Half Full, Half Empty: The Peculiar Medieval Page

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Bargain Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complex price tags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rare Medieval Name Tags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texting in Medieval Times

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


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

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

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

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

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

Middle Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book on a Stick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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