New Evidence of Note-Taking in the Medieval Classroom

When I was going through some manuscripts in the Leiden University Library some time ago in preparation for one of my paleography classes, I came across an unusual medieval object: a small strip of parchment of 100×50 mm with small cursive writing on it. The object was pasted against the inside of the binding, which was likely done during rebinding in the 19th century. This wasn’t a manuscript, obviously, but neither was it a fragment of a manuscript, as one might be inclined to think (I blogged about such fragments some time ago). In fact, it was quite obvious that the small strip had always been this small, as evidenced by the observation that the text stays clear from the edges. Besides its modest proportions, another remarkable trait was the dark-brownish color and the slightly slanted sides of the object. What curious thing was this?


Parchment strip pasted in Leiden manuscript

The short answer is: a schedula (plural schedulae). In the Middle Ages the term was commonly used to refer to a scrap of parchment on which a short text could be written. They were in essence the byproduct of parchment production. The reason for their existence lies in the odd shape of the prepared animal skin. The longer sides were slightly narrower in the middle, which gave them an elongated dent, while the shorter sides had various smaller dents around the location where the head and tail had been. The uneven edge needed to be removed. A well-known image from the 13th century of a parchment maker selling his product to a monk provides a clue as to what precisely was cut away.

Parchment Maker in his Shop

Note how the framed skin in the background has uneven edges that look quite different from the smooth-edged skin in the foreground, which has been cut from the frame and is ready for sale. To get from the former to the latter, long strips were cut off – presto: schedulae. These strips were not only deemed unsuitable for writing upon because of their odd size (long and skinny), but they were also riddled with deficiencies, such as stains, discoloration and translucent patches.

Unwieldy as they were, such offcuts were primarily acceptable for texts of limited length that did not need to look spiffy, such as notes, short draft texts, letters, horoscopes, wills, or an addendum attached to a charter. When used as writing support, schedulae have a very informal (casual, even) air about them, which is also reflected by the grade of script with which they are filled. The shorts texts are often written down in a cursive hand or in a book hand with a cursive “element”. In sum, they were copied at high speed. The casual appearance of the offcut matches the nature of the texts they hold. Notes and drafts, and even letters, were hardly ever made to be kept permanently. Rather, these short bursts of writing served as “short-term memory”. Still, some of the texts written on them show us that the material was not always ideally suited for the purpose. Both Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux apologize for the brevity of their letters: they would love to write more, but were unable to. Knowing the materials they had to work with, we now know why. Charles of Orléans states it even more plainly in one of his letters: “For lack of space, I am writing no more to you.”

The ironic thing is, of course, that because of their short half-life, schedulae that do survive are valuable. They shed light, after all, in corners of medieval written culture that have remained dark. The strip I encountered demonstrates this perfectly. The text, which can be dated to the thirteenth century, suggests these are notes made by a student, likely while he was attending class. Thus the unpretentious object provide us with a vivid look around the medieval classroom. We see the student pondering various themes that were popular at the thirteenth-century university. He is sparring, for example, with the notion of “propria voluntas” or “self will” and how it relates to sin. We can also see how the student is struggling to keep up with his teacher, writing at high speed in a cursive hand and using a high volume of abbreviations. Thus the strip is a welcome “real-world” addition to what we already know about note-taking from primary sources. De disciplina scholarum, for example, a study manual made in Paris in the 1230s, advices that students bring schedulae with them to class for note-taking. Evidence suggests that the strips were kept with the textbook, folded into the quires.

The Leiden scrap was likely stored similarly: perhaps it fell out when the book was rebound, after which it was pasted in the back. It is right at home in the manuscript to which it is now appended. The host codex is heavy on texts used in education, most of which are also heavily glossed.

Notes in plummet in margins of host manuscript

The most notable of these texts, the first in the codex, is the very study manual from Paris that prescribes the use of schedulae for note-taking. Evidently, the student who filled this tiny parchment strip took the advice in the manual to heart, even though his notes suggest that he did not understand everything his teacher was trying to teach him.

Bibliographical note – If you want to know more about the use of schedulae in medieval written culture, my study on the topic will appear here in September 2012.

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

First They Kiss and Then They Bite: How Letters in Love Make History

If you don’t know when something precisely happened, can you still call it a historical event? What is the historian to do with information from a source that is not dated? What if it mentions how an official was murdered, that he fell by the knife, and that his killer was a student? Details abound, but dateless the event is largely meaningless. Historical information floating in time remains ordinary: a murder is a murder, nothing more.

