Size Matters: Portable Medieval Manuscripts

By Irene O’Daly

Medieval books were often expensive to produce, and usually the property of institutions. But some manuscripts were copied specifically for individuals, and designed to be carried on the person. Portable manuscripts come in many different forms and each is a witness to a different context of use – a valuable insight into medieval culture. Size is a major factor influencing the portability of an object, indeed, it can be a defining characteristic in evaluating the potential use-context of a manuscript, as discussed here in another blog entry. But size does not always tell the full story.

Take, for example, the production of one-volume Bibles in the thirteenth century. These Bibles (often termed ‘Paris Bibles’, as Paris was the major, though not only, centre of their production) represented a dramatic departure from previous practices. Bibles were traditionally large, often copied in separate volumes, but Paris Bibles were small and designed to accommodate all the books of the Bible. By the mid-thirteenth century, one-volume Bibles could be as small as 200mm high, and came to be known as ‘pocket Bibles’. The popularity of these Bibles seems to have been fostered in part by the success of the new preaching orders, particularly the Fransciscans and Dominicans, founded in the early thirteenth century. The Friars travelled, and in their fight against heresy were in need of a standardised text of scripture, of the type found in the Paris Bible. As preaching was their main mission, each Friar needed his own Bible (which conventionally was property of the order, rather than of the individual).

Harvard, Houghton Library, MS Typ 4, f. 3v - a tiny Bible measuring only 180mm tall

Harvard, Houghton Library, MS Typ 4, f. 3v – a tiny Bible measuring only 180mm tall

Not all medieval portable manuscripts were designed to be carried in one’s pocket. ‘Girdle books’ could be carried on a belt, and seem to have been designed for ‘on-the-move’ reading. The Yale ‘Girdle Book’ (Beinecke, MS 84), a copy of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae measuring only 100x80mm, was designed to be worn in this fashion and would have hung upside-down off a knot on the users belt, so that the text would be the right way up when lifted from the belt to be read.

Yale, Beinecke MS 84

Yale, Beinecke MS 84

Certain genres of manuscripts were frequently copied to be worn like this – for example, medical almanacs were often designed as folding manuals to be worn on the belt, allowing easy consultation by travelling doctors.

Wellcome Library, London, WI no. C0096769. A particularly deluxe fifteenth century folding almanac, opened here to show the Zodiac Man, a table to show under what signs of the zodiac bloodletting could take place.

Wellcome Library, London, WI no. C0096769. A particularly deluxe fifteenth century folding almanac, opened here to show the Zodiac Man, a table to show the times of the year when bloodletting was advised and prohibited.

Some manuscripts were carried on the person because their proximity was considered talismanic. This is probably the case with British Library MS Stowe 956, a tiny copy of the psalms (40x30mm) bound to be worn on a belt. Its tiny size suggests it was intended to be worn as a devotional object, rather than to be read.

British Library, MS Stowe 956, f. 1v-2r. Copy of the psalms preceded by a miniature of Henry VIII.

British Library, MS Stowe 956, f. 1v-2r. Copy of the psalms preceded by a miniature of Henry VIII. This originally belonged to Anne Boleyn.

Another example of this kind are medieval prayer rolls. The Arma Christi, a religious poem in Middle English dating from the late thirteenth century, was frequently copied on to a small parchment roll to be carried on the person. Accompanied by images of the Passion of Christ (including ‘life-size’ renditions of the nails of the cross) these rolls were intended for contemplation and meditation. Only 63mm wide, this fifteenth-century example would have been easily held in a hand by a medieval reader.

Huntington Library, HM 26054 - a section of an illustrated Arma Christi roll.

Huntington Library, HM 26054 – a section of an illustrated Arma Christi roll.

One of my favourite ‘portable manuscripts’ is this illustrated almanac for peasants, dating from 1513. Each month is accompanied by a picture of a farmer doing the work best suited to that time of the year. The roll also contained an image of Christ crucified, again demonstrating the strong relationship drawn in medieval society between work and prayer. For me, this manuscript, despite its diminutive size and format, literally ‘speaks volumes’ about the Middle Ages.

