Tag Archives: manuscripts

Box It, Bag It, Wrap It: Medieval Books on the Go

Books in use generally reside in our hands or on our desks. This was not very different in medieval times. However, medieval and modern reading culture take different paths when it comes to books that are not in use. While both then and now the objects are commonly shelved after use, medieval readers had additional storing options: slipping the book into a box, bag or wrapper. Unfortunately, few of these exotic – and fascinating – storage devices survive today. However, the ones that do indicate that many were made with a specific purpose in mind, namely transportation. Here are some popular means of packing up your book to go in medieval times, including the precursor of our modern tablet sleeve.

Box it

Fig. 1 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (11th century) – Source

The book box is probably the sturdiest and most effective means to protect your book against the elements and other hostilities on the medieval road. Such boxes were usually made out of wood, to which ornaments, gems and even ivory cuttings were attached, commonly with nails. A particularly well preserved example is seen in Fig. 1. The box contains a famous book of hymns from St Gall, which was designed to be carried in processions both within the monastery and through the nearby city of St Gall. My recent post on “slim” books showed the actual book found inside this box, a narrow object designed to be held in one hand (post here, image here).

Decoration on the outside of the book box not only made the object look pretty, it also gave it prestige. In fact, ivory cuttings and shiny gems reflected the importance the book had within a monastic community or a church. Book boxes actually bear a striking resemblance to medieval reliquaries, shrines or containers made for holding a relic such as the arm of a saint (example here) or a splinter of the holy cross (here). One type of book box in particular matches this profile very well: the Irish cumdach or ‘book shrine’ (Figs. 2-3).

Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy,  D ii 3 (8th/9th century)
Fig. 2- Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy, D ii 3 (8th/9th century) – Source (collections > RIA)
Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy, D ii 3 (8th/9th century)
Fig. 3 – As Fig. 2 but showing the inside, with Stowe Missal visible

The cumdach often held a small manuscript. The Stowe Missal for which the cumdach in Fig. 2 was made, measures only 150×120 mm, which is a little higher than the iPhone 6 (and a little smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus). The book is very snug inside the box (Fig. 3). The small size matches the object’s anticipated use. The Irish cumdachs were often carried around the neck of a monk who would run up and down in front of the troops right before battle. The book became a charm of sorts, which was to bring fortune in battle. It made good sense to store this ‘secret weapon’ in a sturdy box that could withstand all that bouncing around and even a potential blow of a sword.

Stockholm, Royal LIbrary, Karl XII's "fältbibel" (c. 1700)
Fig. 4 – Stockholm, Royal LIbrary, Karl XII’s “fältbibel” (c. 1700) – Source

The most famous of these is the sixth-century Cathach of  St Columba, which holds a Psalter from the sixth or seventh century. Curiously, while this cathach (‘battler’) is commonly regarded as an object meant for carrying into battle to ensure victory (source here), it is obviously too big to carry around one’s neck: it measures 270×190 mm and weighs quite a bit. Its user probably ran up and down the battlefield with the book under his arm. Taking your book to battle in a protective box remained popular throughout early-modern history, as shown by the “field Bible” of c. 1700 , which was taken on war campaigns by king Charles II of Sweden (Fig. 4).

Bag it
The satchel was another means to carry your book around in the medieval outdoors. They were made of leather and commonly decorated in the manner seen in the famous 9th-century Book of Armagh – which, curiously, has a modern lock (Figs. 5-6).

Dublin, Trinity College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, 9th century)
Fig. 5 – Dublin, Trinity College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, satchel, 9th century) – Source
Dublin, Trinity, College, MS 52, satchel side (9th century)
Fig. 6 – Dublin, Trinity, College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, satchel, 9th century) – Source

Very few such satchels survive but we get an inkling of their use and popularity through medieval texts. A seventh-century tract instructs monks to “Hang your white booksacks on the wall, set your lovely satchels in a straight line” (source). It suggests that each member of this particular community owned a satchel. The same text also explains from what animal the leather came (sheep) and how the skin was turned into a bag: take a square piece of leather, sew it closed except for a single opening, which should be closed by a cover fitted with knobs.

Faddan More Psalter, satchel (9th century)
Fig. 7 – Dublin, National Museum, Faddan More Psalter, satchel (9th century) – Source

In 2006 a particularly old specimen was found in a bog, where it had been resting for 1200 years. Around 800 someone had a portable Psalter made, which came with a leather satchel. Somehow the book fell into the remote bog at Faddan More in north Tipperary, Ireland. Restoration revealed a plain but charming example of an early-medieval book bag (Fig. 7). Because it does not feature a strap, this type of satchel bears a striking resemblance to our modern tablet sleeve: unbutton the flap, slide in your reading device, and be on your merry way.

Like book boxes, satchels had a life far beyond the Middle ages. Fig. 8 shows a 17th-century specimen made of cloth that holds an Arabic devotional book. It belonged to a Turkish soldier captured by Venetian forces in 1668. Like the book box, this charming piece of ‘apparel’ carried a religious text into battle, although in this case the book was likely meant for private reading rather than as an aid to victory.

Stockholm, National Library (17th century)
Fig. 8 – Stockholm, National Library (17th century) – Source

Wrap it
If you wanted to carry your book on your body instead of in a box or bag, for example because you needed to consult the text frequently, the girdle book was your device of choice. The binding of these books came with a wrapper, which kind of flows from the leather of the binding itself. It allowed the user to wrap the manuscript into the leather, which produced a watertight package. A knot was attached to the end of the wrapper. The carrier of the book slipped it under his belt so he could carry the book on his body. Many of these girdle books are small and light objects, which made it easy to dangle the package from your belt. A particularly well preserved specimen in Yale’s Beinecke library shows how well such wrappers protected the book (Figs. 9-10).

Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century)
Fig. 9 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century) – Source
Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century)
Fig. 10 – Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century) – Source

This particular book was written in England during the fifteenth century, though the binding may be continental. It measures only 100×80 mm (a little bigger than a credit card) and contains Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, a sixth-century text discussing such topics as free will, virtue, and justice. These may not be the usual topics to have ready at hand while walking the streets of a late-medieval city, but someone found such use important enough to have it made portable – and at the ready at all times.

