Fireworks, Baseball and the Dog Days of Medieval Summer

By Julie Somers

Since today is Independence Day in the States and many of my friends and family will be enjoying celebrations, today’s blog post takes a look at fireworks used as spectacle in the Middle Ages.

First invented in China during the early twelfth century, fireworks came to Western Europe by way of merchant trade routes. By the late fourteenth century, small pyrotechnic displays were being used to enhance Christian mystery plays, where the ‘whole Church was filled with sparks’. Over the next centuries, fireworks became a part of festivities at royal courts, religious dramas, and even summer markets.

‘On summer days, great wooden and papier-mache wheels covered in painted human and animal figures were raised up over the town square on ropes and filled with a variety of simple rockets…fireworks burst forth from the wheel…’ [1]

Drawing of 'Fiery Dragon' firework display c. 1658 (John White, "The School of Artificial Fire-Works," A Rich Cabinet (1658).

Drawing of ‘Fiery Dragon’ firework display c. 1658 (John White, “The School of Artificial Fire-Works,” A Rich Cabinet (1658).

A popular firework display was the ‘fiery dragon’ that would move across the sky sending fireworks all around. Another popular type was a spinning wheel of sparks or girandola. We know of these early displays from a book about fireworks from 1594 by Friedrich Meyer. Also in this book we come across a spectacular drawing of ‘the spark of life’ theory popular in the sixteenth century. This image is connected to the idea that an essential part of fireworks corresponded to an essential part of human nature.

Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch - (BSB Cgm 8143) c.1594

Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch – (BSB Cgm 8143) c.1594

Perhaps during the summer, the medieval person came across the opportunity to see these displays of drama and performance.

Artilleriebuch by Walther Litzelmann, 1582.

Artilleriebuch by Walther Litzelmann, 1582.

Or perhaps they were enjoying summer games.

A Game of Ball? (MS Bodl. 264) c.1400

A Game of Ball? (MS Bodl. 264) c.1400

However, these festivites were generally over by August, when the Dog Days of Summer arrived. Usually from late July into mid-September when the rising of the dog star, Sirius, signaled the months with the hotest temperatures, and were believed to be unhealthy for many activities.

Although the first sparklers may have been made from goose quills, we all enjoy summer just the same.

[1] Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. (University of Chicago Press, 2010) p. 17.

Posted in Julie Somers | Tagged , ,

Medieval Family Trees

By Jenny Weston

This post was originally inspired by a recent revelation that one of my ancestors may have lived in Leiden in the early 1600s. A particularly unexpected find — given the fact that my family is from the West Coast of Canada (over 7000 km from Leiden) — it was a surprise to find that my ‘eleventh-great-grandfather’ may have lived, literally down the street from our office here in Leiden, almost 400 years ago.

In the wake of this little discovery, I began to wonder about the history of ‘family history’. In the Middle Ages, how did people keep track of their family heritage? How important was it to know where you came from? (Or perhaps, how important was it for others to know where you came from)?

For some medieval families, the task of documenting and publicizing the ‘family tree’ was critically important. This was especially the case for royal and noble families, who were reliant on the continuation of blood-lines to maintain positions of power and prestige. These family histories often survive in large chronicles or genealogy books, some of which include artistic representations of the family tree — each branch of the tree signifying (and confirming) various relationships.

The following image is from a biblical and royal genealogical chronicle that traces the connection between King Edward VI all the way back to Adam and Eve. To make sure that more people could fit on the page, the scribe has turned the book sideways, maximizing his workspace:

British Library, Kings MS 395, fols. 32v-33r

British Library, Kings MS 395, fols. 32v-33r

Some of these royal genealogies feature impressive detail, giving brief artistic glimpses into the personalities of each family member. In the family tree of Edward IV (presented below), one can see a number of characters emerging out of little flower pods. Some individuals brandish a sword, while others firmly grasp the royal sceptre. Admittedly, this tree looks more like a scary, out-of-control garden weed:

Harley 7353: Genealogy of Edward IV

Harley 7353: Genealogy of Edward IV

Royal families were not the only ones interested in preserving their history on the page, however. There is a nice example of an early-fifteenth-century nobleman named John Lovell, who commissioned a liturgical book to be made as a gift to Salisbury Cathedral. What is different about this lectionary book, however, is that it is riddled with Lovell family history (as well as that of his wife’s family, the ‘Holands’).