Copenhagen, Royal Library NKS 901, 1513

Copenhagen, Royal Library NKS 901, 1513

Posted in Project News

Mark Their Words: Medieval Bookmarks

By Jenneka Janzen

When talking about manuscripts with the uninitiated, I usually mention how features that guide us through our modern books – running titles, subheadings, and indices, for example – originated in the Middle Ages. Yet, I tend to overlook bookmarks (despite my childhood collection of them) as a sort of ‘separate apparatus’. Bookmarks, however, also have an interesting medieval past!

Unlike today’s kitten-adorned cardboard versions, or the crocheted worm variety (my personal favourite), medieval bookmarks tended to be less decorative, but über practical. There are essentially three types of bookmark, most of them extant from the twelfth century onwards* and usually found in liturgical books (as the Mass celebrant had to locate various readings in several different books depending on the day).

1) Fore-edge Bookmarks

This type is arguably the ancestor of today’s binder or index tab. A tab made out of a bit of parchment (sometimes cut from the edge of the page itself), coloured leather, or even a sort of woven bead, was stitched onto or looped through a cut in the page at the height of the desired text. These may have also been used to mark the beginning of different texts in a composite manuscript, or different chapters.

Knotted tab in the left margin, Bruges City Library, MS 47, 1v-2r, c. 1200-1225. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Knotted tab in the left margin, likely marking a new text in a formerly composite manuscript. Bruges City Library, MS 47, 1v-2r, 3rd quarter 12th c. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Close-up of knotted tab, Bruges City Library, MS 105 front flyleaf, c. 1175-1200. Photo Jenneka Janzen

Close-up of knotted tab, Bruges City Library, MS 105 front flyleaf, c. 1175-1200. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Tab made from the page itself, Oxford, Balliol College, MS 86, 14th c. Photo Balliol Archives conservationist blog.

Tab made from the page itself (recto and verso of same folio). Oxford, Balliol College, MS 86, 14th c. Photo Balliol Archives conservationist blog.

 

2) Register Bookmarks

Probably closest to modern bookmarks, the register bookmark comes in three smart versions. The simplest is similar to what you’d find in a nice edition today – a long strip of parchment, leather, string, or ribbon attached to the endband or spine of the book that could be draped between pages. There might be several ribbons, for the reader to mark several pages.

Manuscript endband with register bookmark and foot with trailing cords. Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588. Photo Alexandra Gillespie, from her blog Medieval Bookbindings.

Manuscript endband with register bookmark and foot with trailing cords. Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS S.1588. Photo Alexandra Gillespie, from her blog Medieval Bookbindings.

Another variation on this theme was the portable register, made by attaching a number of strings or strips to an anchor (a peg or square of parchment or leather), which rests at the top edge of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 19.55.46

Removable register bookmark in Exeter Cathedral, MS 3515, 13th c.

The third version of the register bookmark is the most ingenious! A little rotating dial made of parchment is added to the bookmark string, usually with numbers one through four marked on it signifying the standard four columns of text at each opening (i.e. column A and B verso, and column A and B recto). When the reader wanted to mark his spot, he slid the dial up or down the string to line up with the spot he wanted to mark, and then indicated, using the wheel’s markings, the desired column.

Register bookmark with adjustable disk, Harvard University, Houghton MS Typ 277.

Register bookmark with adjustable dial set between column II and III (i.e. col. B verso and col. A recto[not pictured]). Harvard University, Houghton MS Typ 277, 12th c.

3) Found Object Bookmarks

The last type of bookmark is the most obvious: the found object, or essentially whatever-happens-to-be-at-hand bookmark. Much in the way we might re-purpose an old shopping list or photo, medieval readers used parchment scraps, bits of string, or pieces of plants to mark their spot. Turning Over a New Leaf project leader Erik Kwakkel found a lovely leaf bookmark in an incunabula in Zutphen.

Leaf bookmark found by Erik Kwakkel in an incunabula in Zutphen's chained library. Photo Erik Kwakkel.

