Tag Archives: books

Meet the Medieval Manuscript

By Erik Kwakkel and Giulio Menna (@SexyCodicology)

While this and other blogs introduce you to particular aspects of medieval book production, there are few places on the web that provide a full overview of how handwritten books – or “manuscripts” – were made, especially for those new to the topic. To fill this gap, we (Erik and Giulio) have produced a website called Quill: Books Before Print, through generous support of various institutions (below). The site is now live and available for free to anyone who wants to know more about the handwritten book in the medieval period.

Navigating through Quill shows you what made the manuscript “tick”, and how it ticks. Each of the fifty-odd segments contains an artistic photograph (made by Giulio, who is a professional photographer) and some 150 words of light reading (written by Erik, who is a professional book historian). This post introduces our work, explains how and why we made it, and what we like best about it.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 14 D (13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 14 D (13th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

Writing about manuscripts (by Erik Kwakkel)
I love writing about manuscripts. Not only do I do so frequently in academic publications (find a list here), but also for an audience beyond the university, for example through social media (this blog, Tumblr) and magazines (I have a regular column in Quest Historie). Writing for non-specialists is fun in that you can just tell a story. However, it also requires a certain approach and tone. The texts I wrote for Quill are first and foremost meant to be entertaining – learning something is a close second. The entries are therefore written in a “light” tone and use “speaking” comparisons. Thus I discuss fragments hidden in bindings as “stowaway“, bookmarks become the “fossilized taste” of medieval readers, and parchment sheets are seen as “dead cows“.

To get this tone right, images are crucial. To write an inspired post about a manuscript, an image needs to “grab” me. Moreover, the trick (both for Quill and my blog posts) is to find a single guiding principle that can carry the text. My blog post on Medieval Selfies is a good example of this, but the same is seen in the entries for Quill. Each of the clickable segments are built around a single observation or angle, which is usually reflected in the title: “Add-on” for the segment on marginal glosses, “One, two, three” for page numbers,  and “Mind the gap!” for blank spots on the page.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

My favourite sections to write are those related to medieval handwriting – script. It is notoriously difficult to do so in clear terms, even in academic papers, when everybody knows precisely what you are talking about. I liked the challenge of providing clear information about such a complex matter as the development from one manner of handwriting to another. Playing with verbal imagery I discuss early-medieval script under the label “The unifier“, while script it develops into is seen as “The divider“. As far as my favourite images are concerned, I’m attached to all of them. Particularly pretty, however, are those that show things you normally don’t see, like a the palimpsest (scratches-away text, vaguely visible) or the backs of the quires, as in Fig. 3.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 28
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 28 – Photo GM  (Quill source)

Photographing manuscripts (by Giulio Menna)
When I was asked to take pictures of medieval manuscripts for this project I was thrilled; when I was told I would essentially have unlimited access to the manuscripts from the exquisite collection in the Leiden University Library, I was as excited as the proverbial child in the candy store. What an opportunity! But then it dawned on me: How do you take photos of manuscripts? How do I make photos that will interest someone who has never seen a manuscript before?

Thanks to Erik’s MA course in manuscript studies I knew exactly what had to be photographed and where to find it in the books. I spent most of the time browsing through manuscript catalogs and manuscripts’ descriptions, searching for the right book to use for the shots. Once the desired detail was found, the actual photography began. First things first: respect the manuscript! I might find a detail that could make a perfect picture, but to get the photo right I would  have had to mishandle the manuscript in some way: those pictures did not get taken.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 4 (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 4 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

Once an ideal manuscript was found, I used the oldest trick in the book for directing viewer’s attention towards the detail described: depth of field. This would ensure that only the detail in question would be in focus in the picture, and the surroundings would be blurred (Fig. 5 is a good example). I have a very good lens (f/2.8) that allows me to do just that. The lighting was a bit of a problem. Since I was shooting in the Special Collections room I had no direct control over the light. Most of the time I had to wander around the table and find the right angle at which there would be no shadows or reflections.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 38 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 38 (12th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

There are two photos I am particularly fond of. One is the initial P (for Plinius) seen in Fig. 5. It is the opening page of the manuscript, and the letter is welcoming us to the book. I like to believe that this photo captures the moment when you open a manuscript you have never seen before, and you are captivated by unexpected decoration. The initial is very pleasing to the eye: I particularly enjoy the contrast between the old parchment on the right and the white modern paper on the left.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

The second image I like very much is of a watermark (Fig. 6). Taking a picture of a watermark was technically challenging: the manuscript’s pages are made of paper, and although paper made in 1600s is more resilient than the contemporary counterpart, it is still delicate and has to be handled with extra care. I had no control over light sources, but I knew that in order to show the watermark I needed a strong light from the back of a page. The plan then became to wait for the sun to go down in the late afternoon, and let some of the light shine through the Special Collections’ windows onto the manuscript. All I had to do then was kneel before the book and take the picture of the naturally bending page.

