Tag Archives: manuscripts

The Secrets of Medieval Fonts

One of the fundamental things in a medieval book is letters – those symbols that fill up page after page and that make up meaning. Each one of us human beings writes differently and considering that medieval books were made before the invention of print, it follows that the scripts they carry show a great variety in execution styles. This is perhaps the most amazing experience of spending a day going through a pile of medieval books in the library: the immense variation in the manner in which the text is written on the parchment pages.

No surviving artefact underscores this point of variation better than advertisement sheets of commercial scribes. The one in Fig. 1 was produced by Herman Strepel and through it he shows off his expertise – and in a sense his merchandise – to customers who visited his shop. The blank back shows that the sheet was hanging on the wall, like a menu in a fast-food restaurant. He even wrote the names of the scripts next to the samples, in appealing golden letters, like a good businessman (more about advertisements from the medieval book world in this post).

Writing Sheet
Fig. 1 – Advertisement sheet for scripts, c. 1450 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45) – Source

In this wild party of letter shapes roughly two categories of variation can be observed: first, the shape of medieval letters differs because they belong to different script families; and secondly, their precise execution varies because the scribes opted for a particular size, thickness, quality, and pen angle. Remarkably, this variation is still preserved in our modern notions of typefaces, which represent the families, and fonts, which express the variation within these families, for example concerning size (for their meaning, see here).

If we forget, for a moment, that letters themselves convey meaning, these two levels of variation – choice of script and of its execution – comprise perhaps the greatest value: letters show us when a manuscript was made. This information comes in extremely handy considering that the title page was not yet invented. But how do we find it? Welcome to the secretive world of handwritten letters from the Middle Ages.

Tick, tock
Medieval script tells time, although usually not very precisely. Take for example the three major script families from the medieval period: Caroline minuscule (Fig. 2, sample 1), Pregothic script (Fig. 2, sample 2), and Littera textualis or Gothic script (Fig. 2, sample 3).

script samples
Fig. 2 – Three medieval script families: St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 14 (9th century); Leiden, University Library, BPL 196 (12th century); London, British Library, Arundel 28 (13th century)

Despite the fact that these three families are relatively easy to distinguish and identify, they were used for extensive periods of time: Caroline (nr. 1) from c. 800 to c. 1050, Pregothic (nr. 2) from c. 1050 to c. 1250, and Gothic from c. 1250 to c. 1500. In other words, merely identifying the family of handwriting is not enough to pinpoint when precisely a book was made. To get that information one needs to do more – and this is where things start to get a bit more complicated.

To know when a book was copied, one needs to investigate where in the timespan of a script the sample in question can be placed. Does a style of writing fit better in the early stages of a script, is it representative of the end of its life cycle, or perhaps rather somewhere in the middle age? To be able to answer this question one needs to know how the font in question developed over time. This is the kind of research I have been doing over the last few years, called quantitative paleography because it uses a high volume of verifiable data. Thus it is possible to map how Pregothic evolved by tracking,for example, the letter pair de (Fig. 3, magnifying glass).

1156-57 BM Charleville BM 246 B, f. 138v (detail) (1)
Fig. 3 – Letter pair “de” in Charleville, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 246 B (dated 1156-1157).

Here the two elements of this letter pair, which was written down in 1156 or 1157, are touching one another, albeit only slightly. Just twenty years earlier these same letters would still have been written fully separated. This becomes clear when we gather data from manuscripts that bear a date (like the one in Fig. 3), which they do every now and then. When this data is gathered one can deduce, with statistical support, when certain features were born or when they died. Thus data shows, for example, that the touching of de is first encountered in the period 1150-1175. The process, which I dubbed “kissing” in this free downloadable book (which also shows how the method works), continues until the two letters fully overlap. This is called “biting” by script experts (Fig. 4, magnifying glass).

BL Arundel 28
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, MS Arundel 28 (1250-1300)

In fact, the pair highlighted in Fig. 4 has moved so close together that they share the central vertical pen stroke: the right side of d is also the left side of e. The two have literally become inseparable, because separating them would leave one of them incomplete. The data – gathered from 342 dated manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 – shows how biting emerged at different moments in different letter pairs: first in pp, then in de and do, and subsequently in some others. (Fig. 5). It shows how even a single script feature needed time to spread to all corners of the script.

Fig. 5 – Kwakkel, “Biting, Kissing and the Treatment of Feet”, p. 207 – Source

Secret – not
The average medieval scribe knew a number of scripts by heart. Commercial producers of books, discussed at the outset of this post, aimed to please a diverse clientele and will therefore likely have known more fonts than any other type of scribe, including the monk (Fig. 6). The latter was very conservative: he did not often have a broad palette of scripts and he was disinclined to adapt his manner of writing on command. Still, even within single scripts monks show variation in the style of execution. Interestingly, he poured into something from his cultural-historical background in the shape of letters, revealing to the attentive beholder when precisely he wrote a book, even when he did not give this piece of information away explicitly.

Fig. 6 – Scribe at work: London, British Library, MS Royal 4 B.i (Rochester, 1100-1125)

How the letters were formed may also reveal other things about the scribe, for example where he or she lived, or even that it was a hasty book project. Unveiling this hidden information in handwriting is difficult, because letter shapes do not easily give up their secrets. Still, the increasing popularity of Digital Humanities and the tendency of modern script experts to map the development of handwriting with the help of verifiable data makes it increasingly more difficult for scribes to hide their secrets.

