Tag Archives: Manuscript

Medieval Posters

In our modern society there are words everywhere around us, all the time. They are not only written in books – that fair and most devoted carrier of text – but also on walls, where they appear in all shapes and sizes. Judging from surviving paintings, it appears that in medieval times it was less common to have words – text – displayed on walls. Looking at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous fresco Effects of Good Government in the City (1338-1340) one would assume medieval walls to be spotless, both indoors and outdoors (Fig. 1) – here is another example.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340)
Fig. 1 – Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City (Fresco, 1338-1340) – Source

Surviving artefacts suggest, however, that this medieval imagery is deceptive, that the streets we are shown in paintings were probably virtually cleaned by the painter. While rare, different types of posters survive that were once stuck to medieval walls. Curiously, they are often quite functional and bear striking resemblances to posters on our own walls

1. Advertisements
As I have shown in this older blog post, the world of the medieval book was riddled with advertisement; spam even. Medieval scribes and early-modern printers praised their own work in order to draw a crowd to their shops: “If you also want a beautiful copy like this, come and see me across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral”, the entrepreneur-scribe Herneis wrote in the back of a book with stories in Old French, which he had just completed (image here). Herneis tried to lure the reader of this spam message to the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, where a large group of commercial book makers were situated, namely all those who sold books in the French language. For Latin books you needed to go to the Rue St Jacques, in the Latin Quarter where students and teachers lived.

Because tradesmen of a certain kind usually had shops in the same neighbourhood, medieval citizens knew precisely where to go when they needed a book, a candle or a good chair – or all three, the perfect combination. This location sharing by individuals selling the same goods also came with a problem: how to convince the reader to step into your shop and not the neighbour’s? This is where the first poster comes in: the advertisement sheet (Figs. 2-3).

The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447)
Fig. 2 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 76 D 45 (dated 1447) – Source
Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis_T206 (c. 1400) – Source and more

Both fragments seen here were once part of much larger sheets, which displayed many different types of scripts. It allowed the commercial scribe to show off how well he could write and just how many different scripts (medieval typefaces) he has mastered. The one seen in Fig. 2 even displays letters written in gold, as if to tempt the reader to take a closer look at all the pretty letters on display.

The back of advertisement sheets are empty and in some cases their corners display rusty holes, which suggests they were pinned to a wall. A German sheet from 1516 invites the beholder to “come in if you see something you like”, showing that this particular sheet acted as mini window displays outside of a shop. Because such sheets also presented the names of the scripts, as seen in Figs. 2-3, the client could simply enter and tell the scribe in what kind of script he wanted his book to be written out – for example in ‘fracta’, ‘rotunda’ or ‘modus copiistarum’. These posters show us just how advanced the book trade is even before the invention of print: a jargon had emerged that united artisans and connected clients to commercial makers of books.

2. Maps

Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300)
Fig. 4 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – source and more
Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake)
Fi. 5 – Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, detail (Mandrake) – Source

Much better known posters are wall maps, though these too survive in small numbers. The perhaps best known specimen is the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 4), which was produced around 1300 and measures an astonishing 1.5 x 1.3 meters. This particular map was perhaps first put on display in Hereford Cathedral for the benefit of pilgrims, although 17th-century references suggest that by that time it was placed in the library, perhaps so it could be consulted for study purposes (source). The map contains, after all, over a thousand inscriptions and legends, such as that of the Mandrake, with roots for hair – and immortalised by the Harry Potter books (Fig. 5).

Remarkably, the Hereford map is made of a single sheet, meaning the piece of parchment at its heart was once draped around a monster of a calf. Much larger still is the older Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, which measures 3.6 x 3.6 meters and was produced in the late thirteenth century (Fig. 6). This beast of a poster, which would cover a full wall in a modern bedroom, was produced from the skins of no less than 30 goats.

Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (13th century)
Fig. 6 – Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) – Source

The Ebstorf map, which was sadly lost in the Allied bombing of Hanover in October 1943, was produced for contemplative purposes for the inhabitants of the Benedictine nunnery of Ebstorf. It allowed the beholder to observe God’s creation, the world, in all its details (more about its function here).

3. Library Catalogues
Surviving artefacts highlight the existence of yet a third category of medieval posters: wall catalogues. Again these are fairly large sheets, sometimes composed of several animal skins. The information on these objects is of a most practical kind, given that it showed readers where in the library they could find copies of certain texts (Fig. 7). As explained in this blog post, the catalogue was one of a series of instruments that helped readers find their way around the sometimes large collection of books in the monastery.

Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century) – Source

The object originally measured 800 × 590 mm and displays the contents of the library of Lopsen Abbey near Leiden, where it was pinned to the wall considering the holes in its corners. The inventory is divided into categories, such as “libri refectoriales” (books read during the meals) and “libri devoti et utiles” (books for personal, spiritual development), while books within these categories are simply numbered with Roman numerals. It shows that this is an inventory more than a catalogue. The absence of proper shelfmarks meant the reader had to go and hunt individual copies when he arrived at the lectern that held a certain category of books.

As you would expect from objects that were attached to damp walls, their backs may show signs of mould, as is the case in another wall catalogue surviving from the Low Countries (Fig. 8, lower left corner).

Fig. 9 – Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, fragment of wall catalogue, back – Photo EK, more here

There was likely much more on display on the medieval wall. The problem, however, is that even if such posters survive, it is difficult to determine that the items in question were just that. To be sure, certain damage needs to be observed, such as pin holes or mould. Quite often we just don’t know for sure if we are dealing with a display sheet, even though there are good reasons to suspect it. For example, the preserver of manuscripts at the Royal Library The Hague, Ed van der Vlist, recently found two heavily-damaged fragments (from the same item) that fit the bill quite well: a single sheet with a text on John the Baptist of which the back remains blank (Fig. 9).

The Hague, Royal library, MS 131 D 1B (15th century)
Fig. 9 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 131 D 1B, front and back (15th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist (KB)

However, while this item may well have been pinned to a wall at some point, the backside does not show any evidence of such an attachment: there is no damage or mould visible. Sadly, the example shows how a particularly fascinating type of written artefact from the age before print, the precursor of our modern poster, may be doomed to remain obscure and understudied.

The First Page of the Medieval Book

This is the first post of my new blog medievalbooks.nl. Until now I have posted short blogs on my Tumblr and longer ones on the collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. As the latter will be coming to an end, this is a good moment to start a blog with longer posts of my own.

For a reader there are few things more exciting than opening a new book and exposing its first page. How will the story start? Where is it set? Who is the main character? For the historian of the medieval book the thrill is the same, albeit for different reasons. As the squeaky wooden board falls open, various questions arise: In what script will the book be written? What layout did the scribe choose? What will the decoration look like?I love the opening page of the medieval book not just because it embodies the start of a new exploration, but also because it reveals the “whole being” of the book. Unique clues can be found on a manuscript’s first page, clues about the artisans that produced the object and the individuals who owned it over the centuries. Moreover, the opening page often provides the first inkling of the purpose for which the manuscript was made. Here we go!

Fig. 1 - Opening page of British Library, Sloane MS 2424 (fol. 1r)
Fig. 1 – Opening page of British Library, Sloane MS 2424 (fol. 1r), 12th century

The most “in your face” clue about the individuals who produced the manuscript is provided by the script – the handwriting of a medieval scribe. As you start reading the first page, certain book-historical data starts to flow. The shape of medieval letters transmits two important pieces of information: the scribe’s whereabouts and “whenabouts”. I have blogged about the peculiar process of “sensing” how old a manuscript is (read it here). A similar feeling produces a sense of the country or region where the scribe was trained – and where he, we presume, produced the book. This copy of William of Conches’ Dragmaticon philosophiae (Fig. 1) was clearly produced by a scribe trained in Southern France. Such is suggested, among other things, by the shape of Tironian “et”, which features a firm and long horizontal top that starts far left from centre (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Tironian abbreviation for 'et' (Sloane 2424)
Fig. 2 – Tironian abbreviation for ‘et’ (detail of Fig. 1)

In fact, according to this British Library record François Avril placed the manuscript in Languedoc, in the very south of France. He did so on the basis of the decoration, which is another bookish feature expressing information about the origins of a manuscript. Both the colours of the initial and the “box” placed around it have a Southern-French feel (Fig. 3), showing that both artisans – scribe and decorator – were likely trained in that region. Decoration is a key element in the pursuit of information about the makers of a manuscript. This, in turn, increases the value of the opening page, because many medieval manuscripts (including the one shown in Fig. 1) contain a decorated initial on their first page only. The start of the book had to be celebrated, as it were, providing us with clues as to where that party took place.

Fig. 3 - BL Sloane 2424, fol. 1r (detail), 12th century
Fig. 3 – Decorated initial (detail of Fig. 1)

The first page is even more important for establishing who owned the manuscript. We often forget that the average medieval book may have had as many as fifteen owners. A thirteenth-century copy, for example, is currently 800 years old. If the average reading life of an individual was forty years (meaning he started to build a library at, say, twenty years of age), we may assume that the thirteenth-century book in question has had twenty different owners. It is no surprise, then, that we often find multiple names and ex-libris inscriptions written down in medieval books.

