and line footnote symbols (Fig. 6). It shows variations in the number and pattern of dots, as well as in the treatments of lines.

Letters
Closest to our modern system of footnotes, finally, is the use of letters to tie a marginal remark to its proper location in the text. In some manuscripts we see the entire alphabet running down the margin. Fig. 7 shows a page from a manuscript with works by Horace (left column) to which a high volume of notes were added (right column), all of which are connected to specific passages with the letters A to Z.

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r
Fig. 7 – Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100) – Photo EK

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries such classical texts were most commonly used in a classroom setting. The instructors who used the books, typically in a monastic school, had many things to explain to their students, as the notes show. It made sense to organise such added information in a clear manner, and the alphabet came in handy in this respect. Some pages in this particular book contain more footnotes than there are letters in the alphabet, which challenged the system. In such cases the user added into the mix symbols made from lines and dots.

The last word: numerals
So where are the medieval footnotes that make use of numbers, like we do today? Curiously, I have not been able to find them, which kind of makes sense. Roman numerals would not be suitable for the task. Placed out of context, as a symbol initiating a segment of text (i.e. the marginal comment) they would easily be mistaken for a letter – which they are, graphically speaking. Moreover, a high Roman numeral would quickly take in a lot of space – not what you want in a note symbol. Arabic numerals were far were less popular than Roman numerals, even in the later Middle Ages. Readers may not have felt comfortable enough with these new numbers to use them in the margin. In fact, some scribes in the later Middle Ages are still confused by the zero. The leap from alphabet to numerals – from the medieval to our modern system – appears to have been taken in the age of print.

Medieval Notepads

We are surrounded by pieces of scrap paper. We chuck tons of them in the waste bin each year, leave them lying on our desks, use them as bookmarks, stuff them in our pockets, and toss them on the street. And so we usually do not have to look hard or long when we need a piece of paper for our shopping list or for writing down a thought. This was very different in medieval times. Writing material – of any kind – was very expensive back then, which meant that scribes used a paper or parchment sheet to the max: everything was used. As a result, there was nothing obvious lying around on one’s desk that was suitable for scrap material. So how did the medieval person make notes?

In the margin

Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century), Photo Julie Somers – Source

The most common and sensible location for putting down thoughts, critique or notes was the margin of the medieval book. Consider this: you wouldn’t think so looking at a medieval page, but on average only half of it was filled with the actual text. A shocking fifty to sixty percent was designed to be margin. As inefficient as this may seem, the space came in handy for the reader. As the Middle Ages progressed it became more and more common to resort to the margin for note-taking. Notably, the thirteenth century gave birth to two particularly smart book designs that accommodated such use. Both types are connected to the emerging university, which makes sense as this was a note-taking environment par excellence – then and now.

The first of these is seen in Fig. 1, which shows a page of a law manuscript that actually contains two kinds of texts. Found in the two central columns is the Digest of Justianian, written in a slightly larger letter. Draped around it, in a smaller letter, is the commentary to this work: these are the notes of smart teachers from the past, put there collectively to help the reader make sense of the law. This specific style of presenting two works on the one page, where the glosses (commentary) are presented as “square brackets”, is called textus inclusus. An Italian reader in the thirteenth century added his own two-cents to these “prefab” opinions that came with the book: in Fig. 1 we see them scribbled between the two central columns.

London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century) – Source

The second thirteenth-century book layout that was specially designed to accommodate note-taking is as clever as the text on its pages. We encounter it first and foremost in manuscripts with works by Aristotle, although the design would spread to other domains, including law and medicine. As seen in Fig. 2, the margins surrounding the Aristotle text (which form the two central columns) were left completely blank by the scribe. The tiny writing that is seen there now is from a student in the Arts Faculty, where the works of Aristotle formed the main textbook, called the Corpus vetustius (the old corpus).

If you look carefully you see five vertical commentary columns marked by thin pencil lines, which allowed for five “pillars” of notes. Cleverly, in this page design the start of the note could be placed at the same height as the Aristotle line on which it commented, not just one time, but five times over! Larger comments were placed in the larger blank areas in the lower margin. Some of these Aristotle textbooks contained up to twenty “zones” for notes, which would ultimately be connected to the main text with the help of symbols resembling our current footnotes.

Yellow sticky notes 

Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth
Fig. 3 – Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth – Source

As stated, paper and parchment sheets were commonly used to the max, meaning no redundant material was left that could be used for scraps. However, when the animal skin was turned into parchment sheets such redundant material was left over. In the process the outer rim of the dried skin was removed, because these “offcuts” were deemed unsuitable for writing on. The material was too thick for a regular page and its surface was slippery and translucent, not to mention that most offcuts were too small for normal pages. They consequently ended up in the recycling bin of the parchment maker.

Interestingly, these small, scrappy slips of parchment were sometimes sold to clients. Offcuts were used for text with a short lifespan, such as letters and drafts. In addition, it was used when a text was “utilitarian” and did not need to be produced from regular – more expensive – parchment. An example is seen in Fig. 3, which shows a short description strapped to a bone that belonged to a saint. Such “relic labels” were important because of course nobody wanted to mistake the big toe of St Peter for that of St Paul. Such information was scribbled on the parchment strip, usually in low-quality (fast) handwriting.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (France, 13th century) - Photo Giulio Menna
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (13th century) – Photo Giulio Menna
Birch bark strip used by the student Onfim, dated 1240-1260
Fig. 5 – Novgorod, Museum of History, birch bark strip 202, from pupil Onfim, dated 1240-1260 – Source, blogmore

Offcuts were also frequently used by students and scholars, for example for taking notes in the classroom (Fig. 4, more here). In fact, in De discipline scholarum, a guidebook made in the 1230s for students and teachers at the University of Paris, it is explained how a student should bring such slips of parchment to class for taking notes. Interestingly, some of these slips have survived because they were pasted in a student’s textbook, like the one seen in Fig. 4. These are truly the medieval equivalent of our “yellow sticky notes”. The practice of bringing scrap material into the classroom was a much broader medieval phenomenon, as is shown by the famous birch bark notes that survive from 13th-century Russia. Fig. 5 shows funny “stick figure” doodles drawn by the student Onfim as he was sitting, bored no doubt, in class.

The last word: notepad
There is evidence that multiple parchment offcuts were sometimes bound together, by pricking a hole in them and pulling a cord through. These bundles, which essentially form a true notepad in the modern sense of the word, could be of considerable size. A specimen in the Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg consists of thirty slips. A type of notepad that was even more popular in medieval times was the wax tablet (here is a collection of them). These, too, were often tied together into a bundle, forming a notepad of perhaps six or so “pages” (Fig. 6, note the holes for the cords on the left side). Smart pages, that is, because the contents could be erased from the soft wax (with the flat back of the stylus), presenting vacant space for fresh thoughts.

Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768
Fig. 6 – Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768 (4th-6th century) – Source

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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