Tag Archives: photography

Meet the Medieval Manuscript

By Erik Kwakkel and Giulio Menna (@SexyCodicology)

While this and other blogs introduce you to particular aspects of medieval book production, there are few places on the web that provide a full overview of how handwritten books – or “manuscripts” – were made, especially for those new to the topic. To fill this gap, we (Erik and Giulio) have produced a website called Quill: Books Before Print, through generous support of various institutions (below). The site is now live and available for free to anyone who wants to know more about the handwritten book in the medieval period.

Navigating through Quill shows you what made the manuscript “tick”, and how it ticks. Each of the fifty-odd segments contains an artistic photograph (made by Giulio, who is a professional photographer) and some 150 words of light reading (written by Erik, who is a professional book historian). This post introduces our work, explains how and why we made it, and what we like best about it.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 14 D (13th century)
Fig. 1 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 14 D (13th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

Writing about manuscripts (by Erik Kwakkel)
I love writing about manuscripts. Not only do I do so frequently in academic publications (find a list here), but also for an audience beyond the university, for example through social media (this blog, Tumblr) and magazines (I have a regular column in Quest Historie). Writing for non-specialists is fun in that you can just tell a story. However, it also requires a certain approach and tone. The texts I wrote for Quill are first and foremost meant to be entertaining – learning something is a close second. The entries are therefore written in a “light” tone and use “speaking” comparisons. Thus I discuss fragments hidden in bindings as “stowaway“, bookmarks become the “fossilized taste” of medieval readers, and parchment sheets are seen as “dead cows“.

To get this tone right, images are crucial. To write an inspired post about a manuscript, an image needs to “grab” me. Moreover, the trick (both for Quill and my blog posts) is to find a single guiding principle that can carry the text. My blog post on Medieval Selfies is a good example of this, but the same is seen in the entries for Quill. Each of the clickable segments are built around a single observation or angle, which is usually reflected in the title: “Add-on” for the segment on marginal glosses, “One, two, three” for page numbers,  and “Mind the gap!” for blank spots on the page.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century)
Fig. 2 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

My favourite sections to write are those related to medieval handwriting – script. It is notoriously difficult to do so in clear terms, even in academic papers, when everybody knows precisely what you are talking about. I liked the challenge of providing clear information about such a complex matter as the development from one manner of handwriting to another. Playing with verbal imagery I discuss early-medieval script under the label “The unifier“, while script it develops into is seen as “The divider“. As far as my favourite images are concerned, I’m attached to all of them. Particularly pretty, however, are those that show things you normally don’t see, like a the palimpsest (scratches-away text, vaguely visible) or the backs of the quires, as in Fig. 3.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 28
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 28 – Photo GM  (Quill source)

Photographing manuscripts (by Giulio Menna)
When I was asked to take pictures of medieval manuscripts for this project I was thrilled; when I was told I would essentially have unlimited access to the manuscripts from the exquisite collection in the Leiden University Library, I was as excited as the proverbial child in the candy store. What an opportunity! But then it dawned on me: How do you take photos of manuscripts? How do I make photos that will interest someone who has never seen a manuscript before?

Thanks to Erik’s MA course in manuscript studies I knew exactly what had to be photographed and where to find it in the books. I spent most of the time browsing through manuscript catalogs and manuscripts’ descriptions, searching for the right book to use for the shots. Once the desired detail was found, the actual photography began. First things first: respect the manuscript! I might find a detail that could make a perfect picture, but to get the photo right I would  have had to mishandle the manuscript in some way: those pictures did not get taken.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 4 (15th century)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 4 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

Once an ideal manuscript was found, I used the oldest trick in the book for directing viewer’s attention towards the detail described: depth of field. This would ensure that only the detail in question would be in focus in the picture, and the surroundings would be blurred (Fig. 5 is a good example). I have a very good lens (f/2.8) that allows me to do just that. The lighting was a bit of a problem. Since I was shooting in the Special Collections room I had no direct control over the light. Most of the time I had to wander around the table and find the right angle at which there would be no shadows or reflections.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 38 (12th century)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 38 (12th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

There are two photos I am particularly fond of. One is the initial P (for Plinius) seen in Fig. 5. It is the opening page of the manuscript, and the letter is welcoming us to the book. I like to believe that this photo captures the moment when you open a manuscript you have never seen before, and you are captivated by unexpected decoration. The initial is very pleasing to the eye: I particularly enjoy the contrast between the old parchment on the right and the white modern paper on the left.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 304 (15th century) – Photo GM (Quill source)

The second image I like very much is of a watermark (Fig. 6). Taking a picture of a watermark was technically challenging: the manuscript’s pages are made of paper, and although paper made in 1600s is more resilient than the contemporary counterpart, it is still delicate and has to be handled with extra care. I had no control over light sources, but I knew that in order to show the watermark I needed a strong light from the back of a page. The plan then became to wait for the sun to go down in the late afternoon, and let some of the light shine through the Special Collections’ windows onto the manuscript. All I had to do then was kneel before the book and take the picture of the naturally bending page.

The last word: enjoy
We hope you will enjoy browsing our website – which was two years in the making – and learn from it at the same time. The site is designed to work optimally with tablets: it’s a true pleasure to swipe the image carousel at the top. We think it provides a sound introduction to making books before print and we hope that the website will be picked up by the broadest possible audience, including instructors at schools and universities. Enjoy!

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 38 B
Fig. 7 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, SCA 38 B – Photo GM (Quill source)


Credits – Quill: Books Before Print was produced through a grant of De Jonge Akademie (The Young Academy), an offshoot of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and with logistical support of Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS). The website would not have been possible without the invaluable support of Leiden University Library and its Special Collections department.

The Beauty of the Injured Book

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

1. Post-operation

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

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

2. Bad back

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

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

3. Sliced

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

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

4. Scar tissue

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

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

4. Touched by a human

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

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

5. Mouldy skin

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

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

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

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