Tag Archives: decoration

Medieval Letter-People

The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).

British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Letter G: British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Looking at these unfortunate victims of book decorators – in this case the letter G from the Macclesfield Alphabet Book – may bring a smile to your face, which was probably the aim. At the same time, it is easy to overlook the sophisticated design behind such forced yoga exercises. Moreover, when you look a bit closer at this kind of book decoration, different types of letter-people may be discerned.

1. Inconspicuous letter-people
In the least conspicuous type we simply see one or more individuals hanging about near the text, minding their own business. At least, that is what you would think at first sight. When you start reading it quickly becomes clear that these people and their paraphernalia are actually forming the first letter.

Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)
Fig. 2 – Letter M: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)
Fig. 3 – Letter H: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (12th century)

In the first of these two scenes (Fig. 2), two monks hold up a structure made out of planks. When turning to the text (Gregory’s Moralia in Iob) it becomes clear that the monks and the V-shaped structure form the capital letter M (the first line reads “Mos iustorum est”). Fig. 3 is even more subtle: it shows a monk giving a wax tablet to what looks like bishop. In fact, they also form the letter H during the exchange (the start of “Hieronimus”).

2. Bending reality
Subtle as they are, it is hard to believe depictions like these were not meant to entertain. Some letters made up by human figures appear to take the entertainment factor a step further. In the same medieval set of books as the previous decorations this giant letter Q (Fig. 4) can be found.

Fig. 4 – Letter Q: Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 170 (12th century)

While the individuals forming the M and H (above) are in a natural pose, this Q is formed by two Cistercian monks (lay brothers, actually) in a most uncomfortable position. The team is chopping wood, with one monk placing an axe on the tree, while the other hits the axe with a hammer. While that must have been a common, real sight for the readers of this book, which was produced for a French Cistercian house, the backs of the  monks are rounded unnaturally in order to form the Q shape. The result is an uncomfortable-looking pose that provokes laughter.

The case of the two monks shows that bending reality can make it difficult to recognise a letter. A similar feeling surrounds a scene in another twelfth-century manuscript, one that shows a man wrestling with a beam (Fig. 5). It looks as if he is trying to lift it on his shoulders, but it appears to be too heavy. The image below it (Fig. 6) plays into the same theme of lifting. In both cases it takes a while before you recognise the letter that is expressed – the medieval reader probably got it much quicker.

Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Letter A: Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century) – Source
Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century)
Fig. 6 – Letter T: Engelberg, Stifsbibliothek, MS 4 (12th century) – Source

A closer look reveals an A in the top image (the start of the name “Arfaxath”). It has the same peculiar shape as the A seen to the left of the acrobat and his heavy beam. The unnatural pose reminds us of the two monks chopping wood: reality is somewhat stretched – or rather, bent. Fig. 6, from the same manuscript (a Bible), shows the letter T for “Tobias”, which is produced by two individuals wrestling. It is not hard to imagine that the lifted person is spinning around while making a lot of noise (that is at least how I interpret the red lines coming out of his face).

3. Bending reality further
Near the end of the medieval period manuscripts appeared in which the human body was stretched and bent like never before: model books (see my post Medieval Super Models). These objects presented decorators with ideas and actual models for the large initial letters at the beginning of a text. People (as well as animals) form a common subject matter in these model books. Interestingly, they exchanged real-life, natural scenes with sophisticated constructions that feature multiple people in strange collective acrobatic poses (Fig. 5).

London, British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Letters A, B, C, D: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1504 (1520-30) – Source

The great thing about this kind of decoration is that they are mini stories. They are much more dynamic than the scenes in Figs. 2-4, which show a single, rather static event. The letter B in Fig. 5, for example, shows a small band of people, who have to work hard for this pose. Still, one is making music, another balances on a dragon, while the old lady is supported by an old man. Readers had a lot to talk about when they saw this letter. Is the old man her husband, who is reduced to a (quite literally) supporting player? Is the man with the green jacket fighting the dragon or merely using it as a chair?

Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Letters q, r: Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21 (14th century) – Source

This theme of a bent reality where the lives of people are played out in unreal stories – while forming a letter – is also seen in other model books, such as the one made by Giovannino de Grassi, who worked at the Visconti court in Italy (Fig. 7). The letter q is made up by two knights on horseback, in an almost postmodern pose, while the letter r that follows shows a cute collection of animals.

With the animal theme the tradition has gone full circle. Animals forming letters are encountered as early as the ninth century (Fig. 8).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12 (9th century)
Fig. 8 Letter T: Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12 (9th century)

This scene shows a dog running away with a fish in his mouth, while forming the letter T (“Tum ego”) – and all this in a dead-serious text by the philosopher Boethius. It shows that entertainment using familiar objects, both humans and animals, is something universal, something that binds decorators from all corners of medieval Europe. It was sure to be a hit with the reader, who was given the chance to have a short “breather” from such heavy texts as Gregory’s Moralia and the complex ideas of Boethius. For a moment an unusual take on reality was allowed to take over and entertain.

