“Book to Reader, Come in Reader!” The Manuscript Speaks, But Are You Listening?

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

When I prepare myself to go to a library to study a medieval manuscript there are certain items I will pack. Pencil: check. Ruler: check. Magnifying glass: check. Mirror: check. iPad: check. All are in frequent use and without them my mission will fail. However, in addition to these, there is a vital tool that is not found in my bag and which is not tangible: intuition. This is the instrument nobody tells you about when you train as codicologist or paleographer, setting out to study the medieval medieval book’s physical composition or the script on its pages. Rather, this is something you need to acquire yourself. And like all things intuitive, it takes time and practice.

As in other instances where intuition is at play – anticipating the best biking route in a busy street, knowing when a toddler’s laugh will turn into a cry, deciding when the bagels in the oven are done – the codicologist will pick up subtle clues from the object he observes, the material book. Parchment quality, dimensions, style of script, precision with which the layout is designed and executed, position of initial letters: they all send out signals that are picked up by the receiver, the individual hanging over the book. Most intriguingly, all this happens without the observer realizing it. That is to say, if he is experienced enough: if he is tuned into the book.

Listening to the manuscript

Just like it takes a while for a biker to recognize which gap in traffic presents an opportunity to move forward and which instant death, the codicologist’s system needs to be made aware of the subtleties on the page, and their potential implications. As soon as you open the book the object starts to transmit information, but if the receiver is not at the same wavelength, the book’s voice becomes muted, a whisper in the wind. So how does one communicate successfully with the handwritten book from the Middle Ages? The short answer is by looking at them, a lot. The long answer is, you guessed it, a bit more complicated.

To “calibrate” one’s system it is crucial to look at books about which a lot is known. It helps to observe a commercially-made manuscript from Paris or a book made for personal use while realizing the object in front of you is a commercial product from a major book market or an object made by its reader. Doing so creates a framework in which subsequent observations about the material object, including subtle traits that may not stand out as much, may then be fitted. A crucial component of “setting” your system is looking at images of dated and localized manuscripts, while keeping in mind their time and geographical space of production. As disheartening as this long answer may sound (it is a lot of work), you will ultimately start to sense truths about a manuscript that can at first not be measured.

In touch with the book

What a joy when the system is built, booted, and intuitive data starts to poor in! Open the book and things will start to jump out at you instantly. The object will start to speak in different tones and voices, some clearer than others. You will sense that a manuscript is too narrow, that the margins are larger than usual, or that the text is distributed unevenly over the page. The script in particular is a loudmouth. It will scream two things at you, namely its time and location of production: “I am from England!” and “I was born in the early twelfth century!”, you may here it say. Great, glad we figured that out. The next thing that happens is that rational thinking takes over, pumping out observations that substantiate your intuitive claims. You start to measure the dimensions of the page and will subsequently know that the margin is too wide and the page too narrow. Or in case of the script: you may observe an overhanging a and a curved-back t, confirming your feeling that this may be an English product.

While it may take a few minutes to find such factual support, the initial intuitive verdict is presented to you at lightning speed, no slower then deciding that your bagels are done. In fact, if looking at manuscripts has become routine, one may even forget that the supporting observations written down on one’s iPad actually started with an intuitive sensation – with transmissions sent out from the page. Paleographers do not usually talk about that very first stage, perhaps because they think it will devaluate the ultimate verdict they present with respect to for example a manuscript’s date or origins. It is telling, however, that they have a name for it: “aspect”, or “the impression a script makes at first sight”. I love it that this key definition in manuscript studies acknowledges the value of the gut feeling. Can you already hear your manuscript speak to you?

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