Tag Archives: manuscripts

Getting Personal in the Margin

At its very heart the medieval book is a vehicle of information. It was an expensive receptacle for text, which was poured onto the page by the scribe, and retrieved by the reader. As strange as this may sound, as a book historian I have limited interest in the actual text found on the medieval page. My job is to look at books, not to read them: knowing author, genre and purpose often suffices for what I do. Very different, however, is my attitude towards words found in the margins, placed there “extra-textually” by scribes and readers. Here we may find information about the production circumstances of a given manuscript and the attitude of scribes or readers towards a text. In most books, there was ample room  to add such details, because on average a stunning fifty percent of the medieval page was left blank. It is in this vast emptiness, so often overlooked in editions of texts, that we may pick up key information about the long life of the book.

Pointing a Finger

Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library,  MS C54 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library, MS C54 (15th century)

We are taught not to point, but in the margin of the page it is okay. Readers frequently felt the need to mark a certain passage, for example for future reference or to debate its meaning (Fig. 1; more here). To do so, they added manicula (Latin for “little hand”) those highly entertaining pointing fingers. This is good news for us, because they facilitate a look into the mind of a medieval reader. It is not uncommon that a person’s interest shines through the collection of marginal hands in a manuscript. While most individuals simply marked spots with an X, the pointing hand provided a much clearer – and more expressive – signpost. A particularly entertaining pair is found in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. To mark a particularly long passage we encounter a hand where all five fingers have been drafted into service, while in another case the hand is replaced by an octopus with five tentacles (Fig. 2-3).

Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 2 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)
Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)

From time to time a debatable passage is highlighted by a pointing device that is part of the book’s decoration, like Augustine taking a stance while aiming his spear at a gloss in the text, seen at the top of this post (source).

Critiquing Authorities

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857, fol. 95v (14th century)

There is nothing more inviting to a critical mind than the empty space of the margin. Medieval readers frequently felt the need to vent in that location, for different reasons. Like Augustine and his spear, they would express their dismay about something. There is the Carthusian monk from Herne, for example, who could not handle the poor Latin-Dutch Bible translation he was reading. With a pen shaking from frustration he wrote: “Whoever translated these Gospels, did a very poor job!” (Fig. 4) The same person is encountered in the margins of a different manuscript, where he corrected yet another flawed translation (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 2849-51). Providing improved readings in the margins he added the following personal touch: “This is how I would have translated it.” Take that, translator!

While such explicit remarks are exceptional, critiquing the text in the margin was a normal thing to do as a medieval reader. In most cases he or she would jot down a gloss next to the actual text and connect the two with so-called tie marks – the precursor of our footnote (Fig. 5). This practice became particularly popular in the university classroom of the thirteenth century. The De disciplina scholarum, a student guidebook from Paris, stipulated that wax tablets or tiny slips of parchment were taken into the classroom for note-taking. These notes were later added to the margins of students’ textbooks. Aristotle manuscripts, the main textbook for the Arts Faculty, even provided a clever “zoning” system to accommodate criticism: the margins were broken up into vertical columns where the opinions of master and student would settle (visible in Fig. 5).

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 5 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century): marginal notes preceded by tiemarks

Scribes Getting Personal
The examples so far show how marginal additions allow us to peek into the world of those who read manuscripts. Similarly, marginalia bring us closer to those who made the books. Well known are the logistical remarks. From time to time we encounter cross references (“For more on this theme, see this and this page”), remarks about a manuscript’s contents (“Something seems missing here”), or indicators expressing that something is missing (“Vacat”, this is empty). While these statements suggest that book makers put their heart into their scribal work, they can hardly be called “personal”.

That label is appropriate for a rarer type of scribal remark. From the same Charterhouse as the nitty-gritty reader who disliked the Gospel translation comes the following marginal notation: “I put this text here because it also contains work by [the author] Jacob van Maerlant” (Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1374, fol. 129r). Says the same scribe in another manuscript: “I copied this here because it analyses faith” (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 13.708, fol. 218r). With these remarks the scribe appears to deliver a personal message to the reader, sharing his rationale for compiling the collections.

London, British Library, Add. MS 30024, fol. 1v (Mechanical arts)
Fig. 6 – Depiction of the mechanical art “escriture” (writing), showing a commercial scribe, front (London, British Library, Add. 30024, fol. 1v, detail)

Other personal statements come from the world of commercial book production. Here it was all about making a profit out of producing and selling books (Fig. 6). Some artisans wrote their name and location in the margin, like a medieval form of spam (I wrote about it here). Not every paid scribe was equally happy with what he received and from time to time we encounter complaints. On 15 May 1444, at nine o’clock in the evening, the scribe Henry of Damme finished a copy of a chronicle about the city of Brussels, which he had copied for the municipal government. In a corner of a flyleaf he tallies his expenses: “11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each” (source, in Dutch). Unsatisfied as he was, he wrote the following underneath the last text line: Pro tali precio nunquam plus scriber volo: “For such a (small) amount I won’t write again!” (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 19607, fol. CCLXXVr).

The breakdown of these numbers show that Henry had little reason for complaining: he earned 1.4 shilling a day, which is about the same as his fellow scribes working in the chancery. While the Carthusian scribe who explained the reasons for putting a collection together made a positive and personable connection to the readers of his books, Henry’s remarks, by contrast, expose him as a bit of a greedy whiner.