Stockholm, Royal Library
Fig. 11 – Stockholm, Royal Library (16th century) – Source

Other girdle books were objects that could be attached to the owner’s belt with a knot, but their wrappers were not meant to protect the book. The wrapper seen in Fig. 11 leaves much of the book exposed to the elements. This book was made in the very late sixteenth century, when the production of girdle books was in decline. By then its protective function may have have been replaced by fashion: exposure – being seen with a book – may well have been what the owner was after. There was a price to pay, however, as the book is too large and heavy to carry around with convenience. In fact, attaching this object to your belt may have cause unwanted exposure as well: there was a good chance the book’s weight brought down your pants.

Postscript: this older post shows how medieval texts moved through Europe and how you can tell from barely-visible marginal notes.

Medieval Apps

How about this for a truism: a book is a book, and something that is not a book is not a book. This post will knock your socks off if you are inclined to affirm this statement, because in medieval times a book could be so much more than that. As it turns out, tools were sometimes attached to manuscripts, such as a disk, dial or knob, or even a complete scientific instrument. Such ‘add-ons’ were usually mounted onto the page, extending the book’s primary function as an object that one reads, turning it into a piece of hardware.

Adding such tools was an invasive procedure that involved hacking into the wooden binding or cutting holes in pages. In spite of this, they were quite popular in the later Middle Ages, especially during the 15th century. This shows that they served a real purpose, adding value to the book’s contents: some clarified the text’s meaning, while others functioned as a calculator or, astonishingly, allowed the reader to tell time. These fascinating add-ons  – which are really not that different from the apps on our smartphones – turned a static handwritten book into an interactive object.

The Volvelle

British Library, Egerton MS 848 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Egerton MS 848 (15th century) – Source

A volvelle is an instrument that consists of one or more rotating disks mounted on the page. Volvelles allowed the reader to make a variety of complex calculations, such as the position of the sun and the moon, or the precise date of Easter – which was, like the volvelle, a moving feast. The one seen in Fig. 1 contains no less than three revolving disks, which are pinned to the page in a central point: two show the cycle of sun and moon (note the charming depictions at their pointers), while a third presents the Zodiac.

In spite of its simplicity, the device provides a surprising wealth of data, which could be read if one knew how to interpret the dials. However, volvelles were not always crude instruments providing dry data. Some are actually a pleasure to look at (Fig. 2). Others added an entertaining touch to the moving parts. The one in Fig. 3, for example, calculates the date of Easter, a popular application of the volvelle, but in this case the answer is pointed out by a spinning lady.

Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal .833 Ger. (early 16th century)
Fig. 2 – Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal .833 Ger. (early 16th century) – Source, more here
British Library, Harley MS 941 (15th century)
Fig.3 – British Library, Harley MS 941 (15th century) – Source

The oldest volvelles are connected to the scientific explorations of Raymond Lull, a thirteenth-century scholar, who introduced the clever device from Arabic scholarly culture. It explains why the earliest volvelles date from the 13th century (there are no older manuscripts that hold them, as far as I am aware), but also why the oldest ones are found in books holding works by Raymond Lull. These oldest specimens are less sophisticated: they have a limited number of disks and present less data on and around the dials (see a Lull specimen from the early 14th century here).

Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg (15th century) – Photo EK, source

Such crude medieval computers could make a page very bulky. It is surprising, however, how much volume a volvelle could take up without compromising how well the book could be handled.The one I encountered in an archive some time ago even makes use of pieces of wood, giving it the appearance of a real instrument, but also adding a certain clunkiness (Fig. 4).


Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century)
Fig. 5 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

Volvelles are not the only instruments mounted onto the medieval book. Fig. 5 shows a page from a manuscript containing various texts about fortune telling. The page holds a text on Geomancy, which is a method of divination that allowed someone to calculate one’s ‘key number’. Random rows of numbers were drawn up  and marked down (as seen on the page), after which they were connected by lines. The number you ultimately ended up with was then looked up in a table with lunar and solar information, which was also included in the manuscript (image here).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

There was another method to calculate this number: by turning a wheel (information here). It is here that the Oxford manuscript becomes relevant for us. Remarkably, the user of the book carved a hollow space into the wooden front board of the binding and fitted a pair of cogwheels into it (Fig. 6). Turning these produced the number that could subsequently be looked up in the table.

The last word: sundial

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Brox._46.10 (17th century)
Fig. 7 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Brox._46.10 (17th century) – Source

The last example of an instrument that was added to a book also has to do with the sun. Like an iPad, the book in Fig. 7 has a smart cover. The front of the sheepskin bookbinding is not filled with blind-stamped decoration, as was often the case, but rather a sundial was pasted on it. The reader could put the book in the sun and place a stylus on the cover, which would reveal what time it was. While it may not have been a very practical clock, the cover reveals that it was likely used to this end: the ‘footprints’ of the stylus are still visible (note the small circle and the black stain near the letters IHS, at the bottom). Moreover, the severity of the stain suggests the book was frequently used to tell time.

Just like our modern smartphones, the medieval book could be a versatile tool that combined contents with an untold number of applications – giving the scriptorium the feel of an App Store.

Books on a Diet

We’re all familiar with that most popular of New Year’s resolutions – and the one that is broken most frequently afterwards. While many oversized medieval books look like they enjoyed life to the max, this post is devoted to a relatively rare kind of manuscript that is much slimmer than what you would expect (Fig. 1). “Expect”, because the relative proportions of manuscripts – the width in relation to the height – form a surprisingly stable feature in medieval book production. In fact, the vast majority of surviving manuscripts have the same relative proportions as our modern paper: their width is around 70% of their height.

British Library, Harley MS 5431 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Harley MS 5431, 230×85 mm  (10th century) – Source

This stability ought to surprise you. While readers of printed books had little choice as to the physical appearance of the object they read, owners of manuscripts handled a book that was made especially for them. Consequently, they would commonly have specified what it should look like. You would think that medieval readers might go overboard and abuse this freedom of choice, ordering polka-dotted books with pink letters written upside down on triangle-shaped pages. The opposite turns out to be true. Book owners before print are predictable in that they mostly opted for regular features: their choices are typical, as if they conform to unwritten rules.