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

Medieval Speech Bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressing Up: Medieval Books Wearing Leather

Every book needs a coat, a protective layer. Without it, after all, the pages would be exposed to the elements and the dirty hands of readers. And so from the very early days of the book the object was given a binding. Medieval bindings mostly consist of two components: boards, commonly made out of wood (but in the later Middle Ages also from compressed paper), and something to cover the boards with. While in medieval times the most common covering material was leather, there is great variation observed in the kind that was used, as well as how it was decorated. Readers and reading communities had their own preferences in this regard. As a result one can “read” as much from the outside of the book as from its pages: they both transmit important cultural-historical information. Here is a post with an exotic twist, which includes bindings made from seal and human skin.

Wearing leather

British Library, Add 89000 (7th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Add 89000 (7th century) – Source

Most medieval bindings were made out of animal skin: usually it was a calf or pig who involuntarily ended up protecting the manuscript. Leather proved an ideal material for binding books. The material is stiff, which means it does an excellent job protecting the precious cargo inside, while at the same time adding to the desired “firmness” of the book. The material also repels water quite well. This benefit may seem odd, but it’s not. While monks may not have been reading books in the bath tub, they did consult them in the cloister, which was often a damp environment – given that the hallways were in the open air.

An added bonus of leather was that it accommodated blind-tooled decoration, which was applied in mesmerising shapes and patterns. The oldest book to survive with its original binding still in place is the seventh-century St Cuthbert Gospel (which is a Gospel of John, in fact). It shows just how utterly charming early-medieval leather bindings were; and how beautifully they were decorated (Fig. 1). The manuscript in question was placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert shortly after his death in 687. It was discovered when the grave was opened in the early twelfth century. Because by then a cult had grown around St Cuthbert, the book – and its original binding – was well taken care of. In fact, the binding looks like it was made yesterday.

British Library, Papyrus 1442 (dating 716-717)
Fig. 2 – British Library, Papyrus Codex 1442, binding  (716-717) – Source

The use of leather bindings predates books made out of parchment – like the book of St Cuthbert. Before parchment became common, books were made from plants – papyrus. Such papyrus codices were extremely fragile and they needed the protective qualities of leather, which may ultimately be the origins of the tradition of using skin for bindings (Fig. 2). Given that papyrus became in disuse after the fifth century (with some exceptions), very few original bindings of papyrus books survive. The oldest specimens we have are those in the so-called Nag Hammadi Archive, which date back to the third and fourth centuries (look at some images here). As you can see from Fig. 2, these covers of papyrus books were also decorated handsomely.

Exotic leather

National Library of Sweden (c. 1200)
Fig. 3 – National Library of Sweden (c. 1200) – Source

What to do if you need a leather binding, but there are no cows or pigs to slaughter for this purpose? The answer is seen in Fig. 3, which shows a book that was copied and bound in Iceland. Naturally the binder turned to creatures that were available there. This is how a poor seal ended up covering this Old Icelandic book with sermons, which was made around 1200. If you look carefully you can still see a significant amount of hair on the outside. As with other cases where animal hair is found on book covers, the hairs have turned green over time – or perhaps from the liquids involved in processing animal skin into leather.

The story gets even more graphic. The skin used for bookbindings is not limited to animals. Under the name anthropdermic bibliopegy goes the practice of using human skin for binding books. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out to be a post-medieval practice, particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The cover seen in Fig. 4 dates from the early 17th century and the skin was taken from the priest Father Henry Garnet. He was executed in 1606 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, the attempt to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the British Parliament. The book in question actually outlines the story of the plot and the evidence of Garnet’s guilt (more on this book here and here). The origins of the binding must have given the reader significant satisfaction.

Book bound in human skin (early 17th century)
Fig. 4 – Book bound in human skin (early 17th century) – Source

The last word: cloth
Not all medieval books were dressed up in leather. Less commonly used, perhaps because it is more fragile, is cloth. This material handled the frequent use of a book far less well than leather. The real-world use of a medieval book was such that the object would be pushed back and forth over a wooden desk, which did not exactly contribute to a long life. The cloth binding seen in Fig. 5 dates from the middle of the fifteenth century and it covers a monastic rule.

Stockholm, National Library of Sweden (c. 1450)
Fig. 5 – Stockholm, National Library of Sweden (c. 1450) – Source

The manuscript has a particularly pretty button to close the volume up (see image at top of blog), adding further to the charm of this beautiful bookbinding. In the age of the printed book such cloth bindings (and embroidered ones) became more common, perhaps because increasingly more books became owned privately. This meant, of course, that the objects were not consulted on the hard surface of a wooden desk, but on the soft lap of the reader. As with embroidered bindings, which also increased in popularity in post-medieval times, cloth may have been regarded as a more suitable material for private reading. In tune with the dressing code for medieval books, the objects knew when to slip into something more comfortable.