Postscriptum – In response to some helpful remarks on Twitter, I am aware, of course, that scripts and fonts – as used in the title – are not the same thing. However, I like the comparison of the two, and used it here, because just like medieval script, a font relates both to the notion of family (Times New Roman) and its execution (e.g. a 12 point letter). More on fonts and typefaces here (via John Mulloy, @MulloyJohn).

Dirty Old Books

Most of us have said “I love this book!” at one point or another. However, what we mean by it may differ a great deal. If you are like me, this statement has little to do with how enjoyable a given read is. Instead, it is literally: what a great object I’m holding! The other day I was in Leiden University Library, my stomping grounds, looking at a ninth-century manuscript containing various school texts. I thumbed through its leaves and saw different individuals writing down different texts. I saw readers mumbling over worn pages, interacting with texts, crossing out lines and writing down notes in the margins. And I saw how even later readers had added their own pages with additions. And that is when I heard myself whisper: “I love this book.” To me, this quirky, millennium-old object, with its dirty and heavily used pages, was simply paradise. But what makes these worn manuscripts so attractive – and useful – for the historian of the medieval book?

Reading the Reader
Some medieval books look like they were made yesterday. The pristine page still breaths medieval air, as if its maker has just left the room. It’s not difficult to like this type of manuscript: the excitement when you open it is like entering your brand new car for the first time. Or rather, your brand new vintage car, as most medieval manuscripts are pretty worn. These are used books – and they have often been so for five hundred to a thousand years. Importantly, their wear and tear has a story to tell: medieval users were pragmatic and the traces they left behind tell us a lot about how they used a manuscript.

Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): string-bookmark – Photo EK

For example, a reader may sew a tiny piece of string in the corner of the page (Fig. 1). In fact, this particular manuscript contains many of these make-shift bookmarks, as if the reader was sitting behind the book with needle and thread ready at hand. Bookmarks are great little devices, smart even, as this earlier post shows. Interestingly, they are also quite telling about the popularity of a specific book and in particular which pages were most important – since that is why a reader would like quick access to them.

Dirt is another indicator of frequent use and, in a sense, of a book’s popularity. The same manuscript as in Fig. 1 has a lot of dirt build-up in the folds. There are even leaves from trees encountered from time to time (Fig. 2). It is possible that these acted as environmentally-friendly bookmarks, ultimately helping us to gauge a reader’s interest.

Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, VLQ 99 (12th century): dirt and leaf in fold – Photo EK

A particularly engaging mark of use are instances where a medieval individual introduces himself to you. “Hello my name is Peter,” the inscription Petrus at the bottom of a twelfth-century page seems to express (Fig. 3). The name, written in a hesitant and uneasy fashion, has the look of having been written by a person learning to write, a child perhaps. Given that this book was produced in a monastic environment, we may well be dealing with a novice (a young member of the community) who had just mastered pen and ink. “I can write,” this inscription says. “I am Peter and I can write!”

Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 21 (12th century): marginal inscription – Photo EK

Wear and tear is another way in which the manuscript shows that it was used a lot – that it had been popular among a group of medieval readers. It is not uncommon to see pronounced discolouration at the lower left corner of the page. The dark patches that can sometimes be observed there result from generations of fingers turning the page. Pages with such dirty lower corners usually also turn quite easily, as if the structure of the parchment is loosened up by the repeated turning of pages. Occasionally one encounters a page like the one seen in Fig. 4, which is dirty all over its surface. One wonders how clean the readers’ hands were – also after consulting such a dirty book.

Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, VLF 94 (9th century): dirty page – Photo EK

Use or abuse?
The previous examples have drawn attention to an interesting truism: the more a manuscript was used, the dirtier it became. It appears, interestingly, that medieval readers had a very different attitude towards how one ought to interact with books. I don’t think many readers today would be willing to stab one of their books and insert a string, as seen in Fig. 1. And who would write his or her name on the page in such joyful, large script as the unknown Peter did in Fig. 4? Judging from the high frequency with which medieval readers jotted down notes in the margins, it becomes clear that books were seen as utilitarian objects, which could be treated in any way the reader saw fit. If the clarity of a text increased from having marginal notes written next to it, then the benefit of having those notes there would override any feelings of hesitation produced by having to write in your book.

However, the line between use and abuse is thin. You had to be careful when writing new text in the margins of an existing book, because while the ink was still wet it could easily produce smudges. The reader who annotated the manuscript with Ovid in Fig. 6, wiped out his thought (phrased in Dutch vernacular) by mistake. Peter-Who-Could-Write in Fig. 3 made the same mistake, because his name is also smudged. Peter’s finger must have been really dirty, because the parchment surrounding his name shows a lot of inky stains.

Fig. 5 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 163 (13th century): Dutch note, smudged- Photo EK

There are many examples of medieval manuscripts being a victim of their readers’ abuse. Fortunately for us, some abuses provide clues as to how the book was used. A good example of this is the manuscript page seen in Fig. 6, which shows a law manuscript with candle wax dripped all over the text – note the big yellow blob. It is not difficult to see a medieval student at work, late at night, perhaps studying for his exam the next day. It is dark and the only light is artificial: a candle. However, using a candle is risky, especially when you are trying to read a tiny note that is written in the between the lines: drip.

