Tag Archives: binding

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).


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.

Secrets of the Heart: Exploring the Dark Side of the Manuscript

In the heart of the medieval book, where the quires are united and meet the binding, great secrets loom in the dark. This is the place where we can read things in the manuscript that cannot be read on its pages: whether it is composite and in what manner it is composite. The question of whether a collection of texts was copied continuously or whether it was formed by binding together independently produced units, is of the utmost importance for understanding the object’s genesis and for “getting” the texts as a collection. Providing an answer to this query is difficult, however, because it depends on facts buried deep inside the quire construction of the book – which may, moreover, not be obtained without upsetting librarians. Nevertheless, one must persevere, treading as carefully as possible, because exploring the dark side of the manuscript pays off.

Composite manuscript: The booklets give themselves away by their varying dimensions.

The first thing to do is assessing whether a manuscript is composite or not. Determining that an object is not composite is easy enough. A collection of texts copied continuously is usually written by the same scribe. Mind you, in such case the book may still be composite, for the scribe may have united individual units he copied in the past. However, if the writing style (duct) and ink color are the same throughout, and especially if all catchwords are in place and in the same style, the text collection was likely copied in one “go”. There is one trap, hidden in plain sight: a book produced by multiple scribes may still be copied continuously. Sometimes a scribe stopped working on a project and another took over. The individuals usually tried to hide such transitions by “breaking” at the very end of a page: the first stopped after completing the last line on the recto side of the leaf, the second started with the first line on verso. Less frequently, the switch may also occur in the middle of the page; or even in the middle of a line. This intriguing scenario can usually not be explained. Was the first scribe suddenly overcome with tiredness? Had the abbey beer of the previous night gotten to him? Did he have a blind date with the rubricator?

Team of scribes: hand switch in the middle of a sentence (lines 8/9).

The domain of composite books is much darker – and more slippery. This is in large part due to the fact that such objects can be composite in different ways. They may consist, for example, of units that were designed and created specifically to be bound together, while in other cases such units were merely united because of their similar dimensions. In some composite books all individual units were in use by themselves before they were bound together, while in others only some of them were, or none at all. Consequently, any two individual units of a composite book (and the texts they hold!) may have very different relations to one another: either they are new neighbors or their kinship predates the volume. Descriptions in manuscript catalogues usually do not clarify such relations. The better ones will mention that a manuscript consists of multiple units, but that is often the end of it. Take the following examples, all taken from existing catalogues: “Latin works on science and mathematics assembled from several 13th-century booklets,” “A miscellany of five separate manuscripts,” “A set of five volumes” and “Three independent manuscripts bound together.” The volumes are composite, but how? How are we to understand “assembled” in the first description? And how meaningful is the use of different terms in these examples (“booklets”, “volumes” and “independent manuscripts”)?

Ultimately these descriptions show that bringing the genesis of a manuscript into play in your research normally requires you to go into the field and observe the object “in the flesh”. There is much to gain when you do. For example, the genesis of the book may tell us something about the availability of exemplars – and thus, perhaps, where we may situate the scribe. A scribe may have had all the exemplars he needed in front of him when he started to copy. Then again, he may not, for example because his hunt for exemplars had been only partly successful. Availability is a key consideration for the manuscript to become composite or not. After all, the scribe could wait until he had all the material he needed and copy everything at once. The result would be a full manuscript if he copied a lot of texts, or a booklet if the planned collection was modest in scope. If there was much to copy but there was a supply problem, he could decide to copy the collection in “installments”. The result would be a series of booklets, all in the same hand, bound together in a single volume. As he was waiting for new material to become available, the scribe could start using the booklets he had already copied, adding new installments as he got his hands on more exemplars. This is a different scenario again, one where some pages within a composite book (consisting of several parts copied by one hand) show wear and tear.

Copy and exemplar in a depiction of Jean Miélot as a scribe.

While the examples provided here may suggest that variation is endless, there are, in fact, only a limited number of ways to produce a composite book. Obviously, knowing the possible scenarios helps to deduce in what way a manuscript in front of you is composite. The first step, however, is to realize that the manuscript you are looking at, even when it is copied by one hand throughout, may be the product of extensive tweaking over a long period of time.

About composite books in general:

P.R. Robinson, “A Self-Contained Unit in Composite Manuscripts,” Codicologica 3: Essais typologiques, ed. A. Gruys and J.P. Gumbert (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 46-69.

About the different types of composite manuscripts and the formation of text collections:

Erik Kwakkel, “Late-Medieval Text Collections: A Codicological Typology based on Single-Author Manuscripts,” in Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice, ed. Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 56-79.

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