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

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