Fig. 6 – Liverpool, Sydney Jones Library, MS 4.20 (13th century): candle wax – Photo EK

Dirt and other undesired elements on the page are very frequently encountered and the examples here show how they can be evidence of how the reader interacted with the manuscript. From time to time, however, rather than showing negligence or carelessness, human interaction with medieval books shows something else, for example how liberal or prudish a reader was. Check out what the user of the fencing manual in Fig. 7 did to cover up the private parts of the two opponents: big fat drops of red wax (of the type used for making seals) were splashed on the page to bring the scenes in line with the standards of the prudish reader. No problem to behold two stabbing figures in a battle for survival, but we don’t want to see them do it naked. What a dirty book.

Fig. 7 – Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Var. 7 (16th century): obscured nudity – Source


Postscriptum: Kate Rudy (St Andrews) has done substantial work on dirt in medieval books and has even found a way to quantify dirt with the help of a densitometer (read about it here).

X-Rays Expose a Hidden Medieval Library

Readers of this blog probably know that early-modern book bindings contain hidden treasure: fragments cut from medieval manuscripts, ranging from small snippets to full pages. The fragments were placed inside bindings to reinforce the bookblock and to provide support for the boards (see this post I wrote about it, and this one as well). This recycling process – plain-old slicing and dicing, really – was common practice, old-fashioned as handwritten books had become after the invention of print. In fact, medieval pages are found in as many as one in five bindings of printed books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  While the stowaways are normally hidden from our eyes, we sometimes get to meet them face to face when a binding is damaged (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, 583, printed work (16th century) with medieval fragments inside (12th century) – Photo EK

But what to do with the thousands of fragments that are hidden from us in bindings that are still in pristine condition? This simple question became the drive behind the development of a method to examine fragments without removing or damaging the bindings. The method, which was presented this week, encompasses medieval book history (executed by me) and Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (developed by Joris Dik, Delft University).This post gives you an exclusive look behind-the-scenes at how we managed to digitally leaf through invisible pages and gain access to a hidden library.

The plan

Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection - Photo Julie Somers
Fig. 2 – Leiden, University Library, fragment from BPL collection – Photo Julie Somers – Source

In the spring of 2014 I was asked to write a short piece about ideas or approaches that could potentially change a scholarly discipline, even if they were not yet feasible.  I wrote about how we might be able to access a hidden medieval “library” if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings (Fig. 2). Take their carriers– printed books whose bindings are enforced with the fragments – and give them a ride on the luggage belt at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Let’s give them a bit of x-ray love, I suggested, half jokingly (here is the piece I wrote).

Then I remembered that a fellow member of The Young Academy, Joris Dik, developed an x-ray technology that enables researchers to look through paintings, in search of the earlier stages of the composition. Joris and I secured funding through The Young Academy to transport his Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (or MA-XRF) scanner to Leiden University Library, an institution that greatly supported the unusual kind of research we were planning to undertake. We dubbed our endeavour the “Hidden Library” project and on October 4th, 2015 we started firing away at early-modern bindings in Leiden University Library.

The theory

Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath
Fig. 3 – Rembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneath – Composed from images in this source

The Macro X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (MA-XRF) technology was developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University, in collaboration with industrial, academic and museum partners. The machine was designed in such a way that it could be transported to a museum in a few crates. There it would be used to show hidden paint layers in paintings by Rembrandt and other old masters. For example, in collaboration with partners in Antwerp Joris Dik successfully showed an unfinished self-portrait by Rembrandt, which was hidden underneath a painting of an old man (Fig. 3) – here is a more recent Rembrandt discovery. A thin beam of X-rays is used to scan the object, charting the presence and abundance of various elements below the surface. Theoretically, the technology ought to make it possible to show medieval inks as well, even when they are covered by a layer of parchment, paper or leather – the most common materials that hide medieval binding fragments from our eyes. But would it?

The practice

The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University
Fig. 4 – The MA-XRF-scanner developed by Joris Dik and his team at Delft University – Photo EK

The answer to this question came very quickly after we hit the switch: yes. However, interdisciplinary research often comes with complications. Yes, we see text, but no, we could not read it. And so a series of experiments were undertaken by the team (which also included two research assistants, Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden). For one thing, we learned that the distance between the head that released the x-ray beam and the fragment in the binding was key to our success (Fig. 5). A device was built that allowed us to adjust this distance between head and fragment with half a millimeter (the image was taken before it was completed).

The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19
Fig. 5 – The head of the MA-XRF scanner working at the 16th-century binding of Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19

Another variable we had to master was the length of time needed to scan the fragment. The head was moving back and forth in front of the scanner (Fig. 4), but how slow did this movement need to be? How long should the scanner scan before moving on to the next bit? When was it clear enough for me to read? Ultimately these nuts were cracked, meaning we were able to see a fragment through a binding. In fact, we managed to do it in such a way that the text was clear, legible and datable, as the following examples show (Figs. 6-8).

Example 1: fragment underneath paper
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11 (16th-century): 15th-century fragment visible underneath paper cover – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 2: fragment inside a parchment binding
Fig. 7 – Leiden, University Library, 617 F 19 (16th century): 15th-century fragment seen inside a parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö
Example 3: large fragment inside parchment binding
Fig. 8 – Leiden, University Library, 180 E 18: large fragment inside parchment binding – Photo Anna Käyhkö

We ultimately scanned around twenty different early printed books. This seems a modest amount, but the main aim of the Hidden Library project was to discover if we could indeed expose bindings to x-rays and reveal the medieval fragments inside. In that respect the project was a success.

Challenges for the future
Before we start thinking that this method will enable us, starting right now, to trace thousands of new fragments, we are forced to take a reality check. First of all, the second variable – of how long a binding needed to be scanned in order to reveal its hidden treasure – remains a practical road block between science and unveiling a medieval source that has never been tapped into systematically. The images you see in Fig. 6-8 were each produced with over 24 hours of scanning time. A shorter period makes fragments visible, but not legible, as seen in Fig. 9 (which shows the same fragment as in Fig. 6, yet exposed significantly shorter).