The first page was a prime location for such details, in part because medieval librarians knew that ownership inscriptions placed on cover- and flyleaves would disappear when the book was rebound. British Library, Sloane MS 2424 features a wide array of  ownership inscriptions on its opening page, both from medieval and modern times. The oldest one is found at the very top: an ex-libris inscription in thirteenth-century cursive script (Fig. 4). It is partly erased (as one does with second-hand books), meaning the identity of the institution who owned the manuscript remains anonymous.

Fig. 4 - British Library, Sloane MS 2424 fol. 1r (ownership inscription, 13th century)
Fig. 4 – Ownership inscription, 13th century (detail of Fig. 1)

The page in question also holds more modern shelfmarks. The number “2424”, written down in an eighteen-century hand, refers to the book’s place in the library of Sir Hans Sloane (d. 1753), who owned the manuscript prior to the British Library (Fig. 5). An earlier shelfmark, “B.27”, scratched out by Sloane, was likely from one of the previous owners – which included Louis Malet and Sir Robert Cotton, as the Schoenberg Database of provenances tells us. A nineteenth-century stamp from the British Library points to the present owner.

British Library, Sloane MS 2424, fol. 1r, 17th century.
Fig. 5 Ownership inscriptions, 18th and 19th centuries (detail of Fig. 1)


The hardest thing to read from the first page of the medieval manuscript is the purpose for which the object was made. For this kind of information one may turn to dimensions and layout. The pretty manuscript in Fig. 6, for example, has margins that are slightly wider than normal. Originally the margins would have been even larger, considering that the book was bound at least twice, meaning that its width was reduced twice by the binder’s knife. Such broad margins suggest that this twelfth-century book filled with patristic excerpts was designed to be glossed. In fact, a later user did use the provided space for his (illegible) personal notes.

Opening page of British Library, Arundel MS 173 (fol. 1r)
Fig. 6 – Opening page of British Library, Arundel MS 173 (fol. 1r)

As with layout, a page’s dimensions may also provide information about the purpose for which a medieval book was created. Take the peculiar copy of Virgil’s Aeneis in Fig.  7. The book breaks with the norm of medieval book production in that the page is extremely high and narrow. We know that this format was favoured by individuals who used books in a setting of performance, such as soloists in the church and actors on the stage. Similarly, teachers in monastic schools enjoyed the narrow format, which accommodated their walking through the classroom as Virgil’s text was used to teach novices Latin grammar – a common use for classical manuscripts in this age. In sum, the likely function of Harley 2777 already jumps off its first page.

British Library, Harley MS 2777, fol. 1r, 12th century
Fig. 7 – Opening page of British Library, Harley MS 2777, fol. 1r, 12th century


For the impatient scholar who cannot wait to see the first page, narrow books like the Harley Virgil are perfect. After all, its unusual dimensions, which are so very telling for the manuscript’s purpose, are already evident when the manuscript is still sitting in its box, unopened. Even before the first page is consulted, the manuscript has already transmitted some of its secrets.

Note – You may want to check out the accompanying post devoted to the manuscript’s ‘last’ page, which was published on my project’s collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. It is reposted below (or click here).


The Last Page of the Medieval Book

I love the last page of the medieval book. Not because it means that my research of a particular manuscript is almost completed, but because the last page often provides information pertaining to the origins of the object – information not normally found elsewhere in the manuscript. This post, which discusses some of this information, is devoted to the last text page of a manuscript as well as the last physical page of the book – which are, perhaps surprisingly, not usually the same thing.

The Last Page of the Text
The last page of the text was a podium where the scribe could state information about himself and the circumstances of the book’s production. While few scribes seized this opportunity (about one in seven do say something), such added information, collected in what we call a “colophon”, can enrich our knowledge of a manuscript considerably. Some colophons provide a glance into the reality of the scriptorium or urban workshop, where a scribe toils over a piece of parchment. Well known are colophons that state such cries as “Please give me a drink!” or “Let my right hand be free from pain!” (see Fig. 1 and this MedievalFragments post).

Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5 (pic Giulio Menna)
Fig. 1 – Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5, 15th century (Photo: Giulio Menna)

More telling are colophons where a scribe lifts the veil and allows us to peek into his or her working space. The Paris artisan Herneis states on the last page of a book he copied: “If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across from the Notre Dame cathedral” (see Fig. 2 and this MedievalFragments post). There are other cases where a commercial scribe advertises his work. One from mid-fifteenth-century Holland copied the same book up to eight times (the historical books of the Old Testament), showing that his labor is a commercial enterprise. At the end of one of these he writes: “If there is somebody who would like a copy of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide it for payment, because it is beautiful” (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1006, fol. 455r).

Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)
Fig. 2 – Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th century)

While Herneis in Paris was spamming a general audience, telling them where to go for a good book, the anonymous scribe in Holland was likely addressing the individual for whom he just copied the Old Testament. When the reader got to the end of the last page, he stumbled into this not-so-subtle recommendation for more good stuff – not unlike what happens when you search for a good read on Amazon: “If you like that book, you will love this one!”

As exciting as these examples are, the really important colophons are those that read like a title page. The colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541 is an example of a particularly rich source of information about how the manuscript came to be. The colophon on the last page states: “Pray for the person who made this book, which was completed in 1484 in the city of Maaseik, where we were taking refuge after our convent had burned down” (Fig. 3). These few lines provide a wealth of information, most importantly when and where the book was made, but even something extra about the life (and suffering) of the scribe, who recently lost her home in a fire.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

The Last Page of the Book
The second kind of last page that this post highlights is the actual last page of the book. As you can see in Fig. 3, the end of the last page sometimes coincides with the end of the book, or at least with the original medieval part of it. What also happens, quite frequently, in fact, is that the last text page is followed by one or more medieval flyleaves. These are often the remaining blank leaves of a last quire, which were left in place as an extra layer of protection. Flyleaves could also be added, usually in the form of a bifolium that was fixed in between the last quire and the board, to which half of the bifolium was appended as a pastedown.

The empty flyleaf – the actual last page of the medieval book – is usually a feast to look at. It was the ideal location to test your pen, to doodle on, or to add informal notes. Some librarians favoured putting the title of the book on the last page, as in Fig. 4, where the librarian wrote “Paterius de opusculis sancta Gregorii” in a book filled with excerpts from works by Gregory the Great.

St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)

Far more entertaining (for us) are, of course, the famous doodles that were frequently placed on flyleaves. Testing the pen was a common occurrence, given that the quill had to be cut several times per day. Scribes turned to the last page of a nearby book to jot short sentences of doodle little drawings to see if the nib’s cut was in order. Interestingly, some of these trials seem to combine testing the pen and trying out decorative elements. A good example of this is the page shown in Fig. 5.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I (14th-century doodles)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodles (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

While testing his pen, the scribe of these lovely doodles actually produced shapes that would not be out of place on an actual text page as decoration. It is almost as if he was refining a skill while also dealing with the nib of his pen. After all, a nib could be tested with just a few squiggly lines. Thus the last page of the book becomes a test ground for artistic creations: it makes for an attractive last thing to glance at before closing the book.

Note: This was originally posted as my last contribution to the collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. A companion piece on “The First Page of the Medieval Book” can be read here.

The Beauty of the Injured Book

While our eyes are naturally drawn to pages filled with color and gold, those without decoration can be equally appealing. Indeed, even damaged goods – mutilated bindings, torn pages, parchment with cuts and holes – can be highly attractive, as I hope to show in this post. The visual power of damage may be generated by close-up photography, with camera and book at just the right angle, catching just the right amount of light. The following images celebrate the beauty of the injured book, the art of devastation.

1. Post-operation

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

This is what I call a Frankenstein page. It is composite in that the top part is from a different sheet, perhaps even from a different animal, than the lower half. The sheet used by the scribe was short on one side, but he still wanted to use it. In came the patch that is now the top half of the page. Where the two pieces of skin meet the scribe-surgeon punched holes through which he pulled a thin cord, joining them together. The operation was successful, the insert was not rejected, and so the page could be filled with text. Miraculously, the low-quality book was never thrown out. Instead, it limped, for centuries, to the finish line of our present day – to the safety of the Leiden University Library.

2. Bad back

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century). Pic: the author.

This poor-looking manuscript from the fifteenth century looks worn and beaten. It is so happy to be retired that you can almost hear a groan of disappointment when you take it out of its box. The manuscript is filled with school texts and it was heavily used over a long period of time. At some point the binding gave in and began to arch, like an old man with a painful back. It could do so because the book was fitted with a cheap, so-called “limp binding”. This type lacked the wooden boards of regular bindings – as well as the firm support these boards provided. Such bad backs are reflective of how popular the books once were.