The book opens with a picture of Lord Lovell himself, caught in the act of donating the book to the Cathedral:

Harley 7026, fol. 4v: Portrait of Lord Lovell

Harley 7026, fol. 4v: Portrait of Lord Lovell

Throughout the remaining pages, the artist adds all kinds of Lovell/Holand memorabilia, such as this initial that features two angels holding the family’s Coat of Arms:

Harley 7026, fol. 8r, Angels holding Lovell and Holland Coat of Arms

Harley 7026, fol. 8r, Angels holding Lovell and Holand Coat of Arms

As well as various other images of the family’s heraldry:

Harley 7026, fol. 10r ("Heraldry for the Lovell and Holland families" British Library Caption)

Harley 7026, fol. 10r (“Heraldry for the Lovell and Holland families” British Library Caption)

Perhaps Lord Lovell wished to preserve his family history in a book that he thought would be safe in the hands of the Cathedral. It is also possible that he wished to add a few ‘friendly reminders’ to the users of the book, reminding them who commissioned the volume in the hopes that they might say a few extra prayers on behalf of the generous donor. There is an inscription in the book that suggests this may have been the case. It states:

Orate pro anima domini iohanis lovell qui hunc librum orinavit ecclesie cathedrali Sarum pro speciali memoria sui et uxoris.

[Pray for the soul of John Lovell who gave this book to Salisbury Cathedral, on behalf of the memory of him and his wife].

Another way to make sure that the family’s achievements were remembered was to ensure that your Coat of Arms was entered into a book of Heraldry. Most noble families from the Middle Ages were represented by an artistic crest, which would be painted on shields, flags, and other possessions that were put on public display. One of the earliest and most well-known Heraldry collections is known as the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1280), which contains over three hundred Coats of Arms from English Knights (and spans an impressive 2.64 meters):

Dering Roll, c. 1270-1280

Dering Roll, c. 1270-1280

While there were a number of ways to preserve one’s family history in the Middle Ages, it seems that this was an activity pursued most regularly by wealthy and noble families — those who could afford to document their history in a manuscript book, and those whose status relied most heavily on the continuation of the family line. That is not to say that other medieval families were not interested in their ancestors, but simply that they did not typically have the means to formally record their history in a book or roll. Alas, we must resign ourselves to the fact that the medieval record is dominated by royal family trees, lined with kings and queens dangling from the blossoms.


Posted in Jenny Weston, Project News

The Beauty of Mistakes

By Irene O’Daly

Medieval manuscripts often contain traces unintentionally left behind by the scribe. A casualty of spell-check and mass-production, mistakes in books, like typographical errors, are now usually spotted before they reach the shelves.

One that escaped the printer's eye: a page from the so-called 'Wicked Bible', printed in 1631, with an interesting twist on the Ten Commandments

One that escaped the printer’s eye: a page from the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’, printed in 1631, with an interesting twist on the Ten Commandments

The medieval scribe wasn’t necessarily so lucky. Copying by hand was an arduous process and mistakes could creep in all too easily. Today I’d like to explore two versions of the most common accidental error made by medieval scribes, that is eyeskip. Eyeskip occurs when the scribe’s eye literally jumps from one occurrence of a word to the next while copying, and results in either the omission or repetition of words or phrases.

Leiden UB, VLF 30, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, f. 21v

Leiden UB, VLF 30, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, f. 22r

1] ossa uidelicet e pauxillis atque minutis
2] ossibus hic et de pauxillis atque minutis
3] uiceribus uiscus gigni sanguenque creari
4] sanguinis inter se multis coeuentibus guttis
[Lucretius, De rerum natura I, lines 835-8]

This ninth-century book produced at the palace school of the famous emperor Charlemagne is one of the treasures of Leiden’s collection – a copy of the Roman poet Lucretius’ De rerum natura (VLF 30). Not only is it one of the earliest medieval copies of the text, but it has been corrected by a scribe whose identity we know – the Irish monk Dungal. We can see Dungal at work on this page (f. 22r). The change in hand is clearly visible and, moreover, the correction has a sort of squashed aspect. That’s because Dungal has replaced one line of poetry with two – adding something that the original scribe had missed. If we look at the text of the four lines highlighted above, we can see that lines 1 and 2 are quite similar – both end in ‘pauxillis atque minutis’. Reconstructing the mistake, it’s likely that the scribe omitted line 2, proceeding straight to line 3. The technical name for the omission of text due to the scribe’s eye skipping from one occurrence of a phrase to the next is haplography. As we can see Dungal rectified the error by scraping out the misplaced line, then replacing it with the necessary two lines of correct text.