This striking act of conformation results from what is a main driving force behind the chosen physical features: the anticipated use of the object. For example, if you anticipated that you would scribble an excessive amount of notes in your book, you would specify to the scribe to extend the size of the margins. And if you knew that you would take a book with you when you left the house, it would make sense to have that copy produced in a suitably small format. This strong link between form and function is good news for us: we may infer that narrow books– sometimes called “holsterbooks” – were put on their diet for good reason.

Ivory Decoration

Frankfurt am Main, Goethe Universität, Barth MS 181 (14th century)
Fig. 2 – Frankfurt, Goethe Universität, Barth MS 181, 402×250 mm (14th century) – Source

One reason to slim books down had to do with their binding; or more precisely, with its decoration. The most prestigious decorative element of a medieval binding was ivory plaques, slabs of tusk on to which elaborate scenes were cut (Fig. 2). They were attached to both the front and back of the manuscript, usually embedded in the wood of the boards. Book projects that involved this costly decoration commonly produced manuscripts that were much narrower (or taller) than the norm. The plaques themselves had to be narrow given the limited width of the tusk. Interestingly, however, manuscript makers appear to have preferred the book to be equally narrow. This was probably done for visual reasons: it looks better when the relative proportions of book and decoration are in sync. Moreover, keeping the book slim meant that more visible space was covered with ivory.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53 (c. 895)
Fig. 3 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53, 395×323 mm (c. 895) – Source

This tendency to keep a book narrow when ivory decoration was added is mentioned in a remarkable account by the historian Ekkehart of St Gall (d. 1022). Referring to what is now St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 53 (Fig. 3) he states that this manuscript was made tall and narrow for good reason. Among the abbey’s treasures, he reports in his chronicle, were two ivory plaques. They once belonged to emperor Charlemagne (d. 814), who used them as a wax tablet, which he kept next to his bed. When it was decided in St Gall that the plaques would be used to decorate the bookbinding of a newly produced Gospel Book, the scribe was asked to design the book in such a way “that it matched the shape of the ivory”. Interestingly, Ekkehart noticed that it was narrower than usual, because he addresses MS 53 as “our tall Gospel Book”.

Books for soloists

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (11th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360, 255×80 mm (12th century) – Source

A second reason to produce a slim book in medieval times is pragmatic rather than artistic. When one examines what these oddly tall manuscripts contain, as I did in a journal article published in 2012 (details here), it turns out that a fair number consist of texts that were sung by soloists during the church service. Take the Cantatorium and the Troper, two frequently-used musical books. When one limits the view to the period before 1200, as I usually do in my scholarly work, it turns out that all surviving copies are formatted in the slim format discussed here. Another example is the famous St Gall Hymnal, which is not just very narrow, but also very thin (Fig. 4). It is not given a proper binding, but it is stored in a book box, not many of which survive from medieval times.

The reason for these musical books to be designed so awkwardly (in that they break with the norms of medieval book production) is related to how they were used: handheld – literally, as in “while held in one hand”. As I proposed in the article previously mentioned, the effect of the narrow shape was that the weight of the book rested on the palm when it lay open in your hand. This meant that the soloist could easily hold it up for a long period of time. Regularly shaped books, by contrast, executed considerable pressure on the fingertips and the thumb when you held them in one hand. This is not surprising, of course, because they were not designed for holding: they were supposed to rest on a desk or podium while in use. The thinness of the musical books was helpful in this respect, because it greatly reduced their weight, as did leaving off a binding (think St Gall Hymnal). As with the shift in the pressure points, the weight loss helped the reader holding up the book for a long time.

A long tradition

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 228 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 228 (15th century) – Source

While the examples so far focused on the period before 1200, the practice of making slim books is thriving in the later medieval period as well. In the fifteenth century, for example, we see municipal clerks make narrow literary manuscripts, probably conforming to chancery practices. Moreover, there appears to be a real tradition of slender paper books in Middle English literary culture. The Romance of Richard Coeur de Lion in Douce 228, for example, is the slimmest manuscript I know (Fig. 5). It has been argued (here) that this particular manuscript was made for minstrels, in other words that the object was used hand-held. Having read this post, you now know that this makes perfect sense.

Across the board, ivory decoration and handheld use are two significant factors in this long tradition of making “slim” books. When faced with a slender book, we can therefore speculate: was its binding perhaps originally fitted with ivory decoration? Or, if this seems unlikely because the parchment and handwriting suggests a cheap production, perhaps it was made for handheld use? As in modern times, diets and weight loss relating to the medieval book speak to deeper motivations.

Mary Had a Little Book

For the book historian Christmas is a great season. It means that a lot of so-called “Annunciation” scenes make their rounds on social media, the biblical story in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to God’s son, Christ. There is something very attractive about these scenes for lovers of medieval books. Especially in the later Middle Ages, Mary is shown to be reading when Gabriel breaks the news. The idea was to show her in a holy place engaged in prayer, studies explain (here and here), and to make this connection to the beholder, she was shown with a book.

While this alone tells you a lot about the role of the book in medieval times, the Annunciation scenes have an even more interesting story to tell. They invited medieval decorators to depict a book and a reader engaged with it, life-like and to the best of their abilities. This implies that we get, by proxy, an unusual visual glimpse into the practice of medieval reading: how is the book held, what does the object look like, and what can we tell about its binding? While not every Annunciation scene contains a book, the seasonal images are like spycams intruding into the intimate world of medieval reading.

The tradition

Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (13th century)
Fig. 1 – Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 15 (13th century) – Source

A quick search in public online databases results in hundreds of Annunciation scenes: the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts returns 160 manuscripts (search here), the French Inititale database no less than 274 (check the result here). This group of 400+ manuscripts provides much information about the tradition of a reading Mary. It is striking, for example, just how many Annunciation scenes depict her with a book. Especially after 1300 there are few without it.