3. Sliced

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1 (c. 1100). Pic: the author.

This page needs a shave. From time to time you encounter a hole in the page, but this one is special. An important stage in the preparation of parchment was removing the hair from the skin. When the parchment-maker pushed too hard with his knife, a cut like this would appear. Not unlike a distracted hairdresser, the individual who prepared the parchment overlooked a few tiny – white – hairs, which still inhabit the hole. It makes for a pretty picture with the light from behind, which also highlights the text on the other side of the page.

4. Scar tissue

3. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92 (c. 1000). Pic: the author.

This parchment sheet came from an animal with skin problems. It appears that the cow had been in a fight and was kicked. As your butcher will tell you, such kicks result in scar tissue, which he will remove. Judging from how infrequent we encounter such patches in medieval books, we may assume that skin with such damage was not processed into parchment. However, this particular book was made from off-cuts: strips of bad parchment that were cut away and thrown out. Remarkably, someone fished them out of the bin and produced a book from it (more details can be found in this YouTube movie I made). Thus this “garbage manuscript” exposes an urge for cheap materials as well as a dispute between two medieval cows.

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

5. Mouldy skin

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

And so it happened that a certain medieval reader did not pay attention and placed his book in a moist environment. And so it happened that he forgot all about the book. That is the story behind the mould on the pages of this eleventh-century Psalter. The fungi turned purple over time, producing a neat contrast between the high quality white parchment sheets and their damaged corners. It’s the beautiful despair of a book under duress.

All images were taken with a Canon Eos 600D camera and a Sigma DC 18-250 mm lens (at aperture value 6.3).

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

My Week of Lecturing in Oxford

It is the evening of Thursday 27 February, 2014, and at the moment I am sitting in The White Horse being stared at by Inspector Morse, who frequented this pub back in the day – and who seems to have left a portrait behind every time he did. When I look out the window I can see the Bodleian Library, that treasure trove of medieval books. For the past week this is where I have been: Oxford, more precisely Corpus Christi College. Invited to be the 2014 E.A. Lowe Lecturer in Palaeography, I came to the college for a week to give lectures on medieval script. I learned a lot over the past week, both from the audience’s responses and through discussions with colleagues, both inside and outside Corpus Christi College – a most welcoming and hospitable community. This blog has everything to do with medieval manuscripts, but it is more personal than usual, if you forgive me: I thought I’d give a sense of what it entails, doing lectures in a historical place like this. So here is my week of being part of a stimulating academic world.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)
Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

I arrived in Oxford last Thursday afternoon, just in time to hear @WillNoel do the annual McKenzie Lecture in bibliography in St Cross College, titled “Bibliography in Bits”. Will, Twitter celebrity par excellence, is a well-known proponent of Open Access and making digital data available for all to download and use. (“For free!” he would add to that in a loud voice.) He talked about digital surrogates of medieval books: how a manuscript’s digital representation is its own entity, how it exists – is – in its own right. He showed how a digital manuscript is a resource that teaches us things the material object itself may not reveal. His lecture (and the dinner that followed) formed a great start of my week here. It would also be the last thing I would do – until now, sitting in this pub – without a certain amount of pressure.

That pressure was not just generated by the venue, but also by the fact that the data at the heart of my lectures had just been harvested – with the indispensable help of my Research Assistant, RV. The paint of my lectures still wet, much of my free time was filled with going through my data and deducing how to expand the scope of my papers with their help. My three lectures aimed to show how the major book script of the Early Middle Ages (Caroline Minuscule, in use from c. 800 to c. 1100) morphed into the major book script of the Later Middle Ages (Littera Textualis, or Gothic script, used from c. 1200 to c. 1600). It’s a great topic because the century in between the two is filled with experimentation by scribes, of mixing older and newer features, and of fights for dominance between opposing letter shapes. My approach was threefold. First, finding a way to describe in objective terms what the actual difference is between the letter shapes in the two scripts. Second, registering in a database whether scribes in different ages and geographical areas preferred the Caroline or Gothic presentation of a letter. Third, translating this data into graphs that provide insight into the transformation from the one script into the other. Each step of my research came with challenges and limitations, but also with opportunities to advance our knowledge.