Leaf bookmark found by Erik Kwakkel in an incunabula in Zutphen’s chained library. Photo Erik Kwakkel. See more on his Tumblr.

Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185

Auckland Libraries, MS G. 185, Photo Alexandra Gillespie, from her blog Medieval Bookbindings.

Despite their attraction, medieval bookmarks are often left unmentioned in special collections catalogues, making them interesting little surprises for manuscript scholars. Want more on bookmarks? Stay tuned to upcoming Turning Over a New Leaf blog entries!

*According to Szirmai (1999) there is a cord bookmark attached to the endband of St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 95, although it isn’t visible in the e-codices images.

Posted in Jenneka Janzen | Tagged , , , ,

Fireworks, Baseball and the Dog Days of Medieval Summer

By Julie Somers

Since today is Independence Day in the States and many of my friends and family will be enjoying celebrations, today’s blog post takes a look at fireworks used as spectacle in the Middle Ages.

First invented in China during the early twelfth century, fireworks came to Western Europe by way of merchant trade routes. By the late fourteenth century, small pyrotechnic displays were being used to enhance Christian mystery plays, where the ‘whole Church was filled with sparks’. Over the next centuries, fireworks became a part of festivities at royal courts, religious dramas, and even summer markets.

‘On summer days, great wooden and papier-mache wheels covered in painted human and animal figures were raised up over the town square on ropes and filled with a variety of simple rockets…fireworks burst forth from the wheel…’ [1]

Drawing of 'Fiery Dragon' firework display c. 1658 (John White, "The School of Artificial Fire-Works," A Rich Cabinet (1658).

Drawing of ‘Fiery Dragon’ firework display c. 1658 (John White, “The School of Artificial Fire-Works,” A Rich Cabinet (1658).

A popular firework display was the ‘fiery dragon’ that would move across the sky sending fireworks all around. Another popular type was a spinning wheel of sparks or girandola. We know of these early displays from a book about fireworks from 1594 by Friedrich Meyer. Also in this book we come across a spectacular drawing of ‘the spark of life’ theory popular in the sixteenth century. This image is connected to the idea that an essential part of fireworks corresponded to an essential part of human nature.

Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch - (BSB Cgm 8143) c.1594

Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch – (BSB Cgm 8143) c.1594

Perhaps during the summer, the medieval person came across the opportunity to see these displays of drama and performance.

Artilleriebuch by Walther Litzelmann, 1582.

Artilleriebuch by Walther Litzelmann, 1582.

Or perhaps they were enjoying summer games.

A Game of Ball? (MS Bodl. 264) c.1400

A Game of Ball? (MS Bodl. 264) c.1400

However, these festivites were generally over by August, when the Dog Days of Summer arrived. Usually from late July into mid-September when the rising of the dog star, Sirius, signaled the months with the hotest temperatures, and were believed to be unhealthy for many activities.

Although the first sparklers may have been made from goose quills, we all enjoy summer just the same.

[1] Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. (University of Chicago Press, 2010) p. 17.

Posted in Julie Somers | Tagged , ,

Medieval Family Trees

By Jenny Weston

This post was originally inspired by a recent revelation that one of my ancestors may have lived in Leiden in the early 1600s. A particularly unexpected find — given the fact that my family is from the West Coast of Canada (over 7000 km from Leiden) — it was a surprise to find that my ‘eleventh-great-grandfather’ may have lived, literally down the street from our office here in Leiden, almost 400 years ago.

In the wake of this little discovery, I began to wonder about the history of ‘family history’. In the Middle Ages, how did people keep track of their family heritage? How important was it to know where you came from? (Or perhaps, how important was it for others to know where you came from)?

For some medieval families, the task of documenting and publicizing the ‘family tree’ was critically important. This was especially the case for royal and noble families, who were reliant on the continuation of blood-lines to maintain positions of power and prestige. These family histories often survive in large chronicles or genealogy books, some of which include artistic representations of the family tree — each branch of the tree signifying (and confirming) various relationships.