Interestingly, the image databases allow us to gauge in what kind of manuscript the scenes are predominantly found. By far the majority are Book of Hours, but there is also a fair share of Psalters and Bibles, as well as some liturgical books such as Missals. The most popular vehicle of this scene, the Book of Hours, is connected to private devotion, as are many Psalters and some Bibles and Missals. After 1300 private devotion is one of the most common settings for using a book. In other words, the readers of these manuscripts were engaged in precisely the same thing as Mary: praying with a book in their hand.

Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 469 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 469 (15th century) – Source

It is significant that both Mary and the medieval reader are engaging with the book as an object during one of the most important scenes from Christian devotional culture: the birth announcement of Christ. The object had obviously become an important religious tool. What is also striking is that Mary is shown interacting with the book in different ways. She is often caught reading, with the book placed either in her hand or on a table or podium in front of her (Figs. 2-3 and top pic, Angers, BM, 2048). In other cases she is simply holding the object in her hand, either open or closed (Fig. 1). In most cases Mary is depicted in a room or a building with arches (Figs. 1 & 3), providing the illusion of a church or a holy place in general. She is often raising her hands in surprise – although to our modern eyes she seems to gesture “No, thank you!” (Fig. 2).

London, British Library, Add. MS 49598 (Benedictional of Aethelwold, 936-984)
Fig. 3 – London, British Library, Add. MS 49598 (936-984) –  Source

While it is really easy to find bookish Annunciation scenes from the later medieval period, when the tradition of a reading Mary was well established, examples from before 1100 are rare. The earliest I have been able to find date from the late tenth century. The oldest is the magnificent St Aethelwold Benedictional (Fig. 3), which was made in 963-984 for Aethelwold the Bishop of Winchester (this is a digitised version). Another late-tenth-century example is the so-called Corvey Gospels in Wolfenbüttel, in which Mary is shown with a very thin book in her hand (image here).

Older examples of a reading Mary do exist, but not in books – at least not to such an extent that I was able to easily find them. A scene dating to the ninth century, for example, is found on an ivory situla, a bucket for the holy water used in the Mass (Fig. 4). It shows Mary looking up from her book to see the angel Gabriel making a gesture of blessing with his hand. The arch above her suggests she is in a room, a holy space, as seen in so many manuscript depictions.

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Accession  Nr. 17.190.45 (860-880)
Fig. 4 – Metropolitan Museum, Accession Nr. 17.190.45 (860-880) – Source

Mary had a little book
Apart from providing a peek into rooms where readers are interacting with books, these seasonal images also show us what manuscripts in medieval times looked like. Granted, most objects are shown rather generically, but in some cases the decorator shows us realistic details. It is striking, for example, that many images in which Mary is holding her book show her with a surprisingly small object in her hand (Fig. 1). These are likely meant to represent a portable book, a type of manuscript designed to be carried around.

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection 56.70 (1427-1432)
Fig. 5 – Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection 56.70 (1427-1432) – Source
The Hague, Royal Library, MS 135 J 55 (c. 1460)
Fig. 6 – The Hague, Royal Library, MS 135 J 55 (c. 1460) – Source

If we expand our scope and include medieval paintings, we are shown more details of the medieval book as a physical object. Notably, the famous Merode Altarpiece from the early fifteenth century shows Mary holding a book fitted in what is called a chemise binding (Fig. 5). This type of binding allowed the reader to fold the book into a piece of cloth or leather extended from the binding. Only a handful survive, so it is a great coincidence that one of them actually covers up an Annunciation scene – albeit that Mary is bookless in this one (Fig. 6).

Curiously, Fig. 5 shows a second book on the table, with a green bag underneath it. This bag is another medieval artifact that survives in very small numbers: the book pouch, which was also used for carrying a book around. The same velvet pouch is seen in the Annunciation scene by Gerard David (c. 1500) – see it here. Both bookbindings in the Merode Altarpiece indicate that the manuscripts Mary is using are portable. More importantly, the beholder would have recognised them as such. By the later Middle Ages, devotional practices had become a “movable feast” and so books used to that end needed to be shown as ambulant. In that sense too the manuscripts depicted here are very realistic.

Metropolitan Museum, Cloister Collections, 54.1.1 (1405-1408)
Fig. 7 – Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collections, 54.1.1 (1405-1408) – Source

It is interesting that the Merode Altarpiece shows Mary with two books. It appears that this increase started in the fifteenth century and continued into the age of print. The famous “Belles Heures” of Duc du Berry, produced by the Limbourg Brothers in the early fifteenth century, shows Mary in the vicinity of three books as well as a scroll (Fig. 7). In a sixteenth-century woodcut by the famous Albrecht Dürer there are also three books present (here). Both examples give the traditional church environment the feeling of a modest library. Considering that she would soon be with child, to the modern viewer it makes sense that Mary tries to get as much quality time with her books as possible.

The Medieval Origins of the Modern Footnote

Last week I posted a blog on note-taking in medieval times. It showed how individuals who wanted to jot down a note dealt with the absence of notepads and scrap paper. As in our modern day, the urge to write down a note in medieval times often came while reading a book. And so the margins of the page grew into a prime location where the reader could vent his objections or – albeit more rarely – express his or her approval.

The present post deals with the logistics behind this “window dressing”: it shows how a reader with many important things to say kept track of his marginal comments. Particularly, it deals with a serious problem that came with adding notes to the page: how to connect a particular comment, placed among a dozen others, to the specific text passage it refers to. The clever system that was created for this purpose lives on as our modern footnote.


Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century) – Source

The crux of our footnote system is the presence of a symbol that connects the note to the relevant location in the text. Curiously, in medieval times it was quite common not to have such connections in place, perhaps especially in the earlier period (Fig. 1). When few remarks were added to the page, a reader could deduce with relative ease to which passage a marginal note referred. It helped if a text was in popular use or known by heart, as many medieval works were. In such cases the note made sense instantly because the reader was familiar with the referenced literary context. Moreover, as long as notes were few and short, a reader could simply insert them – interlinearly – over the relevant word or passage (Fig. 2).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (9th century)
Fig. 2 – Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v
Fig. 3 – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century) – Source

Cleverly, in this system the very position of the remark identified the word to which it referred. However, as the number and size of such comments increased, it became impossible to place them between the lines. The great blank space provided by the margins was now drafted into service. It is here that the absence of a proper reference system was felt. As the marginal body of remarks and critique began to accumulate, the page became a real messy place, a labyrinth in which it became impossible for readers to find specific pieces of information (Fig. 3). In came the footnote.