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11
Fig. 9 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, short exposure

Secondly, another problem is to distinguish between the text on the front and back of the fragment. Depending on the composition of the ink, it may or may not be possible to separate the two sides of a leaf. Iron, for example, will be returned from both sides of a leaf, producing a peculiar image like the one seen in Fig. 10. One has to look for elements that only show the side closest to the beam, which in this case is calcium. Consequently, this particular fragment is seen in its most optimal form when only calcium is shown, as is the case in Fig. 6.

Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron
Fig. 10 – Leiden, University Library, 603 G 11, iron returns text from both sides of leaf at same time

So yes, the new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper. However, the method is not yet perfect in that it comes with challenges that need to be overcome, of which the long exposure time is the most significant. To stay within the analogy of this post, while the door to a virtual medieval library has been opened by the MA-XRF technique, we need to find a way to enter and take a look around as quickly and efficiently as we would in a real library.

The interdisciplinary research introduced here was executed by Joris Dik (Delft University) and Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University) in close collaboration with the University Library Leiden. Fundamental in our research was the help of the library’s conservator, Karin Scheper (who is, by the way, a guest blogger for medievalbooks). Two research assistants worked with us for the duration of the project: Anna Käyhkö and Jorien Duivenvoorden. The project was financed by De Jonge Akademie (The Young Academy), a branch of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen (The Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences). Two formal publications, providing a more detailed description of the research and its results, are planned. Various national Dutch news outlets have paid attention to the project (newspaper, radio [start at 9.50 min] and television [start at 20 sec.]).

Judging a Book by its Cover

What a clever device the book is. It is compact and light, yet contains hundreds of pages that hold an incredible amount of information. Moving forward or backward in the text is as easy as flipping a page, while the book’s square shape and flat bottom facilitates easy shelving. Still, the object is useless if the information it contains cannot be found. And so tools were developed to help the reader do just that, such as page numbers, running titles, and indices. As familiar as these aids may be, they are older than you think. The page number, for example, is encountered in papyrus manuscripts made some two thousand years ago (see this older blog post).

Crucially, to look up information in a book you must have first located the object. And so the shelfmark was invented, the equivalent of our call number. By the end of the medieval period it had become as clever as the book to which it was added: letters, digits, and even colour coding was used to guide the reader to a particular manuscript (see this post on GPS in the medieval library). This post explores the medieval roots of yet another tool for finding a specific book, one that is as popular now as it was in medieval times: title and author information displayed on the spine and dust jacket.  How did the outside of the medieval manuscript communicate what was hidden inside?

1. Text on leather

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292
Fig. 1 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292 (c. 1100) – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover (detail)
Fig. 2 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 292, front cover, detail (14th century)

Why make things complicated? The easiest way to identify a manuscript was to simply jot the title on the front cover, straight on the leather of the binding (Figs. 1-2). Although one might imagine that this is how the tradition of our modern cover information began, there are too few original bindings left to know for sure. The manuscript seen in Figs. 1-2 is important as it shows that the practice goes back to at least the fourteenth century.

The manuscript shown in Figs. 1-2 was copied around 1100 and still has its original binding. Interestingly, this tells us that for 200-300 years users were quite content with an “anonymous” book, which did not provide a clue to what information it contained. This is all the more striking when you consider that during these three centuries the library where the object was held, in the abbey of St Gall, harboured several hundred books. How on earth did the monks find their way to the texts contained within this binding?

2. Title labels

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, front cover
Fig. 3 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237 (9th century), front cover – Source
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 237, paper label (14th century?)

Writing text on a manuscript’s cover, as seen in Fig. 2, was not easy. The structure of the leather could be coarse and the surface uneven, which made it potentially difficult to write the title information legibly. More importantly, when the leather had a dark color, a black title may simply not be visible. In such cases it made more sense to write the information on a parchment or paper slip – a label – that was subsequently pasted on the cover, as is still common practice in libraries today.

The manuscript in Figs. 3-4, which features a parchment label, shows how incredibly effective this practice was: it clearly reads Liber ethymolo[giarum] Isidori, telling the reader that he was about to open Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. These paste-on labels could be quite extensive (Fig. 5). In fact, some book owners preferred to have the entire contents displayed on the outside, even if the object held ten works (Fig. 6).

Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29
Fig. 5 – Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, MS HRC 29 (10th-11th centuries), label 15th century – Source
Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20, label on front cover (15th-century)
Fig. 6 – Schlatt, Eisenbibliothek, MS 20 (13th century), label 15th-century – Source

As detailed as these labels are, they exclusively list the titles of the works contained by the manuscript, not the authors’ names. It appears as if the librarian who labeled these manuscripts judged the title (and not the author) to be the best identifier of the object.

3. The fenestra
Paper or parchment title shields were sometimes placed under a thin piece of horn (bone), for protection (Figs. 7-8). The so-called “fenestra” (window in Latin) was secured to the wooden cover with nails: it was clearly going nowhere (Fig. 8). This type of cover information can be seen as the next step in the process of providing efficient book titles: a clear and permanent label, hammered into wooden boards with nails. It is a far cry from the on-the-fly title hastily written directly on leather (here is another example).