Strange Medieval Books

Written by hand, medieval manuscripts are very different from printed books, which started to appear after Gutenberg’s mid-fifteenth-century invention of moving type. One difference in particular is important for our understanding of manuscripts. While printed books were produced in batches of a thousand or more, handwritten copies were made one at the time. In fact, medieval books, especially those made commercially, came to be after a detailed conversation between scribe and reader, a talk that covered all aspects of the manuscript’s production. This is the only way the scribe could ensure the expensive product he was about to make was in sync with what the reader wanted. Consequently, while printed books were shaped generically and according to the printer’s perception of what the (anonymous) “market” preferred, the medieval scribe designed a book according to the explicit instructions  of its user.

This principle of one-on-one (of scribe-reader and reader-manuscript) explains why we come across some very strange medieval books. Scribes, especially those that were paid for their work, would accommodate any quirky wish – why on earth not? Here is a selection of five striking manuscripts that are literally outstanding as they are shaped unlike the bulk of surviving medieval manuscripts.

1. Fleur-de-Lis

Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 22 (c. 1555)
Fig. 1 – Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, Fonds Lescalopier MS 22 (c. 1555)

This Book of Hours has the most peculiar shape (Fig. 1): its pages resemble lily leaves (the yellow background is a paper sheet used for contrast). Such Fleurs-de-Lis were a symbol for French royalty, which puts this special book in a particular setting right away. In fact, we know it was made for king Henry II of France, who used it for private devotion – the Book of Hours contained prayers and other short texts, which were read at set times during the day. Not only does the very shape of the pages testify to the object’s royal patron, so too does the high quality of the decoration (more images here). The manuscript handles extremely well: it measures only 182×80 mm and has a limited number of pages (129 leaves), which means it is light and easy to hold for a long time. Evidently, even during private devotion Henry II was treated like a king.

2. Codex Rotundus

Fig. 2 – Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS 728 (1450-75)

This is one of the most peculiar medieval book formats out there (Fig. 2). While you’d expect to see some corners on a page, the Codex Rotundus lacks any at all. Like the previous item, it concerns a Book of Hours, an instrument used for private devotion. Currently kept in the Dombibliothek at Hildesheim as MS 728 (more here), it was originally made in a Bruges workshop for Adolf of Cleves, whose monogram is engraved on the clasps. Adolf was the nephew of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, which puts this book in a courtly environment, like the previous item. The pages are only 90 mm in diameter, which means this manuscript was designed as a true portable item, perhaps to be brought to church during journeys away from court. The page design came with its own challenges for the binder, however, who had to add no less than three clasps to keep it closed.

3. Heart-Shaped Book

Kopenhagen, KB, Thott MS 1510 (c. 1550)
Fig. 3 – Copenhagen, KB, Thott MS 1510 (c. 1550)

It kind of makes sense to put love poetry in a heart-shaped book (Fig. 3). Still, very few of them survive. Medieval paintings show actual readers prominently showcasing their heart-shaped books, suggesting it must have been a tradition (an example is found here). Copied in the sixteenth century, this particular one from the Danish National Library is the oldest manuscript with love ballads in Danish vernacular (more information here). It contains 83 of them, all composed at the court of King Christian III. The contents may be royal, the appearance of the manuscript certainly is not. In fact, with its scruffy script and mishmash layout, the heart book is far removed from the high-end manuscripts presented so far. Moreover, judging from this added marginal note, the life of the individual who read the book was far removed from the comforts of court: “May God end and turn my misery into a good and happy ending.” He sounds heartbroken.

4. Narrow Books

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 360 (c. 1100)

This book is unusual in more than one way. It concerns a hymnal, which was carried through the church during processions (Fig. 4). This is why the book is fitted in a box, which was removed when the pages were used to sing from. What is perhaps more striking about this object is its dimensions: the pages are unusually tall and narrow. Medieval scribes were very strict about the relation between a page’s height and width. It more or less resembles our modern standard in that the width is about 0.7 of the page height (which is 1.0). The narrow format made it possible to hold the book with one hand: the pressure of its weight pressed down on the palm of the hand, not on the finger tips. This tall and high “performance” format was also used in early-modern theatres, and some educators favoured it for use in the classroom, as discussed in a previous blog.

5. Miniature Books

London, British Library, Stowe MS 956 (c. 1540)
Fig. 5 – London, British Library, Stowe MS 956 (c. 1540)

And then there are the miniature books. This tiny object holds an English translation of the Psalms and is only 40 mm in height – less than the short side of your credit card (Fig. 5). It was owned by Anne Boleyn, whose life was cut equally short thanks to her husband Henry VIII, recognisably depicted on the opening page. There are several types of movable books (see this blog “Books on the Go”). As the “loops” on the binding show, this book was designed as a girdle book, which means that it likely dangled from Boleyn’s belt. Although some great specimens survive (see this blog post), such small books were infrequently made in medieval times. This was in part because they could not hold much text and it required particular skills to write such small script. In fact, research shows that less than 1% of surviving manuscripts measure less than 150 mm in height.

While these five examples showcase the exceptional in medieval manuscript culture, one ought to keep in mind that the items stand out because the majority of medieval books do not look like this. On an average day (week, month, year) the book historian will not encounter books like the ones seen here. This is important as it underscores just how strictly medieval scribes adhered to very particular – and the same – rules of book production. Remarkably, these rules of book production were not written down but passed on during training, whether in a monastic environment of in the guild system of the late-medieval cities. While the users of the books above may have been keen to own objects that looked different from the pack, their makers knew this is not what a book was supposed to look like – but they penned it anyway.