The last word: enjoy
We hope you will enjoy browsing our website – which was two years in the making – and learn from it at the same time. The site is designed to work optimally with tablets: it’s a true pleasure to swipe the image carousel at the top. We think it provides a sound introduction to making books before print and we hope that the website will be picked up by the broadest possible audience, including instructors at schools and universities. Enjoy!

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 38 B
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 38 B – Photo GM (Quill source)


Credits – Quill: Books Before Print was produced through a grant of De Jonge Akademie (The Young Academy), an offshoot of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and with logistical support of Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS). The website would not have been possible without the invaluable support of Leiden University Library and its Special Collections department.

Medieval Desktops

We are used to having multiple books open at the same time when looking things up at home or writing an essay for class. Whether PDFs, e-books or old-fashioned paper volumes, switching between books in a smooth movement is something we don’t often think about. This was very different in medieval times. In those days, books tended to resist when you tried to move them: they were heavy as a brick and easily twice that size. A related problem was one of space. The average medieval book has a wingspan of at least half a meter wide when open. Consequently, comfortably placing two books in front of you was a stretch, let alone multiple volumes. In an early-sixteenth-century depiction of Erasmus, the scholar cannot even place a single book on his desk as he is writing a letter (Fig. 1).

Albrecht Dürer's portrait of Erasmus, 1526 (detail)
Fig. 1 – Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Erasmus, 1526 (detail) – source

Interestingly, the challenges of medieval book consultation stands in stark contrast with what we know about reading and studying in the period. Readers browsed through a great number of volumes at the same time, interested as they were in learning different points of view with respect to their topic of inquiry. Sparked by this contradiction, this post explores medieval desktops. How many books are being consulted at the same time in medieval depictions of reading? How are the objects laid out across the available space? In short, how are we to understand the logistics behind the devouring of knowledge in the last four centuries of the Middle Ages? As will become clear, the answers to these questions vary greatly depending on why an individual handled multiple books at the same time.

The first group of individuals who had to manage multiple books were scribes. By definition, a scribe had to have at least two books on his desk: the one he was making (a growing pile of quires, which remained unbound until the very end) and the one he was copying from (called the “exemplar”). While keeping track of the loose quires may have been challenging, of the groups discussed here scribes had it the easiest. After all, the individual was only technically reading one book – the one he was copying from. This explains why their deskspace was of limited size, at least judging from surviving depictions.

Brussels, KB, 9278 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Brussels, KB, 9278 (15th century) – source

In most cases their working space was erect rather than flat (Fig. 1). This famous image of Jean Miélot at work shows how the desktop of the scribe had a 45-degree angle, resulting in an almost erect surface. Clearly visible is also a vertical orientation in the line-up of the books: one was placed above the other. In fact, the desktop in this image is split in half, with the lower half containing the book under production, as well as the scribe’s tools (ink pots and pens), while the upper half holds the exemplar. Miélot obviously needed to go shopping for a larger desk, because we see books laying around on the ground and on a bench.

London, British Library, Royal 18 E.iii (15th century)
Fig. 3 – London, British Library, Royal 18 E.iii (15th century) – source

Interestingly, there are also desks with a horizontal orientation. Fig. 3 shows the translator Simon de Hesdin at work. Although the books are out of sight, the desk clearly provides room for two books. However, they placed next to one another. This may be specially done for the task of a translator, who needed to carefully read the source text and subsequently scribbling down the translation in loose quires or on loose sheets. This way, both books would be right before him: there was no need to look up at a high book platform. (See in this respect also the note added post-publication, below.)

While it is easy to find images of scribes with a desk full of books,  it is less common to encounter readers in similar situations. That is to say: there are very few medieval scenes in which someone is reading but not writing – where books are present but pens are not. In part, this has to do with medieval study practices. Readers would usually have a pen nearby even when they were just reading. After all, remarks and critiques needed to be added to the margin at the spur of the moment. “Penless” images, while rare, often show a crowded desktop. The scene presented in Fig. 4 shows Christine de Pisan browsing multiple books at a big desk (more about Christine in her study in this article).