San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300 (15th century) – Source and more
San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra
Fig. 8 – San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 35300, fenestra

The fenestra is often found on manuscripts that were part of a well-organised library. It may therefore contain quite a bit more information than merely the title or the author. The one seen in Fig. 8 is from the library of the Carthusian house of Syon in Middlesex, England. The label is clever and reads:  “V. Beda de gestis Anglorum. Idem super actus apostolorum et epistolas canonicas. 2o fo et prassini”. The main piece of information concerns what is found inside: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Bede’s commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and on the New Testament’s Canonical Epistles.

However, it also mentions the first words of the second folium: secundum folium [incipit] et prassini, the second folium starts with “et prassini”. These words formed a unique identifier, for no two copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will have had these very words at the start of the second leaf. This technique was commonly used to identify unique copies for inclusion in a monastery’s book inventory or library catalogue. It is probable that this is the reason why the fenestra contains the phrase: to link this specific book to the monastery’s catalogue.

4. Spine titles

Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio
Fig 9 – Fore-edge decoration by Cesare Vecellio – Source (Source title image)

Not only was a book’s title and name of the author jotted down on the front cover, it would ultimately also feature on the spine, as any modern reader knows. This part of the tradition has its own path of development. It all started on the fore-edge, the long side of the book that shows the paper or parchment pages. From at least the fourteenth century decoration was added to this location. Few books have been so lavishly decorated as Ordorico Pillone’s, who, around 1580, had the artist Cesare Vecellio decorate the fore-edge of 172 books in his library with stunning designs (Fig. 9). The technique would be perfected in the nineteenth century, when the magically disappearing fore-edge decoration was invented (example here).

In medieval times the edges of the book block were not usually decorated, while the design was commonly modest (Fig. 10-11). Although there are exceptions to this rule, as a potentially medieval fore-edge decoration in Durham shows (more here).

London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (1
Fig. 10 – London, British Library, Egerton MS 2610 (decoration: 14th century) – Source and more
London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (before 1416)
Fig. 11 – London, British Library, Burney MS 275 (decoration: before 1416) – Source

The manuscript in Fig. 11 shows that medieval fore-edge decoration could serve a functional purpose, because it concerns the coat of arms of Jean, duc de Berry (d. 1416). We may assume the books in his library were positioned with the fore-edge faced outward, as was common practice in many medieval libraries – in fact, this was done until well into the 17th century, as this image shows. How impressive his library must have looked to visitors: dozens of precious books, all evidently owned by the duke.

Given that the fore-edge was facing the reader, this location was also the perfect place to write down the title or author of the work contained by the volume. ‘Quaestiones morales’ (moral questions), a 15th-century hand wrote on the fore edge of an incunable printed in 1489 (Fig. 12). The earliest cases I encountered date from the early fifteenth century, although our view may be skewed because such fore-edge titles disappeared when binders in the early-modern period refitted the books with new bindings.

Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487)
Fig. 12 – Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, INC_M26 (1487) – Source

When books finally turned their backs to the reader, the title ended up where it is still found today: on the spine. Based on my own experience, this practice was not common in medieval times, for the simple fact that manuscripts were not usually placed with their backs facing the reader. Cases from the early-modern period are plentiful. In fact, it became so popular that some readers wrote extensive tables of contents on the backs of their books (Fig. 13).

Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek
Fig. 13 – Shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek – Photo EK, more

The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period).

Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the “dust jacket” with title actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century. Curiously, in the same century the Latin titulus was first used for denoting the title of a book (see here), which may also indicate that titles did not exist before then. If correct, this reconstruction suggests that for much of the Middle Ages readers could not tell what texts were found inside a book. Generations of frustrated monks had to wander through the library opening and closing manuscripts until they had found what they were looking for.

The Incredible Expandable Book

Like most objects, books are confined to the space they occupy, obedient as they are to the laws of nature. That is to say, unlike the Incredible Hulk, they do not normally expand beyond the limits of their own physicality. This post will challenge your beliefs if you agree with this statement. It draws attention to types of medieval books that do expand beyond their physical limits: with a flick of the finger or a gesture of the hand the dimensions of these special objects increased dramatically, up to ten times their original size. As if defying the laws of nature, this miraculous expansion increased the available writing space in objects that were principally designed to be small and portable. The examples in this post suggest that this given of “doing more with less” was an important drive behind the clever design of expandable books.

1. The folding almanac

London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century)
Fig. 1a – London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century) – Source
London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century)
Fig. 1b – London, Wellcome Library, MS 8932 (15th century) – Source

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you are no stranger to small books made for portability. The same goes for the almanac seen in Fig. 1. Produced in England in 1415-1420, it contains a calendar as well as astrological tables and diagrams. The information was used by physicians to diagnose and prognosticate, while the calendar provided information about feasts. Most of these almanacs, some thirty of which survive, look more scruffy than the pretty specimen in the Wellcome Library, which may not have seen much practical use (more here).

London, Royal Society, MS 45 (c. 1400)
Fig. 2 – London, Royal Society, MS 45 (c. 1400) – Source

Folding almanacs were especially popular in late-medieval England, assuming surviving specimens form an accurate representation. The objects are particularly interesting from a material point of view. During production the folding almanacs looked very much like a regular book: the scribe filled regular pages with text. However, in a completed state, when the binding was added, the pages were folded in a very clever way, giving the object an “unbookish” look. The precise manner of folding differed, as Figs. 1-2 show. Both fold in three steps, but the folding sequence is different. The leaves ‘sit’ different too. The specimen in Fig. 2 seems more prone to damage than the other almanac, because the expanding part (the four zones that are slightly lighter) are attached to the actual book by means of a delicate hinge.

