The Body of a Book and the Hand of a Script

By Julie Somers

Whence did the wondrous mystic art arise, of painting speech and speaking to the eyes, That we by tracing magic lines are taught, how to embody and to color thought?

W.M. Massey, 1763

June has been a month dedicated to the medieval.  From a conference on Nuns’ Literacies to a symposium on Books Changing Hands, plus a day or two in the special collections reading room, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the medieval manuscript. The conference and the symposium both focused on the textual culture of the middle ages, covering everything from the production to the reception of books. In addition to the wonderful presentations, I had the opportunity to participate in two workshops sponsored by the conference on Nuns’ Literacies. One on calligraphy and the other on bookbinding.

As an aspiring paleographer and codicologist in training, I am always considering these two aspects in my research, but have never really tried them myself.  The calligraphy workshop was run by Dr. Michael O’Hare , Professor Emeritus of Theology at Benedictine College. After a brief overview of the history of writing, we tried our ‘hand’ at calligraphy. Moving through the alphabet in both Italic and Uncial script, I learned that the angle of the pen to the writing line is the most important part and the hardest to control. The number of strokes required to make an italic m or the perfect curve of an uncial o was wearing on my hand in less than an hour. How did the medieval scribe work in much worse conditions and for long periods? It is no wonder that we have marginal notes from scribes describing their work. “Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.”

The following workshop was run by Dr. Linda Mitchell, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Armed with her own sewing frame and examples of the tools used in bookbinding, Dr. Mitchell explained different types of bindings; the unsupported style of a Coptic binding versus the supported style used in the west, limp bindings, girdle bindings and quarter bindings. Most striking was her comparison of book terminology to the body. There is the head of the book, the exposed spine, the foot edge, the face of a page,  and in the medieval manuscript there is the flesh side and hair side. This is an interesting way to think about a book. After we constructed our quires it was time to learn how to kettle stitch. According to Dr. Mitchell, rule number one of bookbinding is “don’t bleed on the book.” Which of course was the first thing I did after picking up the needle. Yet, with my waxed Irish linen thread I successfully bound together three quires of four bifolia.

Participating in the production of a book during these workshops really enhanced what I notice in my research of the medieval manuscript. It has given me an appreciation of the artistic quality demonstrated in all stages of production.  I am more aware of the time and skill that was needed to create even the simplest of medieval manuscripts let alone those that are illuminated and bound with gold and gems. Now with my calligraphy skills and bookbinding techniques I feel connected to those scribes working to produce something beautiful and handmade.

© 2000–2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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