Dots and lines
Connecting a marginal remark to the relevant passage in the text was usually done with a duplicated symbol, called a signe de renvoi: one was placed in front of the marginal note, the other near the word or passage that the remark commented upon. While it is hard to deduce a clear pattern of development, it appears that in the early stages of using such footnotes scribes and readers resorted to plain symbols rather than letters or numbers. These symbols varied considerably in shape and sophistication. At the high end of the spectrum we encounter complex symbols, such as the reversed letter E seen in Fig. 4 (magnified).

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, fol. 170r (10th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, p. 170 (820-840) – Source

More popular, however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. In Fig. 5 such an omitted line is placed in the margin accompanied by a symbol made up of a line and a dot. It is repeated in the text itself, near the location where the line belonged. This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century) – Source

Scribes used different versions of the line-and-dot symbol. In fact, they had to if they were to produce unique ties between comment and text. When dots were used, their number would increase as more notes were added. Alternatively, the position of the dots could be varied, so that they formed different – unique! – patterns.

Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) – Photo EK

Customising the line-type footnote, scribes usually distinguished one from the other by added circles, which were attached at different locations and in varying numbers. In what is a most unusual find, in a Leiden manuscript we see a scribe practicing his dot and line footnote symbols (Fig. 6). It shows variations in the number and pattern of dots, as well as in the treatments of lines.

Closest to our modern system of footnotes, finally, is the use of letters to tie a marginal remark to its proper location in the text. In some manuscripts we see the entire alphabet running down the margin. Fig. 7 shows a page from a manuscript with works by Horace (left column) to which a high volume of notes were added (right column), all of which are connected to specific passages with the letters A to Z.

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r
Fig. 7 – Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100) – Photo EK

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries such classical texts were most commonly used in a classroom setting. The instructors who used the books, typically in a monastic school, had many things to explain to their students, as the notes show. It made sense to organise such added information in a clear manner, and the alphabet came in handy in this respect. Some pages in this particular book contain more footnotes than there are letters in the alphabet, which challenged the system. In such cases the user added into the mix symbols made from lines and dots.

The last word: numerals
So where are the medieval footnotes that make use of numbers, like we do today? Curiously, I have not been able to find them, which kind of makes sense. Roman numerals would not be suitable for the task. Placed out of context, as a symbol initiating a segment of text (i.e. the marginal comment) they would easily be mistaken for a letter – which they are, graphically speaking. Moreover, a high Roman numeral would quickly take in a lot of space – not what you want in a note symbol. Arabic numerals were far were less popular than Roman numerals, even in the later Middle Ages. Readers may not have felt comfortable enough with these new numbers to use them in the margin. In fact, some scribes in the later Middle Ages are still confused by the zero. The leap from alphabet to numerals – from the medieval to our modern system – appears to have been taken in the age of print.

Medieval Notepads

We are surrounded by pieces of scrap paper. We chuck tons of them in the waste bin each year, leave them lying on our desks, use them as bookmarks, stuff them in our pockets, and toss them on the street. And so we usually do not have to look hard or long when we need a piece of paper for our shopping list or for writing down a thought. This was very different in medieval times. Writing material – of any kind – was very expensive back then, which meant that scribes used a paper or parchment sheet to the max: everything was used. As a result, there was nothing obvious lying around on one’s desk that was suitable for scrap material. So how did the medieval person make notes?

In the margin

Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 2888 (Italy, 13th century), Photo Julie Somers – Source

The most common and sensible location for putting down thoughts, critique or notes was the margin of the medieval book. Consider this: you wouldn’t think so looking at a medieval page, but on average only half of it was filled with the actual text. A shocking fifty to sixty percent was designed to be margin. As inefficient as this may seem, the space came in handy for the reader. As the Middle Ages progressed it became more and more common to resort to the margin for note-taking. Notably, the thirteenth century gave birth to two particularly smart book designs that accommodated such use. Both types are connected to the emerging university, which makes sense as this was a note-taking environment par excellence – then and now.

The first of these is seen in Fig. 1, which shows a page of a law manuscript that actually contains two kinds of texts. Found in the two central columns is the Digest of Justianian, written in a slightly larger letter. Draped around it, in a smaller letter, is the commentary to this work: these are the notes of smart teachers from the past, put there collectively to help the reader make sense of the law. This specific style of presenting two works on the one page, where the glosses (commentary) are presented as “square brackets”, is called textus inclusus. An Italian reader in the thirteenth century added his own two-cents to these “prefab” opinions that came with the book: in Fig. 1 we see them scribbled between the two central columns.

London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Harley 3487 (13th century) – Source

The second thirteenth-century book layout that was specially designed to accommodate note-taking is as clever as the text on its pages. We encounter it first and foremost in manuscripts with works by Aristotle, although the design would spread to other domains, including law and medicine. As seen in Fig. 2, the margins surrounding the Aristotle text (which form the two central columns) were left completely blank by the scribe. The tiny writing that is seen there now is from a student in the Arts Faculty, where the works of Aristotle formed the main textbook, called the Corpus vetustius (the old corpus).

If you look carefully you see five vertical commentary columns marked by thin pencil lines, which allowed for five “pillars” of notes. Cleverly, in this page design the start of the note could be placed at the same height as the Aristotle line on which it commented, not just one time, but five times over! Larger comments were placed in the larger blank areas in the lower margin. Some of these Aristotle textbooks contained up to twenty “zones” for notes, which would ultimately be connected to the main text with the help of symbols resembling our current footnotes.

Yellow sticky notes 

Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth
Fig. 3 – Sens CT Library, J 36 (Chartaire 156), 9th century, photo Genevra Kornbluth – Source

As stated, paper and parchment sheets were commonly used to the max, meaning no redundant material was left that could be used for scraps. However, when the animal skin was turned into parchment sheets such redundant material was left over. In the process the outer rim of the dried skin was removed, because these “offcuts” were deemed unsuitable for writing on. The material was too thick for a regular page and its surface was slippery and translucent, not to mention that most offcuts were too small for normal pages. They consequently ended up in the recycling bin of the parchment maker.