2. The accordion book

Copenhagen, Royal Library, MS NKS_901 (dated 1513)
Fig. 3 – Copenhagen, Royal Library, MS NKS_901 (dated 1513) – Source

Both almanacs above provide six times more writing/reading space in their expanded form, which is quite amazing. However, this is still considerably less than another type of expandable manuscript: the accordion book. Fig. 3 shows illustrated specimen (a calendar) made in Denmark in 1513. While in its folded state the object is as small as a matchbox, it expands to a full page of considerable proportions, comparable to a regular-sized medieval book (more information here, facsimile here). Curiously, the calendar has a most unusual way of unfolding: sections of the sheet expand independently, like little flaps from a pop-up book (note the “incisions” on the right half of the object, as seen in Fig. 4 – full image here).

Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 901
Fig. 4 – Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 901, detail – Source

The Copenhagen accordion book is a very small portable object. Even though in its expanded state it became much larger, due to the limited size of the object in its folded state, the expansion produced a relatively small writing/reading surface. The remarkable thing about accordion books, however, is that their surface space could be considerable, even when the actual object (in its folded state) was still of modest proportions. My own Leiden University Library owns a copy from fourteenth-century Russia which is only 120 mm in height. The whole thing resembles the dimensions of an iPhone (Fig. 5). In expanded state, however, the book becomes no less than 3750 mm wide, meaning that the surface actually increases by an astonishing factor of ten.

Leiden, University Library, SCA 38 B (14th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, University Library, SCA 38 B (14th century) – Photo Giulio Menna

It is hard to say what the upside is of this book format. After all, if the same pages had been bound in a regular (non-accordion) fashion, it would accommodate the same amount of text. Perhaps the format was favoured because of a certain ease of use? It is easier, for example, to access the information in the book without using one’s hands. Also, without flipping any pages, the reader had access to a great deal more than the usual two pages of a book opening, which may perhaps have been handy in certain modes of use.

3. Rolls

Manchester, Chetham's Library, Armburgh 02 1024 (1430-1450)
Fig. 6 – Manchester, Chetham’s Library, Armburgh 02 1024 (1430-1450) – Source

What looks like a cigar, is actually the most common and oldest expandable bookish object: the roll (Fig. 6). This object probably held the most information in relation to its dimensions. Rolls had been in use for a long time when the book finally came around in the fourth century (see my post What is the Oldest Book in the World? and more information on rolls here). During the Middle Ages the roll format remained in use longest in administration. It was not until the late thirteenth century, for example, that cities in North-West Europe switched to the book form to write down their income and expenses – the city of Bruges still used rolls for this purpose in the 1280s.

Rolls can be quite long. One of the longest that survives from the medieval period is a mortuary roll that was carried to 253 monasteries, nunneries and cathedrals across England and France during the 1110s (source). Mortuary rolls were produced to commemorate the death of a prominent person, in this case Abbess Mathilda of Holy Trinity Abbey in Caen. Like writing a joint birthday card today, clerics in France would add their say to the roll, which grew and grew, until it finally reached a length of 22 meters (72 feet). Genealogical rolls could also be quite long (Fig. 7), though not as exceptionally long as the mortuary roll made for Abbess Mathilda.

Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 1 (15th century)
Fig. 7 – Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 1 (15th century) – Source

From time to time unusual rolls are encountered, like the one seen in Fig. 8. This one is special because the fourteenth-century object comes rolling out of a book (of slightly later date), which functions as its sleeve. The end of the roll (again holding a calendar) is simply pasted onto the book. The full roll measures an astonishing 130 cm (a little over 4 feet). One wonders whether the owner created this remarkable hybrid because it allowed for easy storage on the book shelf. A book placed among its peers, albeit with an unusual content.

The Hague, Royal Library, 130 E 26 (late 14th century)
Fig. 8 – The Hague, Royal Library, 130 E 26 (late 14th century) – Photo EK

What the Incredible Expandable Books in this post share is an effort to hold a lot of text in an object that occupies a modest amount of space, usually in one’s pocket. When there is a dire need to take information with you on the go, medieval readers were quite inventive, as my post Bag it, Box it, Wrap it shows. Interestingly, the expandable information carrier lives on in our own day. Not only are there still book designers who produce accordion books in the medieval fashion (like Peter Thomas, whose recent email correspondence inspired this post), but the expandable almanac at the outset of this post has actually become ubiquitous in the form of pocket maps, displaying such things as the layout of cities and underground stations.

R. Sutton, Petroleum Pocket Map (1886)
Fig. 9 – R. Sutton, Petroleum Pocket Map (1886) – Source

Echoing the roll hidden in a book, some of these maps hide in (and take on the form of) an actual book, like the 1886 edition that shows the location of oil wells (Fig. 9). As with their medieval peers, ease of use and portability are the driving forces behind getting a lot of information in an object with a tiny footprint. “Doing more with less” is clearly a universal urge.

Half Full, Half Empty: The Peculiar Medieval Page

Margins are both a universal and remarkable feature of books. From the very earliest specimens produced two millennia ago, to the e-readers we use today, books contain pages that hold both text and a significant amount of blank space. What a strange pair they are: words, the primary reason for the book’s existence; and a vast emptiness present on all sides of the text. A particularly remarkable aspect of marginal space is that there is so much of it in medieval books. My own work on the twelfth century, reflecting broader medieval patterns, shows that pages from that period consist of approximately 50% margin, although in some cases it can be significantly more. This implies, astonishingly, that the majority of medieval books are half empty, despite the fact that parchment was expensive and sometimes even hard to come by. Why is this?