The following image is from a biblical and royal genealogical chronicle that traces the connection between King Edward VI all the way back to Adam and Eve. To make sure that more people could fit on the page, the scribe has turned the book sideways, maximizing his workspace:

British Library, Kings MS 395, fols. 32v-33r

British Library, Kings MS 395, fols. 32v-33r

Some of these royal genealogies feature impressive detail, giving brief artistic glimpses into the personalities of each family member. In the family tree of Edward IV (presented below), one can see a number of characters emerging out of little flower pods. Some individuals brandish a sword, while others firmly grasp the royal sceptre. Admittedly, this tree looks more like a scary, out-of-control garden weed:

Harley 7353: Genealogy of Edward IV

Harley 7353: Genealogy of Edward IV

Royal families were not the only ones interested in preserving their history on the page, however. There is a nice example of an early-fifteenth-century nobleman named John Lovell, who commissioned a liturgical book to be made as a gift to Salisbury Cathedral. What is different about this lectionary book, however, is that it is riddled with Lovell family history (as well as that of his wife’s family, the ‘Holands’).

The book opens with a picture of Lord Lovell himself, caught in the act of donating the book to the Cathedral:

Harley 7026, fol. 4v: Portrait of Lord Lovell

Harley 7026, fol. 4v: Portrait of Lord Lovell

Throughout the remaining pages, the artist adds all kinds of Lovell/Holand memorabilia, such as this initial that features two angels holding the family’s Coat of Arms:

Harley 7026, fol. 8r, Angels holding Lovell and Holland Coat of Arms

Harley 7026, fol. 8r, Angels holding Lovell and Holand Coat of Arms

As well as various other images of the family’s heraldry:

Harley 7026, fol. 10r ("Heraldry for the Lovell and Holland families" British Library Caption)

Harley 7026, fol. 10r (“Heraldry for the Lovell and Holland families” British Library Caption)

Perhaps Lord Lovell wished to preserve his family history in a book that he thought would be safe in the hands of the Cathedral. It is also possible that he wished to add a few ‘friendly reminders’ to the users of the book, reminding them who commissioned the volume in the hopes that they might say a few extra prayers on behalf of the generous donor. There is an inscription in the book that suggests this may have been the case. It states:

Orate pro anima domini iohanis lovell qui hunc librum orinavit ecclesie cathedrali Sarum pro speciali memoria sui et uxoris.

[Pray for the soul of John Lovell who gave this book to Salisbury Cathedral, on behalf of the memory of him and his wife].

Another way to make sure that the family’s achievements were remembered was to ensure that your Coat of Arms was entered into a book of Heraldry. Most noble families from the Middle Ages were represented by an artistic crest, which would be painted on shields, flags, and other possessions that were put on public display. One of the earliest and most well-known Heraldry collections is known as the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1280), which contains over three hundred Coats of Arms from English Knights (and spans an impressive 2.64 meters):

Dering Roll, c. 1270-1280

Dering Roll, c. 1270-1280

While there were a number of ways to preserve one’s family history in the Middle Ages, it seems that this was an activity pursued most regularly by wealthy and noble families — those who could afford to document their history in a manuscript book, and those whose status relied most heavily on the continuation of the family line. That is not to say that other medieval families were not interested in their ancestors, but simply that they did not typically have the means to formally record their history in a book or roll. Alas, we must resign ourselves to the fact that the medieval record is dominated by royal family trees, lined with kings and queens dangling from the blossoms.

 

Posted in Jenny Weston, Project News

The Beauty of Mistakes

By Irene O’Daly

Medieval manuscripts often contain traces unintentionally left behind by the scribe. A casualty of spell-check and mass-production, mistakes in books, like typographical errors, are now usually spotted before they reach the shelves.

One that escaped the printer's eye: a page from the so-called 'Wicked Bible', printed in 1631, with an interesting twist on the Ten Commandments

One that escaped the printer’s eye: a page from the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’, printed in 1631, with an interesting twist on the Ten Commandments

The medieval scribe wasn’t necessarily so lucky. Copying by hand was an arduous process and mistakes could creep in all too easily. Today I’d like to explore two versions of the most common accidental error made by medieval scribes, that is eyeskip. Eyeskip occurs when the scribe’s eye literally jumps from one occurrence of a word to the next while copying, and results in either the omission or repetition of words or phrases.

