CSI: Manuscript Edition

By Ramona Venema

Ramona Venema works as a research assistant in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. She maintains her own cookery blog.

When I was a small Ramona, I wanted to be an archeologist. I love how history becomes tangible through objects, for example through finding a brooch worn by a Viking or discovering a mug used by a Roman soldier. It reminds us that our ancestors were often not that different from us today. Working with medieval manuscripts often feels like being an archeologist of the book. We might not have to dig for them (usually), but that doesn’t make discoveries any less exciting. In fact, the thought of clean hands at the end of my day makes me feel pretty excited. A medieval book or document sometimes holds clues to those who made and used it, and more specifically “biological” clues. If there had been a DNA or fingerprint database back in the day, that would have made identifying book producers and readers a lot easier.

The Case of the Dirty Finger

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Fingerprints are often used to uncover the identity of a thief, murderer and other criminals. Here, they’re used to prove that readers of medieval books didn’t always wash their hands properly. Or was it a scribe who checked if the ink was dry without wiping his fingers first? I reckon handling a medieval pen must have been a pretty messy affair, although I might be drawing conclusions from my own lack of keeping-ink-on-the-paper-not-the-fingers skills. For another fingerprint, see Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr post on fingerprints.

Tragedy in a Drop of Blood

Source: http://www.onsdna.nl/tresoar/ 1; archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar

Archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar Collection.

For the record: this is not a medieval document, but you had probably already guessed that. Be that as it may, this archival document kept in Tresoar (Leeuwarden) is very interesting, as we actually know whose blood is on the page. The writer of this document and shedder of this blood is Frisian stadtholder Willem Frederik. While he was cleaning his pistol on the 24th of October 1664, he accidentally shot himself in the head. However serious this injury, he didn’t die from his wounds immediately. Unable to speak or eat, he scribbled down his last wishes. This is one of the notes that he left, stipulating that his “hofmeester” (magister curiae) was to stay with his wife and children. As he jotted this down, blood must have dripped from his wound onto the paper, leaving us with DNA evidence of the tragedy that had befallen him.

Kiss my…Page?

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

In hunting for DNA samples, I could not overlook Kathryn Rudy’s work on reader traces of the bodily kind. Armed with a densitometer, she measured how dirty certain medieval books actually are. In one of her articles, Rudy mentions the kissing and touching of missals, in particular the canon page (one of which is shown in the image above).¹ A priest would kiss the page repeatedly, making it the “motel bed” of books. This repeated kissing naturally worried illuminators as their hard work would steadily be kissed away. Therefore, the manufacturers of the missal in the picture above inserted an “osculation plaque” which priests could plant their lips on instead. But as you can see from the worn colors, they often wandered upwards.

These examples really show how close we actually are to history sometimes. From a fingerprint to a bloodstain to other bodily fluids, books can show how personal an item they actually were, and provide a glimpse of the readers who used them. Next time you’re handling a medieval book, do a little “digging” of your own!


  1. Rudy, Kathryn M. “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer.” JHNA 2.1-2 (2010): n. pag. Web. <http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-2-issue-1-2/129-dirty-books&gt;.



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