London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century)
Fig. 1 – London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century) – Source

One answer to this question is a simple one: because this is how books were traditionally made. Medieval scribes took over a great deal of material features first introduced by their counterparts in Antiquity. The book as we know it – i.e. an object produced from quires (bundles of folded sheets) – came into existence in the fourth century, as discussed in my post What is the Oldest Book in the World?  The pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek New Testament copied around the middle of the fourth century, measures 381 x 345 mm (height x width), while the text itself only takes up 250×310 mm (height x width). A simple calculation reveals that the text takes up 58% of the page, while 42% is reserved for the outer margins. In other words, a little under half of this magnificent book is empty.

Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250)
Fig. 2 – Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250) –  Source

Going back even further, papyrus manuscripts from Antiquity also included a considerable amount of marginal space. This is seen, for example, in Fig. 2, which shows the remains of a copy of Paul’s Epistles written between 150 and 250 CE. While the margins have been reduced post-production through damage (the edges of the papyrus eroded), the upper margin, which is largely intact, shows how the scribe reserved ample marginal space. The extensive medieval margin is, in one way, simply a continuation of an older practice.

The early papyrus book in Fig. 2 highlights that it was also convenient to have an empty space around the text. It meant that you could fill them with tools that may be helpful when consulting the book. A particularly important reading aid is visible at the top of the papyrus page: the capital version of the Greek letter Mu (looking like an M), which represents the Greek number 40 (Fig. 3). In other words, this is a very early page number (folium number), an instrument that is apparently some two thousand years old and predates the printed book by over a millennium.

Detail of Fig. 1
Fig. 3 – Detail of Fig. 2

There are many other kinds of aids encountered in the margins of medieval books, including cross references to other books or locations in the same manuscript, quotation marks, labels that indicate who the quoted author is, and chapter numbers. A particularly prominent aid is the running title placed in the upper margin. The one in Fig. 4 states “Physicorum”, indicating this is Aristotle’s Physics. This particular manuscript contains several Aristotle texts, which were popular in the university classroom. The student or teacher who was browsing through the book for certain information was greatly helped by these sign posts.

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century) – Source

While the margin did a good job accommodating the relatively short reading aids, it could be challenging to add large amounts of text to the void surrounding the main text. Fig. 5 shows a schoolbook from c. 1100 that was donated to Egmond Abbey near Amsterdam by one Baldwinus, a teacher in Flanders. The text in the book, Lucan’s Pharsalia, was used in the medieval classroom, and it is therefore no surprise that numerous explanatory notes have been added to the text, probably by Baldwinus himself.

Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100) – Photo EK

There is something special about these marginal notes: they are preceded by symbols that are the precursor of our modern footnote (more about this early practice in this post). The symbol links a remark in the margin to a specific location in the main text. The symbol seen in Fig. 5 resembles the number 7 and is perhaps the Tironian note for “et”.

Detail of Fig. 3
Fig. 5 – Detail of Fig. 4

Despite these add-ons, the schoolbook from c. 1100 is not really prepared to hold extensive notes. Baldwinus could have crammed more text in the margins, had he copied in a smaller script or increased the number of lines for the marginal text passages (presently, their number corresponds to the main text). However, this was not yet common practice in his day and age. In the scholastic age, by contrast, when university students needed to add a lot of extra information in the margin, these two tricks were applied, as seen in Fig. 3 – note the tiny script of the marginal notes, as well as the increased number of lines compared to the main text.

The examples in this post have shown different ways in which the margin, that handy device inherited from Antiquity, was put to good use by scribes and readers. However, it has not discussed why medieval margins were so large. Why keep as much as half of the page blank? Surely a quarter would be sufficient to add notes or tools?  While there are manuscripts that exhibit pages with tiny or no margins, there are not many. Leiden University library owns one of these exceptions: an early-eleventh-century schoolbook made from scrap parchment, the pages of which were filled to the brim (Fig. 6).

Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)

Interestingly, the teacher who copied this book diverted from the medieval convention related to page design in that he opted not to add substantial blank spaces. His use of scrap parchment (offcuts that were left over after the regular sheets were cut from the animal skin) indicates this was a low-cost book project. In other words, making maximum use of the available space on the page is likely motivated by cost considerations: it ultimately limited the number sheets necessary to copy this collection of (classical) texts.

While the choice for large margins may have a basis in a shared idea of perfect proportions, something modern book designers would call the “golden ratio” (see herehere and here), the notion of convention is probably the ultimate drive. There are plenty of conventions in medieval book production that don’t have an obvious explanation. The relative dimensions of the page is one of them: the width of medieval books tends to be about 70% of its height (see my Books on a Diet post for some curious exceptions), but why is this so? And why do quires predominantly consist of four folded sheets? Why are page numbers placed in the upper rather than lower margin? The bottom line is that large margins may simply have been something that medieval readers had come to expect from the object in front of them.

Postscriptum – This post was written in celebration of a conference devoted to the medieval margin, which I attended in June 2015 (details and abstracts here). More on the unusual Leiden scrap manuscript in the essay I wrote for this volume. Also make sure to check out this blog by the Marginal Scholarship project. I owe the title of this post to Julie Somers.