Leiden UB, VLF 30, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, f. 21v

Leiden UB, VLF 30, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, f. 22r

1] ossa uidelicet e pauxillis atque minutis
2] ossibus hic et de pauxillis atque minutis
3] uiceribus uiscus gigni sanguenque creari
4] sanguinis inter se multis coeuentibus guttis
[Lucretius, De rerum natura I, lines 835-8]

This ninth-century book produced at the palace school of the famous emperor Charlemagne is one of the treasures of Leiden’s collection – a copy of the Roman poet Lucretius’ De rerum natura (VLF 30). Not only is it one of the earliest medieval copies of the text, but it has been corrected by a scribe whose identity we know – the Irish monk Dungal. We can see Dungal at work on this page (f. 22r). The change in hand is clearly visible and, moreover, the correction has a sort of squashed aspect. That’s because Dungal has replaced one line of poetry with two – adding something that the original scribe had missed. If we look at the text of the four lines highlighted above, we can see that lines 1 and 2 are quite similar – both end in ‘pauxillis atque minutis’. Reconstructing the mistake, it’s likely that the scribe omitted line 2, proceeding straight to line 3. The technical name for the omission of text due to the scribe’s eye skipping from one occurrence of a phrase to the next is haplography. As we can see Dungal rectified the error by scraping out the misplaced line, then replacing it with the necessary two lines of correct text.

Leiden UB, VLQ 130, the Scholiasta Gronovianus, f. 21v

Leiden UB, VLQ 130, the Scholiasta Gronovianus, f. 21v

 Eyeskip could result in omission, as demonstrated, but could also result in repetition of text. This manuscript, the Scholiasta Gronovianus (VLQ 130), a tenth-century copy of a collection of commentaries on Cicero’s speeches, contains an example of this type, an error termed dittography. As we can see, it was noticed by a later reader, who boxed the duplicated line half-way down the page. Here the problem seems to have been provoked by the recurrence of the word quomodo (as indicated). Rather than moving on to ‘quomodo dixit‘, the scribe’s eye jumped back to the preceding sentence and repeated the line beginning ‘quomodo facit‘. It’s interesting to note that word-separation is not standardised in this manuscript; its probable that the exemplar from which the scribe was copying was not standardised either, which may have made mistakes of this type even more easy to make.

Mistakes resulting from eyeskip tell us something about the process and pitfalls of copying by hand, and the role of the later corrector/reader. In some cases, we may even find a group of manuscripts where the same accidental error is copied from one to another, allowing us to establish textual relationships between manuscripts, useful for understanding the history of the transmission of a text. So medieval errors, even when corrected,  provide a genuine opportunity to learn from mistakes!

Posted in Irene O'Daly

Listening to the Text: The Medieval Speech Bubble

By Julie Somers

My colleagues and I at the Turning Over a New Leaf Project spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and reading about, well, reading. More specifically, we question the various forms of reading, as well as the ways books were used in the Middle Ages. Recently we discussed the interplay of script and image, which made me think of the banderole (Fr. “little banner”), which is essentially the medieval speech bubble. Sometimes referred to as angel banners, phylactère or speech scrolls, banderoles were employed by medieval artists and scribes as a visual way of conveying spoken words. Different from tituli, which provided more of a summary title or caption for an image, the banderole points to an interaction within an image, as well as encouraging the reader to imagine a conversation, thus requiring the reader to ‘listen to the text’.[1] S-shaped scrolls or ribbons of words that seem to unfurl from the mouths of the speakers add an element of sound to the images. Banderoles are inscribed with words that suggest a conversation, with the direction the scroll unrolls possibly indicating the direction of speech.

Gospel Book of Henry the Lion

Gospel Book of Henry the Lion. 12th. c. Cod. Guelf. 105 Noviss. 2° Der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

Banderoles are often carried by the speaker; they are pictured holding their words and thus owning their voice. This is evident in the example below from a twelfth-century Psalter where the nun-scribe holds in her hand a banderole inscribed, ‘Guda peccatrix mulier scripsit et pinxit hoc librum’ (Guda a sinner wrote and painted this book).