Brussels, Bibliothèque, Royale, MS 9009-11
Fig. 4 – Brussels, Bibliothèque, Royale, MS 9009-11

The absence of the pen may result from an urge to depict Christine as an avid reader. This is emphasized, I think, by the various volumes that lay open – note how some open books are facing down, the way we still do today! From the late medieval period a special tool was available for readers who did not like the clutter shown on Christine’s desk: the book carousel (Figs. 5 and 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL Collection
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL Collection – Photo EK
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 195 (15th century).
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 195 (15th century).

These carousels allowed readers to consult multiple manuscripts in a very convenient fashion, by spinning (slowly!) the top part, which moved. The oldest one I could find dates from the fourteenth century (here), but it is possible they were in use even earlier. It is striking that these two scenes show readers – scholars – without pens, even though the second seems to hold an invisible one.

Book hipster
Cleverly, the medieval “spinning wheels” in Figs. 5-6 circumvented the constrictions of the limited space a regular desktop provided. However, what if you need even more real estate than the turning desktop could offer? The answer to this question is perhaps one of the most intriguing and cool pieces of book furniture that survive from the past: the book wheel (Fig. 7).

From "The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli", 1588.
Fig. 7 – From “The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”, 1588.

The image from 1588 shows the bookwheel invented by the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli, whose concept was based on medieval designs. The upside to the carousel is obvious: there was space for a lot of books. This practice is not unlike deciding to hook up a second monitor to your computer, except that the individual is actually watching twelve monitors at the same time – like a trader on Wall Street. I have sat behind one from the 17th century myself and it is truly a majestic feeling to spin the wheel. The click-click sound of the gears hidden inside the device is simply mesmerising.

The last word: laptop
While desktops (in their great variety) are representative of how most scribes and readers handled their books, there is also a surface space that is more exceptional – and that can only be addressed as a “laptop”. The use of such portable desks, which sat on the scribe’s lap, is well documented for the early-modern period (here is one from sixteenth-century Spain; here are a few others). They were used, for example, by noblemen or secretaries drafting documents and letters whilst on the road. It concerns a box with a slightly angled surface, inside which the writing materials were stored, including sheets, ink and pens. Interestingly, this practice – and tool – go back to at least the twelfth century, as Fig. 8 shows. The device contains a hole for the ink pot and inside may well have been blank sheets, in parallel to the portable kits from the Renaissance.

Chartres Cathedral, West Portal (c. 1150)
Fig. 8 – Chartres Cathedral, West Portal (c. 1150) – Source

Apart from the fact that the actual desk space was more limited than what we are used to, the medieval desktop was not so different from ours, including how messy it was. They contained books, both open and closed, as well as writing tools. However, more so than in our present time, desktops were a necessary tool, whether they were packed (as in Christine’s case) or with only one or two books in place (as with most scribes). The medieval quill, after all, needed a stable and even surface. While desktops may seem trivial objects to us, they were crucially important to both medieval scribes and readers.

Note added 22 Dec, 2014: this image of the translator Jean Wauquelin at work (Valenciennes, BM, 772) also shows the translator sitting at two desks with a horizontal rather than a vertical orientation. It raises two questions: was this unusual set-up favoured by translators; and if so, could the reason be that it allowed them to point at the line they were translating, as seen in the Wauquelin image – after all, this would impossible to do with a vertical orientation.

Smart Medieval Bookmarks

Marking pages for future reading predates browsers and the web. In fact, the practice is much older even than printed books. This post introduces various ways in which monks and other medieval readers kept track of the page at which they had stopped reading – and from which they planned to continue in the near future. What tools were available for this purpose? And how did these differ from one another? Apart from addressing these two queries, this post also reports on a genuine discovery: a new specimen of a rare but particularly smart type of bookmark, which I found in my own University Library here in Leiden. Cleverly, and unlike our modern equivalent, the bookmark in question showed medieval readers not only at what page they had stopped reading, but also in which text column and line they had left off.

Static bookmarks

 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2001 (12th century) - Pic my own
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2001 (12th century) – Photo EK

But let’s start at the beginning. If certain bookmarks can be called “smart”, it follows that others were, well, dumb. In bookmark terms that qualifier must go to types that are fixed to one specific page rather than being able to freely move throughout the book. Fig. 1 shows such a static bookmark, perhaps as old as the twelfth century. It was produced by making a small cut in the corner of the page, after which the emerging strip was guided through a small incision, and then folded outwards, so as to stick out of the book. The result (which you will recognize as the banner image of this blog) was as unmovable as it was destructive to the page – adding to its unflattering qualifier “dumb”.