Medieval Bargain Books

If you are like me, you probably have two types of books on your shelves: some are new, others are second-hand. The two are very different entities: new copies are expensive, pristine and present a current publication; second-hand ones, by contrast, are damaged, may smell of cigars, and potentially present an older edition of the text it holds. Apart from the cigar smell, not much has changed since medieval times. In that era, too, books were bought both new and pre-owned. And like today, their value differed greatly. We know this in part thanks to a rare yet familiar piece of information that is sometimes encountered in a medieval book: the price tag (Fig. 1).

Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 131, 12th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK

Valuating books
The medieval bookseller carefully set a value on the new and second-hand books that he offered for sale. While it is difficult to deduce what factors were precisely in play in this valuation process, availability and looks were probably deemed very important. Manuscripts with illustrations or with a decorated binding may, for example, have been more expensive than plain copies bound in a parchment wrapper. Unlike today, less important was the text’s edition (there were no publishers, editions, or even title pages) or how pristine the copy in question was (it was common for medieval readers to jot down notes, so few copies were truly pristine).

Surviving price tags, while rare, add a real-world dynamic to these inferences and assumptions. The tags are usually found on the first page of the book, commonly at the top or bottom so that they could be easily found (Fig. 1). Book owners sometimes added these prices to their book  inventories, which therefore provide a great source of information about the value of books – even when the copies themselves no longer exist (Fig. 2).

London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Royal 14 C xiii, 14th century – Source

On this page the books owned by Symonis Bozoun are listed (column on the far left) and next to them the price he paid for them (column on the far right). Bozoun (d. 1352) was prior of the Benedictine cathedral priory at Norwich and the page enumerates the books he personally owned. Such lists show that customers valued knowing what they paid for a book, which may also explain why price tags sometimes remain in surviving copies.

Plain price tags
There are roughly two types of price tag. First there is the plain one, which merely presents a number expressing how much money needed to be forked over in order to own the object (Figs. 1, 3 and 4). The one in Fig. 1 reads “2 s[olidus]” (= shilling) and seems a real bargain. The manuscript in Fig. 3 was sold for “15 s[olidus]” (the note at the top of the page) and was thus considerably more expensive.  With “8 s[olidus]” the manuscript in Fig. 4 was priced “mid-range”.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 104 (13th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 104, 13th century (text) and 15th century (tag) – Photo EK
Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 186 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 168, 13th century (text) and 16th century (tag) – Photo EK

Such plain tags are almost always found in second-hand copies. That the manuscripts above were sold second-hand can be determined from the handwriting: while the price tags date from the fifteenth century (Figs. 1 and 3) and the sixteenth century (Fig. 4), the books themselves were copied in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (see the captions). This implies, of course, that the copies were several centuries old when the bookseller put these tags in. It also shows how the texts they contain – Claudianus (Fig. 1), excerpts from Priscian (Fig. 3), and Macrobius’ commentary on The Dream of Scipio (Fig. 4) – remained valuable, even though reading and learning practices had evolved considerably between the books’ production and resale.

Complex price tags

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (commercial book atelier, 1325-1350) – Source

The second type of price tag, which is even more rare, brings us to the heart of the commercial book trade (Fig. 5). Rather than presenting a single amount of money that needs to be paid, placed there by a bookseller, it provides an itemised bill that covers all stages of book production. Take this one, found in Cambridge, Peterhouse College, MS 110:

Pro pergamo 27 quat. precium quaterni iii d. Summa vi s. ix d.
Pro scriptura eorundem viz. xvi d. pro quaterno. Summa xxxvi s.
Pro luminacione viii d.
Pro ligacione ii s

This “price tag” provides a wealth of information: it shows us how much was paid for the parchment (3 pence per quire, or 6 shilling and 9 pence total), for the copying of the text (16 pence per quire, or 36 shilling total), for the illumination (8 pence) and for the bookbinding (2 shilling). In this case it was the book’s owner who wrote these expenses down, likely to keep track of how much he paid the artisans who executed the different stages of book production. It was more common, however, that such itemised bills were drawn up by the individual who coordinated the book project, a person called “libraire” in medieval French account books and “stationer” in English ones.

To provide such tallies, the artisan who copied or decorated had to keep track of how many quires he had already completed. From time to time we encounter penciled notes that helped the artisan do just that. In Fig. 6 we see (faintly) how the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis jots down how much money he is owed by the libraire (just above the line in ink at the very bottom). As a subcontractor working for different booksellers Jehan had to make sure he got paid for his sweat and tears.

Marginal note regarding payment to the professional scribe Jehan de Sanlis (The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, 13th c)
Fig. 6 – The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71 A 24 (13th century) – Photo Ed van der Vlist

Price tags add considerably to our understanding of the medieval book trade. They not only show how much medieval books differed in price, but we can even relate these differences to specific material and textual features of the books in which they survive. The perhaps most striking thing about medieval price tags, however, is that they allow us to trace second-hand copies and observe how much cheaper they were than new ones – a dimension that remains understudied in current scholarship. Ironically, today these medieval “bargain” books usually fetch enormous sums of money at auction houses (10 million is no exception, see here). Equally ironic, while in the trade of modern second-hand books older price tags usually devaluate a copy, their presence in medieval manuscripts usually increase their value considerably.

Postscriptum – See this blog for more information on commercial book production in medieval times; here you can read about book advertisements and spam. This piece discusses another rare source for book prices, colophons at the end of texts. I traced the price tags in the Leiden manuscripts (Figs. 1, 3 and 4) via Peter Gumbert’s catalogue of the BPL collection (here). More about the medieval book trade in my “Commercial Organisation and Economic Innovation,” in The Production of Books in England, 1350-1530, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, 14 (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), 173-91.