Title slide of my first lecture
Title slide of my first lecture

So, here we are, on the Friday: my first lecture. It focuses on how the transitional script from the Long Twelfth Century evolved over time. The theater is filling up nicely (about 75 people have come) and I start to do my thing. I discuss the method for about twenty minutes and then dive into the paleographical depths of the complex hybrid script. Highlighting differences between letter shapes I begin to carve out an objectified description of the road between Caroline and Gothic, focusing not on the overall impression but on hard, measurable features. I challenge the traditional temporal boundaries of the two scripts and feel brave enough to query, at the end of the lecture, whether we ought to perhaps abolish our notion of Caroline and Gothic being different scripts. Would it not be better to regard them as different expressions of the same writing system? My data certainly backed up this provocative idea. After the lecture a dinner was organized in the founder’s room of Corpus Christi Corpus: a great end of my first performance.

Then came the weekend, which I spent with family just outside Oxford – walks, pubs, and a newspaper on Sunday. On Monday I did an extra-curricular masterclass for the Centre for the Study of the Book, which runs under auspices of The Bodleian Libraries (here). It had been arranged only a few weeks earlier, within half an hour, and entirely through Twitter messages between me and @DanielWakelin1 – medieval books are so modern! In a seminar room filled with graduate students, faculty and nine medieval manuscripts I talked about two unusual book types: the elegantly tall and narrow holsterbook, and the off-cut manuscript, which is made from recycled strips of parchment. The students had picked out a selection of specimens from the Bodleian Library, adding to the class’s hands-on character. In the afternoon the Fellow Librarian of Merton College gave me a private tour through their medieval library, which is Britain’s oldest surviving library designed for use by scholars (I blogged about it here).

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)
Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Then came Tuesday and my second Lowe Lecture. Having done temporal development last Friday, it made sense to focus on the enormous regional variation in the transformation from Caroline to Gothic. When you place a manuscript from Germany next to one from France you can sense that they are not equally advanced, but with a new tool I developed I could support such intuitive verdicts with a number. I introduced the notion of Gothic Weight, which measures the “Gothicness” of a script written between 1075 and 1225. It gives a value to each of the thirty or so features I track in my database: 2 points for Gothic, 0 points for Caroline and 1 point if the script trait in question is presented in a mixed form – meaning that the scribe uses both Caroline and Gothic on the same page. When the points are added up, you end up with one number representing how advanced or behind an individual scribe was with respect to his handwriting. It means you can compare a German and a French manuscript objectively, as well as comparing Germany and France as a whole (by taking the average Gothic Weight), or even map the increase of Gothiness over time within European regions.

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)
Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Wednesday and Thursday were filled with working hard on the third paper, in which I aimed to show how Gothic script evolved not over time or in different regions, but as a novelty that was passed on to new generations of scribes. How did idiosyncrasy turn into new norm? My database did not provide an answer to this question, but using my data in combination with broader questions I could explore the very difficult question of a script’s dissemination – albeit without providing a definitive answer. The paper mainly focused on training, as I figured this was the moment when a new script feature had the chance to jump to a new user – a novice in a monastery being trained to write for the first time. In fact, such transmission would depend on the person in charge of training novices: if he was modern and advanced, then likely so would his pupils be. The main part of the paper therefore examined two cases where teacher and pupil were found on the same page: the first prompting the latter, monitoring progress, and correcting mistakes. It is exciting research given that you study, in a sense, the “homework” of a medieval scribe.

After the lecture I was invited for dinner in St Edmunds Hall and after that I retreated to the White Horse, where I am currently writing this blog. The bell for the last round has just rung, so I must be off – away from this pub and, tomorrow, from Oxford. One last time I will open the medieval gate of Corpus Christi College with my electronic key chain – a contrast that strikes me as a suitable parallel for my week of studying digitally the handwriting of medieval scribes.

More information – The full abstracts of my Lowe Lectures are found here. More about my approach to medieval script in this blog about kissing letters. Download this free book if you want to read an article I wrote on mapping script objectively.

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

What is the Oldest Book in the World?

The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.

What you do when you are kept up at night with such an existentialistic query is to consult Google. However, what Google returns does not make me a happy camper. In fact, I am provided with a very broad range of possible answers. First of all, let’s remove the weed, answers that are the result of flawed reasoning. A lot of websites, for example, confuse “book” with “text”. Wiki Answers reports: “the oldest book in the world is the Bible” (here). And Ask.com: “The oldest book in the world is entitled ‘The Instructions of Shurupak'”, which dates from 3000 BCE (here). A book and a text are, of course, very different things: like a hamburger in a bun or your legs in a pair of pants, a book contains a text, but it is not its equivalent. Equally incorrect are websites whose claims are based on the premise that a book is a printed object. Thus the oldest book in the world must surely be the Gutenberg Bible (oldest printed book in the West, from c. 1455) or Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra (oldest printed book in the East, from c. 868), as in this Huffington Post article. No, it’s not.