Homilary, Signed Initial German Romanesque ca. 1175 Frankfurt, Stadtbibl. Ms. Barth, 42

Homilary, Signed Initial, German Romanesque, ca. 1175 Frankfurt, Stadtbibl. Ms. Barth, 42

Some banderoles remain empty. We must imagine the conversation between this friar and Beguine, who have been left with nothing to say at all.

Beguine and Monk, 15th century. Kupferstich von Israhel van Meckenem.

Beguine and Friar, 15th century. Kupferstich von Israhel van Meckenem.

Banderoles could also indicate singing or a multitude of voices. Though the text is silent, the sound resides in the mind of the reader.

Monks singing medieval-hymn

Monks singing medieval-hymn

Throughout the high and later Middle Ages the banderole was an increasingly popular motif used in various media, including sculpture, manuscripts, stained glass, tapestries and paintings.bessuejouls, France

The Nativity. Spirituale pomerium  blockbook. c. 1440 Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. 12070.

The Nativity.
Spirituale pomerium blockbook. c. 1440
Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. 12070.

The tradition continued into the era of printed books where banderoles figure prominently in woodcut illustrations.

Detail from 'Fortune and Death' by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475 showing a banderole or scroll containing 'speech' text emanating from the King

Detail from ‘Fortune and Death’ by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475
showing a banderole or scroll containing ‘speech’ text emanating from the King

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, by the mid-fifteenth century the ‘Master of the Banderoles’ (Meister mit den Bandrollen) was one of the earliest professional printers in the Netherlands.[2]

This last image is a photo I took in the Chapel of Tears (Chapelle des Larmes) at Mount Sainte-Odile in Alsace, France. It is a beautiful 20th century mosaic that uses the medieval motif of banderoles to convey a sense of conversation, with the scrolls emanating from the center to the periphery in a back and forth motion between the figures.

Mount Sainte Odile, Chapelle de Larmes. Photo by Julie Somers

Mount Sainte Odile, Chapelle de Larmes. Photo by Julie Somers

As we are all familiar with the speech bubble as it is used in comic books today, banderoles continue to fulfill the same function of connecting words with image, making the reader ‘listen’ to the text.

What did he say?

What did he say?

[1] Paul Saenger. Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press, 1987. p. 187

[2]http://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/08501/4A5903F1491D7C25F9F327EB399EC8AE82707AF6.html  http://www.wopc.co.uk/netherlands/master-of-the-banderoles.html

Posted in Julie Somers | Tagged , , , ,

Judging a Book by its Cover: Manuscript Bindings Without Bling

By Jenneka Janzen

Our blog has featured medieval bindings before (Jenny’s blog on “bling” bindings was recently published in Quest magazine) but with an eye to the extraordinary, and extremely rare. In fact, finding an intact medieval binding, never mind a beautiful one, is not particularly common. Whether replaced in response to wear and tear or to update the book’s appearance, most manuscripts encountered by the researcher won’t arrive in their original bindings. Because of this, many manuscript scholars are unable to ‘judge a book by its cover’ (or, more fairly, judge it alongside its cover) in their research, and the topic of medieval bindings is therefore overlooked. My research corpus includes a number of manuscripts in original medieval bindings, discussed below, which makes them even more interesting to me!

What do normal, more workaday manuscript bindings actually look like? Well, as with all things manuscript related, it depends on a multitude of factors.

Parts of a manuscript binding. From Michelle Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (London: The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Library, 1994), 7.

Parts of a manuscript binding. From Michelle Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (London: The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Library, 1994), 7. See the BL’s online glossary.

The shift from roll to codex meant a fundamental change in the physical format in which one accessed texts. The new codex was much easier to store, transport, and reference, with its own built-in connection and protection structure – its binding. While the codex was ubiquitous in the west from the 5th century onwards, the oldest extant western binding encloses the St Cuthbert Gospels, c. 700.

The St Cuthbert Gospels, front cover, dyed-red goat skin with tooling. Photo by British Library; see the full manuscript at the British Library website.