Interestingly, these small, scrappy slips of parchment were sometimes sold to clients. Offcuts were used for text with a short lifespan, such as letters and drafts. In addition, it was used when a text was “utilitarian” and did not need to be produced from regular – more expensive – parchment. An example is seen in Fig. 3, which shows a short description strapped to a bone that belonged to a saint. Such “relic labels” were important because of course nobody wanted to mistake the big toe of St Peter for that of St Paul. Such information was scribbled on the parchment strip, usually in low-quality (fast) handwriting.

Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (France, 13th century) - Photo Giulio Menna
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BPL 191 D, fragment (13th century) – Photo Giulio Menna
Birch bark strip used by the student Onfim, dated 1240-1260
Fig. 5 – Novgorod, Museum of History, birch bark strip 202, from pupil Onfim, dated 1240-1260 – Source, blogmore

Offcuts were also frequently used by students and scholars, for example for taking notes in the classroom (Fig. 4, more here). In fact, in De discipline scholarum, a guidebook made in the 1230s for students and teachers at the University of Paris, it is explained how a student should bring such slips of parchment to class for taking notes. Interestingly, some of these slips have survived because they were pasted in a student’s textbook, like the one seen in Fig. 4. These are truly the medieval equivalent of our “yellow sticky notes”. The practice of bringing scrap material into the classroom was a much broader medieval phenomenon, as is shown by the famous birch bark notes that survive from 13th-century Russia. Fig. 5 shows funny “stick figure” doodles drawn by the student Onfim as he was sitting, bored no doubt, in class.

The last word: notepad
There is evidence that multiple parchment offcuts were sometimes bound together, by pricking a hole in them and pulling a cord through. These bundles, which essentially form a true notepad in the modern sense of the word, could be of considerable size. A specimen in the Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg consists of thirty slips. A type of notepad that was even more popular in medieval times was the wax tablet (here is a collection of them). These, too, were often tied together into a bundle, forming a notepad of perhaps six or so “pages” (Fig. 6, note the holes for the cords on the left side). Smart pages, that is, because the contents could be erased from the soft wax (with the flat back of the stylus), presenting vacant space for fresh thoughts.

Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768
Fig. 6 – Michigan, University Library, Papyrology Collection, Inv. 768 (4th-6th century) – Source

Medieval Spam: The Oldest Advertisements for Books

Advertisements are all around us. As I am writing this post, waiting in an airport lobby, I can only escape them if I close my eyes and cover my ears. Marketing and advertising are practices dating back to medieval times and we encounter them even in the world of books. While rare, surviving book advertisements are fascinating because they highlight what salesmen thought potential buyers deemed important about their products. Advertisements form, in an unusual way, a unique keyhole view into the hearts and minds of readers that lived a thousand years ago. Fascinatingly, surviving book advertisements come in very recognisable – modern – formats: some are window displays, others are spam in books, and yet others are flyers posted in public places.

Window displays

The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450)
Fig. 1 – The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450) – Source

While still rare, the most common surviving book advertisement from medieval times is the so-called ‘advertisement sheet’ from medieval writing masters (Fig. 1). Individuals who could write had a valuable gift, both intellectually and financially: they were able to duplicate any piece of writing, from short letters to full books; and they could do so for money. During the last three centuries of the Middle Ages (1200-1500) the demand for books rapidly increased, in part because of their cheaper production and the growing numbers of readers. Increased demand had a major impact on supply: urban professionals took over book production from the abbeys. They started to charge money, make profit, and build the commercial book market we still have today (more about such commercial activities in this blog post).

As more people became involved in commercial book production, competition among artisans increased. Starting in the thirteenth century, the book world became a market place where producers had to show what they had to offer – and more so than their nearby colleagues (Fig. 2). It is in this context that we are to understand the advertisement sheet in Fig. 1, a handful of which survive from the Middle Ages. Encompassing over ten different scripts, each one more fancy than the next, it displays the expertise of the artisan to potential customers. The sheet was made by one Herman Strepel, who worked around the middle of the fifteenth century, perhaps in the German city of Münster.

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 2 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-50): commercial shop with scribe and illuminator – Source

The sheet in Fig. 1 is a clever marketing tool in other ways as well. The samples are accompanied by their proper names, written in attractive letters of shiny gold. This vocabulary allowed the clientele to enter into a professional conversation with the scribe – using such term as ‘fracta’, ‘rotunda’ and ‘modus copiistarum’. The back of the advertisement sheet is blank, which means it was probably displayed in clear sight of potential customers, perhaps in a window or against a wall. A specimen from a German scribe says, ‘If you want to learn to write, do come in.’ It not only shows that artisans extended their services well beyond merely producing books (they were professional trainers as well), but it also that such sheets were put on display right outside the door.

Spam in books

Giesen, Universitätsbibliothek, 945 (advertisement in book)
Fig. 3 – Giesen, Universitätsbibliothek, 945 (advertisement at end of book)

The best way to show off one’s abilities as a book producer was through the book itself: every page is an appraisal of the artisan’s qualities. Some scribes directly addressed potential customers on the last page of a book, where they explicitly referred to the fine quality of the manuscript – and by proxy their abilities. An illuminating case concerns a scribe who calls himself Herneis. On the last page of a book he had copied for a client he wrote the following note: ‘If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across the Notre Dame cathedral’ (Fig. 3). The message ‘lured’ the beholder to the book street of medieval Paris, right opposite the cathedral. It’s a great example of medieval spam.