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed 11 May 868
1. Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China, 11 May 868.
More carefully phrased answers can be equally confusing, even when provided by reputable institutions. When the British Library purchased the St Cuthbert Gospel, the seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1104, newspapers claimed the library was in possession of “Europe’s oldest book” (see for example here and here). In its press release the British Library qualified its purchase as “the oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which is to say that it survived in its original binding (here). While this nuance is welcome, the claim feels forced – and not just because the press release atypically calls an English book “European”, no doubt to increase the impact of the purchase. The thing is, many medieval books were designed and used without a binding, which raises the question of whether the binding should even be made part and parcel of the concept “book”. Notably, if bindings are taken out of play there are other books older than the St Cuthbert Gospel, such as the sixth-century herbary right here in Leiden (Pic 2).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600)
2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600).
The issue of what precisely constitutes a “book” also lies at the heart of another prominent hit in my Google search. Stop the press, the oldest book in the world is an object that consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold written in a lost Etruscan language around 600 BC (check out the BBC news item here)! The sheets are “believed to be the oldest comprehensive work involving multiple pages”, according to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, where it is kept (Pic 3). Significant is the following assessment of the museum: similar sheets are scattered throughout the world, but those are not linked together, and therefore do not represent a book. A book, the underlying premise suggests, is an object that consists of multiple leaves bound together. So far so good – we have started our initial descent towards our answer.
Old Etruscan "book", made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
3. Old Etruscan “book”, made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
Unfortunately, the shiny Etruscan object cannot be called “the oldest book in the world”. The reason is that it consists of unfolded single sheets (golden plates, actually), which are held together by two rings (as seen in Pic 3). However, the codex (the book before print and therefore the oldest type of real book in the world) is not an object that merely consists of a bunch of leaves. It is, by contrast and definition, built from double leaves: sheets that are folded into quires. Looking for the oldest book, then, we should look among objects made from bendy, foldable writing material: papyrus (made from the plant), parchment (animal skin) and paper. Of these three writing supports papyrus is the oldest. It was roughly used for four kinds of objects: i) Unfolded sheets, used for notes and documentary purposes (example); ii) Rolls, i.e. unfolded sheets that were attached at their short side (example); iii) Book-like objects made up from group of unfolded single sheets (‘singletons’) bound together; iv) Real books made from quires (“codices”).Bingo!The oldest book must be made of papyrus. Which one could it be, however? Our search is made easy by the fact that very few papyrus books of old age survive. There are some from the seventh or eight century AD (see this one, for example, or this one). The really old specimens, however, are fragments from once complete sheets (Pic 4).
Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)
4. Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)

It is their fragmentary nature that constitutes the last – killer – hurdle on our way to the finish line. From a surviving papyrus fragment we can, unfortunately, not deduce – at least as far as I can tell – if it originally belonged to an unfolded (single) leaf or a folded (double) sheet. While catalogues often tell you that a papyrus fragment was part of a codex, in other words, that it belonged to a book made from quires (here is an example), we can, in fact, not know for sure if this was the case. Unless it sports a sharp fold, the oldest book in the world will therefore remain hidden in its vault, old but deprived of its prize.

Post-scriptum (30 Dec 2013): a recent British Library blog shows what the bindings of papyrus codices looked like. Read it here.

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

Voices on the Medieval Page (1): The Reader

This is the first part of a series highlighting instances where medieval individuals added information to an existing book, either right after its production or centuries later. What precisely did scribes, readers, booksellers and librarians scribble down? And what do these voices tell us about their relationship to the manuscript? Part 1: the reader.

A medieval book was made because an individual wanted to read, own, the text contained on its pages. However, owning a book in the age before print was a luxury. Due to the long production time (easily half a year for a long text) and the materials used (up to c. 1300 the skins of animals) the cost of a book’s production was steep, even if it contained no decoration or miniatures. This is why up to the later Middle Ages book ownership was generally confined to affluent environments, such as religious houses, courts, and the residences of merchants and patricians.

