Quire as Folk? Conventions of Manuscript Construction

By Irene O’Daly

Although much of the attention of our project focuses on what is in the manuscript – its script, its layout, texts, and additions – we are also concerned with its physical make-up. One area I’ve become particularly interested in is the information that can be garnered by examining the construction of the quires of a manuscript. Quires, gatherings of parchment sheets, are the building blocks of all manuscripts, and are usually the ‘first stop’ when examining a manuscript.

Departures from a regular quaternion quire structure (gatherings of four bifolia, that is, eight leaves) can provide telling clues about the manuscript. Finding irregular numbers of leaves in quires may indicate textual breaks, or even point to the start of an independent unit within the manuscript. Sometimes the use of smaller quires, or single leaves rather than bifolia, can suggest that the book was made ‘on the cheap’. Manuscripts made entirely of gatherings of ten or twelve may be evidence of a ‘house style’, aiding the codicologist in identifying the origin of a manuscript. The tradition of using a set number of leaves for a quire occasionally has a nice by-product: in cases where the main text finished prior to the end of a gathering, the remaining space could be used by the scribe or a later reader to provide a ‘filler text’. These ‘fillers’, sometimes loosely related to the principal text, can tell us something about the side-interests of the scribe or the reading community using the manuscript.

Quire numbering and lettering: Leiden UB VLF 61, f. 16

Quire numbering and lettering: Leiden UB VLF 61, f. 16

Counting quires may also indicate whether text is missing in a manuscript. Should the manuscript end with a gathering of of eight leaves, but mid-sentence, there is a chance that the manuscript is missing at least one quire. Paying careful attention to the quire structure can showcase where the text has become jumbled – a thoughtless binder may have re-assembled quires in the wrong order. There were medieval mechanisms to overcome the likelihood of this problem, namely quire numbering and catchwords. Both of these features are found on the verso of the last folio of the quire gathering and allowed the quires to be gathered into the correct order for binding. These numbers, if contemporary, can also inform us of the original state in which a manuscript circulated – for example, if we have two contemporary texts written in a similar hand and now bound together, but with two different series of quire numbers, we can speculate that these texts originally circulated independently. Catchwords, a word written at the end of a quire that matches the first word of the next, became popular from the thirteenth century on, and serve the same purpose. Although quire numbers and catchwords were not ubiquitous, their absence may indicate that a manuscript has been trimmed, either at the time of original binding, or later.

Even the ‘look’ of a quire can provide information. The convention in most continental medieval manuscripts was to match the hair and flesh sides of parchment bifolia when making up a quire. This way, hair-side (usually apparent from the dotty follicle pattern) faced hair-side. A aesthetic choice, this was usually produced by stacking the bifolia in this fashion when assembling the quire, or as a by-product of the way the sheet of parchment was folded when cutting and gathering. However in Irish and Anglo-Saxon communities prior to the eleventh century this practice was not common: quires were made up with hair-side of parchment facing flesh-side and vice-versa. The way in which the quires are assembled may, therefore, provide a clue to the origin of the manuscript.

Example of 'copying by divided quires'. Leiden UB LIPS 7 (ff. 291v-292r) on right, copied from Leiden UB VLF 61 (ff. 80v-81r) on left.

Example of ‘copying by divided quires’. Leiden UB LIPS 7 (ff. 291v-292r) on right, copied from its exemplar Leiden UB VLF 61 (ff. 80v-81r) on left. [Click picture to enlarge]

Understanding the quire as the ‘building block’ of the medieval manuscript may also provide information on how manuscripts were copied. While some texts were copied continually from their exemplars, we also know that some manuscripts were divided into quires which could be copied (sometimes simultaneously) by multiple scribes. Telling signs of this process include changes of hands at the start of quires, and, on occasion, stretching or compression of the text on the final page of a quire to match up with the start of the next. This process allowing multiple scribes to work on the one text at the same time and would have sped up the copying process. For example, in the copies of Pliny’s Natural History, shown above, the scribe of Leiden UB LIP 7 left blank space at the end of his quire to replicate the quire structure of his exemplar (Leiden UB VLF 61).

While the modern reader may measure a book by page numbers (or even, for those Kindle users among you, by percentage), understanding the role of the quire in the construction of a medieval manuscript tells us more than first seems apparent about production methods in the medieval scriptorium.

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