A slightly less blatant case of spam is from fifteenth-century Holland, the most western province of the Low Countries. Six Middle-Dutch manuscripts survive from an anonymous commercial scribe operating there. They all contain the same text, a History Bible, which suggests that the individual specialized in one particular genre. The surviving copies show variation in layout, writing support (paper/parchment), the inclusion of miniatures, and in the quality of the script. These differences most likely reflect the wishes of the patrons that were served. Interestingly, one of the manuscripts (Leiden, University Library, LTK 231) contains an intriguing message: ‘If you like this copy of the Old Testament, I can also produce a book with the New Testament for you.’ This tempting offer has the feel of iTunes’ ‘Complete my album’ or, more appropriately, the suggestions Amazon makes for further reading.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. G. e. 37
Fig. 4 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. G. e. 37 (c. 1477) – Source

The rarest kind of medieval advertisement is also the smallest. It measures only 80×146 mm, a little bigger than a credit card. As with historical artifacts in general, the smaller a bookish object is, the slimmer the chances that it survived. The small strip of paper seen in Fig. 4 is an advertisement that promoted William Caxton’s Sarum Pie (‘Ordinale ad usum Sarum’), a religious book he printed in his Westminster shop in 1477 (more here and here). It is a very small flyer that was to be posted in the city, given the Latin closing remark ‘Supplico stet cedula’ (please leave this [strip] posted). It is the earliest printed advertisement in English and it has a lot to tell.

The printed strip shows interesting parallels with the previous two items. As with the spam message of Herneis, Caxton tells customers where to go, which is the bare minimum that an advertisement has to do: ‘late hym come to Westmonester in to the Almonesrye at the reed pole’. Moreover, it stresses that the book has no typos (it is ‘well and truly correct’) and can be bought cheaply (‘and he shal have them good chepe’). Just like the advertisement sheet of Herman Strepel, Caxton’s piece of paper comes with a great marketing trick: it states that the new publication is ‘emprynted after the forme of this present lettre’ (is printed in the same typeface as this very note). In other words, the reader can tell with his own eyes that it is worthwhile heading over to Caxton’s shop.

Marketing tricks, sending out spam, and using colourful letters to attract clients: medieval advertisements are as effective today as they were 600 years ago.

Note – Want to know more? Check out this lecture I gave on commercial book production.

Location, Location: GPS in the Medieval Library

Books love to hide from us. While you were sure you put your current read on the kitchen table, it turns up next to your comfortable chair in the living room. As you handle more books at the same time, it becomes increasingly challenging to keep track of their location. In the Middle Ages it was even more difficult to locate a specific book. Unlike today, medieval books lacked a standard size, so you couldn’t really make neat piles – which sort of brings order to chaos. Finding a book was also made difficult by the fact that the spine title had not yet been invented.

So how did medieval readers locate books, especially when they owned a lot of them? The answer lies in a neat trick that resembles our modern GPS : a book was tagged with a unique identifier (a shelfmark) that was entered into a searchable database (a library catalogue), which could subsequently be consulted with a handheld device (a portable version of the catalogue). Here is how to plot the route to a specific book in the medieval library.

The most effective tool for retrieving a book in medieval times was to give it a number and placing it in the correct sequential order on the shelf. It is still common practice in modern libraries, for good reason: as long as the shelver puts the object back in the right spot, you will be able to find it again quickly. Such book numbers – shelfmarks – come in various forms. The more books a library owned, the more complex the shelfmarks became (had to become, actually). The most simple type merely stated that the book in question was the “twelfth volume” in the cupboard, as seen in the image at the top of this post (British Library, Royal 10 A.xi).

Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 941 (14th century), flyleaf
Fig. 1 – Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 941 (14th century), flyleaf with title and faint shelfmark “A” (15th century) – Source

Similarly, in small collections books were marked with single letters. In Bethlehem Priory near Brussels each item in the small library of Middle Dutch (i.e. non-Latin) books was given a letter, which was placed on an empty page in front of the manuscript together with a short title. The first volume in this mini library was a late-fourteenth-century copy of works by the mystic Hadewijch (now Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 941). On a flyleaf we can still faintly read “Visiones haywigis. A”, showing it was the first book on the shelf (Fig. 1).

Larger libraries – exceeding 26 books – needed a more sophisticated shelfmark system. A particularly clever one is found in manuscripts that were placed on lecterns, like those used in chained libraries  (Fig. 2). The shelfmarks had two components: a letter pointed to the appropriate lectern, while a number indicated the book’s position on the shelf. Because manuscripts were placed on both sides of the lectern, a bit of color was added – literally – to distinguish between the sides. Red numbers referred to books placed on the right side, black ones to those on the left.

Chained library "De Librije" in Zutphen, The Netherlands
Fig. 2 – Chained library “De Librije” in Zutphen, The Netherlands – Photo EK
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100), binding 15th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100, binding 15th century) – Photo EK

The shelfmark tag on the front cover of Lucan’s Pharsalia in Fig. 3 (“Q 2”) is a variation on this theme. Here the letter was made red so as to indicate on what side of the lectern the book was to be placed. It shows that the fifteenth-century owner of the book, the Benedictine Abbey of Egmond, near Amsterdam, owned a lectern library. Much like a modern GPS, the tag “(red) Q 2” ties the manuscript to a unique location: it is the third book on the right side of the sixteenth lectern.

Having a location tag is only useful, of course, if there is a searchable database from which the book’s location may be retrieved. How would you otherwise get to Lucan’s Pharsalia in the library, or even know it is present there? The library catalogue is such a database. Up to 1200 the contents list of a monastic library was usually merely an inventory: it marked the presence of a book, but not its location. The later Middle Ages saw a surge of real catalogues, listing books and their location. Some of these catalogues were written out in books (as we will see in a moment), while others were pasted to the wall in the library.

Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Regionaal Archief, Kloosters 885 Inv. Nr. 208A (wall catalogue, 15th century) – Source

A particularly big wall catalogue survives from Lopsen Abbey near Leiden: it originally measured 800×590 mm (Fig. 4). The books in this list are numbered sequentially (1, 2, 3, etc.) within categories such as “libri refectoriales” (books read during the meals) and “libri devoti et utiles” (books for personal, spiritual development). However, there is no clear indication as to where the object may be found (the same in this wall catalogue). Readers had to wander through the library to find the right section and then start counting to find the book they were looking for. Not very efficient.

By contrast, other late-medieval catalogues are very clear about the location of a book. From several monastic libraries in the Forest of Soignes just outside of Brussels, catalogues survive that actually refer to the sophisticated type of shelfmark seen in Fig. 3. The ones from Zevenborren Priory (now Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MSS II 1038 and 7602, both early 16th century) refer to books on both the “black side” and the “red side” of the lectern.