Considering how special it was to own a manuscript, it may seem remarkable that medieval readers wrote in their books. Indeed, their uninvited contributions could be considerable. While in our modern day scribbling on the page is by many perceived as an almost offensive deed, condoned perhaps only when done for study purposes, medieval readers regarded it a normal practice, an integral part of the reading experience. Marginal notes, underscored text, pointing fingers all helped to digest the text and open a dialogue with the author. Thus the pen was as important as reading glasses.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 144 (12th c): annotations added in 13th century
1) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 144 (12th c): annotations, 13th century

The most common readers’ voices heard on the medieval page concern marginal annotations to the text (Image 1). Reading St Augustine a reader may suddenly remember a relevant passage in the work of another Church Father. With a quick pen action he could opt to place a reference in the margin, perhaps evens with the name of the other authority next to it. He could even quote the referenced text, either by heart or copied from another book. Monks in particular had access to a sizable reference library, a true temptation for the critical reader seeking to interact with the text in front of him.

Alternatively, a reader may jot down a clarifying sentence next to a passage that was hard to understand. In Latin books such notes may start with “Id est”(this is, this means). They are particularly common in university textbooks, but they are also frequently encountered in learned books from other environments – including monasteries. Clarifying notes are usually placed in the margin, that inviting ocean of empty space (as much as 50% of the medieval page was margin). Shorter notes were sometimes scribbled in between the lines. More exceptionally, readers drew clarifying schemes to makes sense of the sense (Image 2).

Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, MS 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram added in 13th century
2) Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram, 13th century

Highlighting information
Alternatively, a reader may use his pen to highlight important information. He could do so by drawing lines in the margin alongside the text, as we would do today, but there were also more sophisticated means. A particularly attractive one is the pointing finger (Image 3). This well-known signpost comes in different variants. On the one end of the spectrum there is merely the hand with its pointing finger, which is usually extended; on the other end there are hands with elaborated sleeves (like this one), or even those with entire bodies attached to them. A less conspicuous way of pointing out important information was to place the word “nota” (attention) next to it in the margin. The manner in which these signs were executed is highly personal: readers made their own customized pictogram out of the four letters of the word.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 60: finger pointing at marginal note
3) St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 60 (11th c): finger pointing at marginal note

Pointing out flaws
Sometimes a reader noticed that something he read was terribly wrong, prompting him to dip his quill in the ink pot. He may, for example, expunge the incorrect words by placing dots underneath them and write the correct reading nearby. Scribes often rid the text of copying flaws after they finished their job, but the picky reader may still find plenty to correct. Some got agitated by the mistakes they encountered as they made their way through the book. The individual who read a late-fourteenth century Dutch Gospel Book now in Vienna remarked the following when he was a third-way into the text, having already corrected dozens of mistakes: “These Gospels have been translated poorly; [the translator] did not understand them very well” (Dese evangelien sijn alte matelec gedietscht, diet dede verstont se qualec). (Image 4).

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): "what a poor translation!"
4) Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): “what a poor translation!”

Personal remarks
This frustrated outcry shows that readers’ corrections did not just concern flaws left behind by the scribe, but also included mistakes that were “baked” into the text from its very conception – when it was first made by the author or translator. They also show how personal (and opinionated!) readers’ remarks may be. There were other reasons to leave personal statements in a book. An enjoyable case for those who love medieval book culture is what Hector van Moerdrecht, Carthusian in Utrecht, had to say about two particularly narrow books in the library. In both he jotted on the flyleaf: “This book does not have the required width; it is too narrow and high”. His verdict was correct because the books do break with the rule for medieval page proportions. Van Moerdrecht’s words sound like those of a disappointed reader, or perhaps they were meant to offer an apology to his fellow monks. As the examples above emphasize, Carthusians were keen on presenting text in a “proper” manner.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1 (11th c).
5) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 1 (11th c): “Alter liber habet…”.

Logistic remarks
Then there are, finally, instances where it was necessary to add signposts to the page. A reader could, for example, point to another relevant text in the same manuscript (“see also further, on page …”). Particularly interesting are references to books in the library that presented alternative readings of a word or a passage. “Alter liber habet calatis” (our other book has “calatis”) we read in the margin of Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1, a late-eleventh century copy of Dioscorides’ De materia medica (Image 5). Such a remark suggests that the individual went through the text critically, comparing it, apparently, with a second copy in his vicinity. Indeed, another reader of the same manuscript frequently placed the letter “r” for “require” (check!) in the margins, showing that he, too, had felt the need to check up on the quality of the text.

Looking at the input of readers on the medieval page makes for exciting research as it allows us to look over the shoulder of the very individuals whose books we study. Evidently, many medieval readers read with a pen in their hand, ready and willing to make their mark on the page and in the text. It is remarkable to observe, finally, how the reader did not shy away from exposing himself as a know-it-all, perfectionist, micro manager, or even, in case of the sneer about the poor translation, as a bit of a grump.

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