Leiden UB, VLQ 130, the Scholiasta Gronovianus, f. 21v

Leiden UB, VLQ 130, the Scholiasta Gronovianus, f. 21v

 Eyeskip could result in omission, as demonstrated, but could also result in repetition of text. This manuscript, the Scholiasta Gronovianus (VLQ 130), a tenth-century copy of a collection of commentaries on Cicero’s speeches, contains an example of this type, an error termed dittography. As we can see, it was noticed by a later reader, who boxed the duplicated line half-way down the page. Here the problem seems to have been provoked by the recurrence of the word quomodo (as indicated). Rather than moving on to ‘quomodo dixit‘, the scribe’s eye jumped back to the preceding sentence and repeated the line beginning ‘quomodo facit‘. It’s interesting to note that word-separation is not standardised in this manuscript; its probable that the exemplar from which the scribe was copying was not standardised either, which may have made mistakes of this type even more easy to make.

Mistakes resulting from eyeskip tell us something about the process and pitfalls of copying by hand, and the role of the later corrector/reader. In some cases, we may even find a group of manuscripts where the same accidental error is copied from one to another, allowing us to establish textual relationships between manuscripts, useful for understanding the history of the transmission of a text. So medieval errors, even when corrected,  provide a genuine opportunity to learn from mistakes!

Posted in Irene O'Daly

Listening to the Text: The Medieval Speech Bubble

By Julie Somers

My colleagues and I at the Turning Over a New Leaf Project spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and reading about, well, reading. More specifically, we question the various forms of reading, as well as the ways books were used in the Middle Ages. Recently we discussed the interplay of script and image, which made me think of the banderole (Fr. “little banner”), which is essentially the medieval speech bubble. Sometimes referred to as angel banners, phylactère or speech scrolls, banderoles were employed by medieval artists and scribes as a visual way of conveying spoken words. Different from tituli, which provided more of a summary title or caption for an image, the banderole points to an interaction within an image, as well as encouraging the reader to imagine a conversation, thus requiring the reader to ‘listen to the text’.[1] S-shaped scrolls or ribbons of words that seem to unfurl from the mouths of the speakers add an element of sound to the images. Banderoles are inscribed with words that suggest a conversation, with the direction the scroll unrolls possibly indicating the direction of speech.

Gospel Book of Henry the Lion

Gospel Book of Henry the Lion. 12th. c. Cod. Guelf. 105 Noviss. 2° Der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

Banderoles are often carried by the speaker; they are pictured holding their words and thus owning their voice. This is evident in the example below from a twelfth-century Psalter where the nun-scribe holds in her hand a banderole inscribed, ‘Guda peccatrix mulier scripsit et pinxit hoc librum’ (Guda a sinner wrote and painted this book).

Homilary, Signed Initial German Romanesque ca. 1175 Frankfurt, Stadtbibl. Ms. Barth, 42

Homilary, Signed Initial, German Romanesque, ca. 1175 Frankfurt, Stadtbibl. Ms. Barth, 42

Some banderoles remain empty. We must imagine the conversation between this friar and Beguine, who have been left with nothing to say at all.

Beguine and Monk, 15th century. Kupferstich von Israhel van Meckenem.

Beguine and Friar, 15th century. Kupferstich von Israhel van Meckenem.

Banderoles could also indicate singing or a multitude of voices. Though the text is silent, the sound resides in the mind of the reader.

Monks singing medieval-hymn

Monks singing medieval-hymn

Throughout the high and later Middle Ages the banderole was an increasingly popular motif used in various media, including sculpture, manuscripts, stained glass, tapestries and paintings.bessuejouls, France

The Nativity. Spirituale pomerium  blockbook. c. 1440 Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. 12070.

The Nativity.
Spirituale pomerium blockbook. c. 1440
Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. 12070.

The tradition continued into the era of printed books where banderoles figure prominently in woodcut illustrations.

Detail from 'Fortune and Death' by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475 showing a banderole or scroll containing 'speech' text emanating from the King

Detail from ‘Fortune and Death’ by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475
showing a banderole or scroll containing ‘speech’ text emanating from the King







In fact, by the mid-fifteenth century the ‘Master of the Banderoles’ (Meister mit den Bandrollen) was one of the earliest professional printers in the Netherlands.[2]

This last image is a photo I took in the Chapel of Tears (Chapelle des Larmes) at Mount Sainte-Odile in Alsace, France. It is a beautiful 20th century mosaic that uses the medieval motif of banderoles to convey a sense of conversation, with the scrolls emanating from the center to the periphery in a back and forth motion between the figures.