The earliest books were likely bound using the Coptic method (which you can learn to do yourself). While easy to make and flexible, this type of binding is not very durable. The Carolingians developed a sturdier style characterized by raised bands (or ribs) along the spine and heavy flat boards (see a tutorial here).

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 175. 9th century binding, front and spine.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 175. 9th century binding, front and spine. Photos by e-codices, where you can view the entire manuscript.

As you can see, these simple bindings aren’t as glamorous as contemporary treasure bindings, such as the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram. They did the trick however, aesthetically and functionally. This binding method generally persisted for several more centuries, with some variations in the way quires were sewn to the ribs, and the methods by which the boards were attached to the spine. At one point seemingly dull bindings like these may have had now-lost furnishings like bosses (metal studs meant to hold the leather covers off the surface it rested on to protect it), clasps, dye, or even stamps or tooling, like this Romanesque binding at the British Library.

British Library, Egerton MS 272, c. 1225, from the priory of St. Mary Overy in Southwark.

British Library, Egerton MS 272, c. 1225, from the priory of St Mary Overy in Southwark.

Later medieval libraries sometimes attached chains to the back covers of their books to keep them in place; see Jenny’s blog on chained libraries and the Project’s visit to Zutphen.

As mentioned above, and briefly discussed in a past blog, a good number of the manuscripts I work with from Ten Duinen, an abbey formerly on the West-Flemish coast, are encased in medieval bindings. (I encourage Dutch speakers to read the Bruges Public Library’s blog about them. The Library is unique and indeed blessed to have a truly impressive collection of medieval bindings.) Although there is some variety in my corpus, I do have a favourite type: their in-house, late 12th/early 13th century Cistercian-style bindings.

Bruges, Bruges City Library, Ms. 27; spine and front.

Bruges, Bruges Public Library, Ms 27; spine and front. (As indicated by my arm and hand on the left, this is a hefty volume!) Photo Jenneka Janzen.

In one example, Ms 27, the boards (according to the Bruges Public Library, oak) are covered in brown leather. The outer front cover shows, at the corners and centre, marks where the metal bosses were attached. The ribs along the spine are not as prominent as in other examples, although you can see one exposed cord at the tail end.

Exposed stitching and cord. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Exposed stitching and cord, Bruges Public Library, Ms 27. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges City Library, Ms. 27, binding from inside back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 27, binding from inside back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

From the inside, you can see that the channeling, cords, and sewing stations are exposed. The back pastedown, now lifted, was taken from a 12th century Ritual (medieval bindings very often contain fragments of ‘recycled’ books). Neat, isn’t it?

Bruges City Library, Ms. 27, binding back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 27, binding back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Well, the back cover, shown above, is even better. Here you can see a small (14th century) fenestra of metal and transparent horn holding the title of the book. (Holes from an earlier fenestra lie above it.) There are also, painted in black ink, a large G and smaller C; these were likely used by the librarian to classify and maybe shelve the book. Other manuscript bindings in my corpus have leftover bits of clasps or chains, and even 800 year-old cow hair (which is now an interesting shade of green). Generally, medieval bindings are covered in cow, pig, sheep, or goat leather, with the hair scraped off. Not so here!

Bruges City Library, Ms. 19, back cover and close-up of a hairy patch. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 19, back cover and close-up of a hairy patch. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Medieval bindings are such a fascinating and deep study area that what I’ve shared here is a drop in the ocean. Limp or parchment bindings, girdle books, and chemise bindings warrant their own entries, as do in-depth looks at the processes, regional variations, and chronological developments of bookbinding. Online stamp and tooling identification engines, bookbinding databases, and issues of conservation may also appeal to binding aficionados.

For much more on bindings, start with J.A. Szirmai’s authoritative The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. For binding eye candy, sites like the British Library’s Databank of Bookbindings, the National Library of the Netherlands’ Dutch Bindings digital collection, and the Schøyen Collection‘s bindings site are great places to start!

(With thanks to the Bruges Public Library for allowing me to post my research images.)

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