A slightly less invasive version, no doubt preferred by medieval librarians, didn’t involved cutting but glueing a tiny strip of parchment on the long side of the page (Fig. 2). These so-called “fore-edge” bookmarks could even be filled with extra information, for example what section started at the marked location (“B” for “Baptism” in Fig. 2).

Utrecht, UB, MS 146, fol. 17r (detail)
Fig. 2 – Glued-on parchment strip with letter B (Utrecht, UB, MS 146, fol. 17r)  – source

Dynamic bookmarks
Far more interesting from a book-historical point of view are the more dynamic bookmarks, which could be used at any page of the manuscript because they were movable. An unusual example is seen in Fig. 3, which shows heart-shaped bookmarks that could be clipped onto a page. Interestingly, they were cut out of a thirteenth-century manuscript with a Middle Dutch saint’s life. The culprits were nuns in the 20th century, who clearly did not appreciate old books. Only a small number of pages of this very important manuscript have survived undamaged. When you study the book  in the University Library of Amsterdam, as I did a few years back, a curious collection of full leaves and heart-shaped fragments ends up on your desk.

Amsterdam, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MSS I G 56-57 (13th century)
Fig. 3 – Amsterdam, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MSS I G 56-57 (13th century)

The downside of such clip-on bookmarks is that time tended not to be very kind to them. Since they could be separated from the page, many actually were: they fell out or were never re-inserted by the reader. The solution to the vanishing bookmark came in the form of what is called a “register bookmark”, seen in Fig. 4 (I took the composite image from this blog post). This type, which looks like a spider with its legs trapped, was securely fastened to the top of the binding (as visible in Fig. 4, left), so it couldn’t get lost. Additionally, the bookmark allowed the reader to mark multiple locations in the book.

Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588
Fig. 4 – Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588

Evidently, these two groups of bookmarks – static and dynamic – provided very different approaches to marking information – and thus to a book’s use. Readers who added clip-on or “spider” bookmarks anticipated they would need to retrieve information not from one single page but from a changing number of pages. In other words, movable bookmarks served an audience with a shifting knowledge “appetite”, while the static ones encouraged a more “ritual” use of a book. In other words, both types are telling, in their own way, about medieval reading culture.

Multi-dynamic bookmarks
And then there is, finally, the multi-dynamic bookmark – and the story of how a new specimen of this type was discovered. The qualifier “multi-dynamic”, which is my own, refers to the fact that this bookmark is of the moving type, while at the same time it is able to do much more than simply marking a page. The bookmark’s use is as simple as it is clever. This becomes clear when we look at the bookmark in action, for example in this twelfth-century Bible in the Houghton Library (Fig. 5).

Harvard, Houghton Library, MS 277 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Harvard, Houghton Library, MS 277 (12th century) – source

As you can see, the bookmark consists of two components. As with the spider bookmark, it features a string attached to the top of the binding (in this case the string is a strip from a recycled manuscript page). This allowed the reader to mark a certain page. Nothing new here. The second component, however, is what makes this a smart bookmark: a disk with the numbers 1-4 written on it, fitted in a tiny sleeve. The reader would pull down the marker along the string until the flat top hit the line where he had stopped reading. The disk could subsequently be turned to the appropriate column – an open medieval book usually showed four columns of text – meaning the device marked page, column and line.

Although such rotating bookmarks were used until well into the age of print (see an example here), only about thirty-five have survived according to an inventory published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society (2001). It figures that when in 2005 a tiny specimen of 41×22 mm (the size of two thumbnails) was sold off at Sotheby’s, it went for a stunning $ 11,000 (see pic at the top; more here). Just to illustrate that new specimen still emerge, I recently discovered one in the University Library in Leiden, where it was filed in an early-twentieth-century filing cabinet of the Bibliotheca Manuscript Neerlandica – since moved to a fragment collection with shelfmark BPL 3327 (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 3327 (14th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 3327 (14th century?) – Photo EK

The Leiden artifact shows all the characteristics of a rotating bookmark: a small parchment disk with four numbers and a tiny hole in the middle. Interestingly, it is only the second specimen identified in Dutch collections, although the one in Leiden is clearly the oldest of the two (here is the other). While it is hard to date the red roman numbers with precision, it appears they were put on the parchment in the fourteenth century. The striking difference with the Houghton specimen in Fig. 5 is that the new find comes without its sleeve, which does not survive. It is astonishing still that the tiny disk made it to our day and age. It must have been hidden in the darkness of a manuscript  for several hundreds of years until it got separated and became an orphan – sleeveless and without a home.