Mount Sainte Odile, Chapelle de Larmes. Photo by Julie Somers

Mount Sainte Odile, Chapelle de Larmes. Photo by Julie Somers

As we are all familiar with the speech bubble as it is used in comic books today, banderoles continue to fulfill the same function of connecting words with image, making the reader ‘listen’ to the text.

What did he say?

What did he say?

[1] Paul Saenger. Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press, 1987. p. 187


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Judging a Book by its Cover: Manuscript Bindings Without Bling

By Jenneka Janzen

Our blog has featured medieval bindings before (Jenny’s blog on “bling” bindings was recently published in Quest magazine) but with an eye to the extraordinary, and extremely rare. In fact, finding an intact medieval binding, never mind a beautiful one, is not particularly common. Whether replaced in response to wear and tear or to update the book’s appearance, most manuscripts encountered by the researcher won’t arrive in their original bindings. Because of this, many manuscript scholars are unable to ‘judge a book by its cover’ (or, more fairly, judge it alongside its cover) in their research, and the topic of medieval bindings is therefore overlooked. My research corpus includes a number of manuscripts in original medieval bindings, discussed below, which makes them even more interesting to me!

What do normal, more workaday manuscript bindings actually look like? Well, as with all things manuscript related, it depends on a multitude of factors.

Parts of a manuscript binding. From Michelle Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (London: The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Library, 1994), 7.

Parts of a manuscript binding. From Michelle Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (London: The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Library, 1994), 7. See the BL’s online glossary.

The shift from roll to codex meant a fundamental change in the physical format in which one accessed texts. The new codex was much easier to store, transport, and reference, with its own built-in connection and protection structure – its binding. While the codex was ubiquitous in the west from the 5th century onwards, the oldest extant western binding encloses the St Cuthbert Gospels, c. 700.

The St Cuthbert Gospels, front cover, dyed-red goat skin with tooling. Photo by British Library; see the full manuscript at the British Library website.

The earliest books were likely bound using the Coptic method (which you can learn to do yourself). While easy to make and flexible, this type of binding is not very durable. The Carolingians developed a sturdier style characterized by raised bands (or ribs) along the spine and heavy flat boards (see a tutorial here).

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 175. 9th century binding, front and spine.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 175. 9th century binding, front and spine. Photos by e-codices, where you can view the entire manuscript.

As you can see, these simple bindings aren’t as glamorous as contemporary treasure bindings, such as the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram. They did the trick however, aesthetically and functionally. This binding method generally persisted for several more centuries, with some variations in the way quires were sewn to the ribs, and the methods by which the boards were attached to the spine. At one point seemingly dull bindings like these may have had now-lost furnishings like bosses (metal studs meant to hold the leather covers off the surface it rested on to protect it), clasps, dye, or even stamps or tooling, like this Romanesque binding at the British Library.

British Library, Egerton MS 272, c. 1225, from the priory of St. Mary Overy in Southwark.

British Library, Egerton MS 272, c. 1225, from the priory of St Mary Overy in Southwark.

Later medieval libraries sometimes attached chains to the back covers of their books to keep them in place; see Jenny’s blog on chained libraries and the Project’s visit to Zutphen.

As mentioned above, and briefly discussed in a past blog, a good number of the manuscripts I work with from Ten Duinen, an abbey formerly on the West-Flemish coast, are encased in medieval bindings. (I encourage Dutch speakers to read the Bruges Public Library’s blog about them. The Library is unique and indeed blessed to have a truly impressive collection of medieval bindings.) Although there is some variety in my corpus, I do have a favourite type: their in-house, late 12th/early 13th century Cistercian-style bindings.

Bruges, Bruges City Library, Ms. 27; spine and front.

Bruges, Bruges Public Library, Ms 27; spine and front. (As indicated by my arm and hand on the left, this is a hefty volume!) Photo Jenneka Janzen.

In one example, Ms 27, the boards (according to the Bruges Public Library, oak) are covered in brown leather. The outer front cover shows, at the corners and centre, marks where the metal bosses were attached. The ribs along the spine are not as prominent as in other examples, although you can see one exposed cord at the tail end.

Exposed stitching and cord. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Exposed stitching and cord, Bruges Public Library, Ms 27. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges City Library, Ms. 27, binding from inside back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 27, binding from inside back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

From the inside, you can see that the channeling, cords, and sewing stations are exposed. The back pastedown, now lifted, was taken from a 12th century Ritual (medieval bindings very often contain fragments of ‘recycled’ books). Neat, isn’t it?