Note – This blog post tells you more about leather bindings; it includes some great images as well.

The Skinny on Bad Parchment

My favourite activity is to touch, smell, and listen to the crackling sound of cows and sheep that have been dead for a thousand years. That’s right, I am talking about medieval parchment, the standard material for books made between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. Animal skin replaced papyrus (standard up to the fifth century) and would ultimately be challenged by paper, which competed for dominance during the later medieval period. Parchment was resilient, however, and it was even used by early printers, including Gutenberg himself – showing the use of animal skin did not die with the medieval manuscript.

There is a lot you can tell from medieval skin. Like a physician today, the book historian can make a diagnosis by observing it carefully. The best quality, for example, feels just like velvet. It usually has an even, off-white colour, and it makes no sound when you turn the page. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colours. Unlike what you may have thought, looking at imperfect skin is far more interesting than studying its perfect counterpart. This is because a defect tells a powerful story, shedding light on the book’s production and providing clues about its use and storage post-production. Here’s the skinny on bad medieval parchment.


Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century)
Fig. 1 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century) – Source

Scribes were usually not the ones to blame for a manuscript’s bad skin. A fair part of that honor goes to the parchment maker. Preparing parchment was a delicate business. In order to clear the skin of flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame, tight like a drum. If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear. As a result the reader is given an unexpected sneak peek onto the next page – where a dragon may just be introduced into the story (Fig. 1). We encounter such holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were not too bothered by them. Many scribes will have shared this sentiment, because they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them, as if to prevent the reader from falling in.

The jabs of parchment makers – and the resulting holes – were sometimes stitched together. Fig. 2 shows a former rip (a long one) snaking across the page: the scribe has stitched it up like a patient in post-op. Repairing holes was sometimes done more eloquently, as seen in Fig. 3, as well as in the image at the top of this post (Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16). In both cases the holes are not made to disappear, as with the stitching in Fig. 2, but they are highlighted by coloured threads. In some monastic communities this must have been common practice, given that they repaired a lot of books with such “embroidery” (some examples in this Tumblr post). The practice turned defect into art: good-looking bad skin.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century)
Fig. 2 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 25 (9th century) – Photo EK
Uppsala, University Library, MS C 317 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Uppsala, University Library, MS C 371 (14th century) – Source

Another skin problem encountered by scribes during a book’s production was the animal’s hair follicle – the skin organ that produces hair. These follicles show as pronounced black dots on the white page. Often parchment makers or scribes were able to sand them away, producing the desired smooth and cream-colored surface. However, if the follicles had been too deep in a calf or sheep, no dermatologist could have removed the imperfection, let alone the blunt instruments of the scribe. The only thing to do was to write around the patch (Fig. 4). The follicles are helpful because they allow us to determine – from the distance between them – whether the animal was a calf, a sheep or a goat. This, in turn, may shed light on where the manuscript was produced: the use of goat, for example, often points to Italy.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 191 A (12th century) – Photo EK

Bad skin may also tell us something about the individuals who owned, read and stored manuscripts. The presence of holes and rips may for example indicate the cost of the materials. Studies suggest that parchment was sold in four different grades, which implies that sheets with and without visible deficiencies may have been sold at different rates. If this was indeed the case, an abundance of elongates holes in a manuscript may just point at an attempt to economise on the cost of the writing support. In other words, bad skin may have come at a good price.

Parchment provides other information about readers as well, for example that he or she stored a book in an unsuitable location. Damp places, for one, would leave a mark on the manuscript’s skin, as is clearly seen in a manuscript I sometimes call the “Mouldy Psalter” – for mouldy it is (Fig. 5). On nearly every page the top corner shows a purple rash from the mould that once attacked the skin. It is currently safe and the mould is gone, but the purple stains show just how dangerously close the book came to destruction – some corners have actually been eaten away. Similarly, if a book was stored without the proper pressure produced by a closed binding, for example because the clasp was missing (as explained here), the parchment would buckle and produce endearing “waves” on the page (Fig. 6).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 2896 (12th century) – Photo EK
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 (9th century) – Photo EK

Apart from such attacks by mother nature, a manuscript could also be scarred for life by the hand of men – those evil users of books. Well known are cases where scribes and readers erased text with a knife, either because the reading was wrong or because they disagreed with it. However, in the wrong hands a knife could easily have a more severe impact on the book’s skin. All those shiny letters on the medieval page were too much for some beholders. The individual that gazed at the golden letters in the manuscript shown in Fig. 7 used his knife to remove some of them. Appropriately, it concerns a copy of Seneca’s Tragedies.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 59 (14th century) – Photo EK

While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (“Must cut out golden letters!”). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.

Note – A few days after publishing this post I found a great image in which a scribe used three holes in the page to produce the face of a laughing man – turning the flaws into art. More here. Also, since posting this I made a brief YouTube film with the Khan Academy, which shows what good and bad parchment looks like – and sounds (!). Here is the link.