Book cupboards in Hereford Chained Library
Fig. 5 – Bookcases in Hereford Chained Library

Handheld device
The catalogue of the lectern library in another abbey in the forest, nearby Rooklooster Priory, is the cleverest of the lot. It comes in the form of a book with a peculiar shape (now Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS II 152). It is long and narrow, a format that indicates it was made for handheld use, as research has shown. Curiously, the shape of the pages resembles the long inventory slips on the side of book cupboards in chained libraries (see the wooden frames clearly visible in Fig. 5). The hand-held Rooklooster catalogue must have been copied directly from such slips on the side of the lecterns.

What a clever tool the user ended up with. The open catalogue in his hand presented two columns, one for books on the “black” (left-hand side) side of the lectern, another for books on the “red” (right-hand) side. Moreover, each column is divided into two halves. The top half lists books placed on the upper shelf of the lectern, the lower half those on the lower shelf (these shelves were placed under the lectern, as seen  in Fig. 6).

Cesena, Bibliotheca Malastestiana
Fig. 6 – Cesena, Bibliotheca Malastestiana: lectern with shelf – Source

Standing in front of a lectern with his handheld device, the reader knew precisely which of the volumes in front of him was the one he was looking for: he could identify it without even opening it. This particular medieval catalogue is not unlike a modern navigation system, with “GPS coordinates” directing readers to such works as Ambrose on the Psalms (Black A 1) and Augustine’s Civitate Dei (Red A 5). The only difference is that it never ran out of batteries.

Drawing with Words

The pages of medieval books are generally filled with two things: words and decoration – and a lot of nothingness, the margins. The divide between the two is evident and clear. Words make up the text and are executed with pen and ink, while illustrations, produced with brush and paint, decorate the text. There are manuscripts, however, in which this self-evident truth is turned upside-down: sometimes decoration is created by words, which were meant to be read. This intriguing scenario blurs the divide between text and illustration: it challenges how we define both.

Decoration forming words

British Library, Arundel 155 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Arundel 155 (11th century) – Source

Decorative elements forming readable text  are fairly common in medieval times. High-quality manuscripts often open with words – or even a full sentence – that are painted with a brush rather than copied with a pen. The artist who produced the eleventh-century page in Fig. 1, for example, used his brush to paint the entire first line of Psalm 1: “Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impirum” (Blessed is the man who has not followed the advice of the impious). Particularly impressive is the first letter, the B, which is decorated lavishly with gold.

Even more elaborate are some of the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is perhaps the most impressive manuscript that survives from the early Middle Ages (it was made at Lindisfarne at the coast of Northumberland around 700). The page in Fig. 2 shows the incipit (the opening line) of the Gospel of Matthew. While there is a lot to read on this page, the words are actually executed with brush and paint, apart from a few lines at the top. This decorative page – and the others in the book – are commonly discussed in an art-historical context (they are prime examples of Hiberno-Saxon art) and not as expressions of writing (more about Lindisfarne Gospels in relation to this issue in this article).

London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV (c. 700)
Fig. 2 – London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV (c. 700) – Source

These magnificent pages blur the boundary between text and image: they present something to read, but nothing has actually been written down – at least not in the traditional sense of the word, with a pen. Curiously, the words on these pages form the start of a text and were meant to be read, not just looked at. In other words, the intriguing hybridity of these pages forced the user to read a painting.

Words forming decoration
Much more unusual is a different mix of text and image: instances where a meaningful scene is made out of words. Delightful examples from manuscript production in the West are Figs. 3 and 4, taken from a ninth-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea, a work of astronomy. The text shows animals that represent constellations (the firm red dots are stars). Curiously, these animal illustrations consist, for the most part, of words written out with a pen.

British Library, Harley 647, fols. 9r (9th century)
Fig. 3 – British Library, Harley 647, fols. 9r (9th century) – Source
British Library, Harley 647, fols. 9r (9th century)
Fig. 4 – British Library, Harley 647, fols. 9r (9th century) – Source

The text in the hare and the swan is not actually the Aratea itself, which is found lower on the page, out of sight in the images above. The animals are actually formed by an explanatory text by Hyginus, called the Astronomica. Segments of this text are used for graphic representations of constellations: Orion (the hunter) is shown as a hare, the hunter’s favourite prey, while the lovely blue bird is the constellation Cygnus (swan). Word and image are engaged in a peculiar symbiotic relationship wherein one would become meaningless without the other.

A similar tradition is witnesses in Hebrew Torah culture of the tenth century. It introduced a phenomenon called “micrography“, the art of decorating the page with meaningful text written in tiny letters. By the thirteenth century Hebrew manuscripts contained elaborate depictions of individuals, animals and objects (Fig. 5). Hebrew religious leaders protested against this practice of drawing with words, as they figured it distracted from taking in their meaning.

British Library, Add. 21160-31 (13th century)
Fig. 5 – British Library, Add. 21160-31 (13th century) – Source
British Library, Add. 21160 (13th century)
Fig. 6 – British Library, Add. 21160 (13th century) – Source

The last word: music
The notion of drawing an image with words was taken a step further in the later Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, for example, we encounter marginal glosses in the shape of objects and people. A particularly elaborate late-medieval example is a variation on this theme: it presents a drawing in the shape of a heart, except the heart is made out both words and musical notes (Fig. 7).

Chantilly, Musée Condé 564 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Chantilly, Musée Condé 564 (14th century)

It concerns the so-called “Chantilly Codex”, which contains over a hundred polyphonic songs by French composers. The one seen here is by Baude Cordier and is called “Belle, Bonne, Sage” (listen to it here). As the Renaissance was nearing, word play became a favoured occupation of poets, including in a visual sense. Cordier borrowed the word “Cor” (coeur, heart) from his name and used it for the visual presentation of this song. Cutting-edge design? Hardly. Little did Cordier know that the practice of drawing and writing at the same time was old-school.

Dressing Up: Medieval Books Wearing Leather

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

Wearing leather

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

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

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

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

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

Exotic leather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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