For the disciplines that study the Middle Ages such undated sources are common. From circa 1500, at the close of the period, we have the luxury of knowing precisely when a source was produced. At that point in time, after all, such information was placed on the first – title – page of the book. How unlucky we medievalists are. We depend on thousands of handwritten sources that were made before the invention of the title page and which are, consequently, by and large undated. How are we to write the history of an age with so much “floating” information? This complex query has a seemingly simple answer: by learning how to date.

In order to so, paleographers like myself study the shape of letters. There is something magical about handwritten letters that makes them irresistible to me. A medieval scribe who wrote information on parchment did so, like we do today, in his own, individual manner. When we receive a letter from a loved one we intuitively recognize his or her handwriting merely by glancing at it. The process takes a split-second and may occur from as much as a meter away. It shows that each individual embeds, subconsciously, personal traits into the letters that flow out of his or her pen. Beholders somehow pick up on these “signals” frozen in the shape of letters. A sentence written on parchment becomes a skyline that might be recognized from afar – because we have visited the city before. An experienced paleographer looking at medieval manuscripts thus recognizes a scribal hand: “Zap!” it goes in his head.

Another “Zap!” moment arrives when the paleographer activates the part of his brain that intuitively tells him how old a specimen of writing is. Curiously, in this case it is not the individual traits that are important, but the generic ones. While handwriting with only unique characteristics is hard to date, one that conforms to contemporary trends is easier to place in time. Instinct and experience are crucial in this process: the experienced eye of the paleographer recognizes the script of an individual as exponent of a style of writing that is particular for a certain period – or geographical location, but that is another story. With such verdicts as “early thirteenth century” or “middle of the fourteenth century” information is secured in time.

One of the most significant challenges for the discipline of paleography is to transform these intuitive verdicts into assessments that are objective and substantiated with quantifiable data. The physical shape of the letter is still the point of departure but it is given a different role to play. In my own work two processes are important in this respect: to describe the shape of a letter (or even an individual stroke) as precisely as possible; and subsequently measuring how the shape evolved over time. In my experience, the latter is best done with manuscripts that, by exception, do contain a date. They are usually written down by the scribe on the last page of the manuscript. From these dated books one can deduce how a given letter was constructed physically at a certain point in time – or even in a particular geographical location, if the scribe also tells us where he wrote the book. If the corpus of dated books is large enough and spans enough years, we may witness how a letter developed over time. When the script of an undated manuscript is subsequently placed alongside this reconstructed time line of script development, a likely date of production may emerge.

Take the following example from the twelfth century, the period studied in our “Turning Over a New Leaf” project. Over the course of this century we notice how letter pairs with contrasting round strokes – like be or od– undergo a remarkable development. Blown up on a 29-inch screen it becomes clear that at the outset of the century the pairs are always separated: white space is clearly visible in between the individual parts that make up the pair. Halfway the century, however, we witness how the couples hesitatingly (but barely) start to touch one another, a process that is called “kissing”. Near the end of the century, finally, the pairs slightly overlap, a process known as “fusion” or “biting”. From distant strangers to couples in love: the stages of development turn out to be perfectly datable.

No kissing occurs in “hoc”
Letter pair “do” is kissing

Now the historian can do his thing. With an accurately dated source, information is given its rightful place in history, turning ordinary murder into historical event and adding to our understanding of the medieval period. Letter shapes thus calibrate our sense of dating. They anchor events in time so they can make history.

Want to know more about script development in the twelfth century?
Erik Kwakkel, “Kissing, Biting and the Treatment of Feet: The Transitional Script of the Long Twelfth Century,” in Erik Kwakkel, Rosamond McKitterick and Rodney Thomson, Turning Over a New Leaf: Change and Development in the Medieval Book (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012), 79-126.
Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Hidden Treasure, or How Destruction Creates Beautiful Things

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

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

Middle Dutch fragment in binding

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

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

Hebrew fragment peeking through a hole

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

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

Common but not Ordinary: The Leiden Dioscorides Examined

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

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

Transition from Beneventan to Caroline at f. 13v

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

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

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

Strangers at a Party

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

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

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

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

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

Added 9 May, 2012:

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

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

Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts

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