Bruges City Library, Ms. 27, binding back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 27, binding back cover. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Well, the back cover, shown above, is even better. Here you can see a small (14th century) fenestra of metal and transparent horn holding the title of the book. (Holes from an earlier fenestra lie above it.) There are also, painted in black ink, a large G and smaller C; these were likely used by the librarian to classify and maybe shelve the book. Other manuscript bindings in my corpus have leftover bits of clasps or chains, and even 800 year-old cow hair (which is now an interesting shade of green). Generally, medieval bindings are covered in cow, pig, sheep, or goat leather, with the hair scraped off. Not so here!

Bruges City Library, Ms. 19, back cover and close-up of a hairy patch. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Bruges Public Library, Ms 19, back cover and close-up of a hairy patch. Photo Jenneka Janzen.

Medieval bindings are such a fascinating and deep study area that what I’ve shared here is a drop in the ocean. Limp or parchment bindings, girdle books, and chemise bindings warrant their own entries, as do in-depth looks at the processes, regional variations, and chronological developments of bookbinding. Online stamp and tooling identification engines, bookbinding databases, and issues of conservation may also appeal to binding aficionados.

For much more on bindings, start with J.A. Szirmai’s authoritative The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. For binding eye candy, sites like the British Library’s Databank of Bookbindings, the National Library of the Netherlands’ Dutch Bindings digital collection, and the Schøyen Collection‘s bindings site are great places to start!

(With thanks to the Bruges Public Library for allowing me to post my research images.)

Posted in Jenneka Janzen | Tagged , , ,

The ‘Punctus’ and his Friends: Medieval Punctuation

By Ramona Venema

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

Source Unknown

Today, a world without punctuation seems impossible. How could we survive without the Oxford comma? We rely on punctuation as a critical means to clarify our language and make sure we are understood. In the case of English, the use and placement of punctuation can easily change the meaning of a sentence (just as the famous internet meme shown above demonstrates). In many ways, the saying “dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s” should be replaced with “check your commas and apostrophes”. In the Middle Ages, however, people used punctuation differently (and apparently they were not as worried about eating their grandfathers)!

I’m joking of course, but punctuation was used less regularly and often served different purposes. The text in the earliest manuscripts, for example, was often meant to be read out loud and memorized. Instead of using punctuation, scribes opted to leave spaces between the words or arrange the words in a specific way to indicate where a reader could pause. Occasionally, the scribe would add a small point to separate words or chapter numbers. In the following example, the page appears to be filled with never-ending sentences, but in the middle of the page the number ‘XII’ is distinguished through the use of small dots:

British Library, Harley 1775, f. 2v – Note that the number XII has been placed between “dots” (puncti)

British Library, Harley 1775, f. 2v – Note that the number XII has been placed between “dots” (puncti)

In the West, the development of punctuation has been credited to early Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes, who were not initially familiar with reading Latin texts. To add extra “support” for their contemporaries reading in a foreign language, they began to add punctuation to the texts they copied. However, the marks used at this point were quite different than today.

Whereas modern punctuation marks tend to clarify syntactical functions in a sentence, during the early Middle Ages it was primarily an aid for reading out loud (helping the reader to know when to elevate his voice or pose a question, for example). As individuals began to read silently rather than orally, and Latin was learned through grammar books, punctuation became even more of a necessity.

Eventually punctuation became “trendy” — just like those who stand in line at the Apple store when the new iPhone comes out, scribes were “standing in line” to try punctuation out themselves (albeit with a couple of pointers from Isidore). By the seventh and eighth centuries every Brother Pete and John was using their own set of specialized punctuation marks. Alright, it was not always that personal, but (pre-Caroline) minuscule scripts, Visigothic and Beneventan script all presented a unique set of punctuation marks at least, with individual scribes adjusting some features as they saw fit. The way in which punctuation was applied to the text, could, in turn, customize the text itself. We owe this discovery to Malcolm B. Parkes, who, in his well-known history of punctuation, Pause and Effect, describes how a particular sentence can be explained differently through the varied use of punctuation.

Although there was a lot of variation in punctuation, there are few general marks common to many script-types.

1. The Punctus: 

One of the most fundamental and most common marks is the punctus, which functioned much like the modern comma, semicolon and period. It could be fat or small and could be placed at the baseline, the middle or the headline. In simpler terms, the punctus is a dot which can take on a variety of functions and sit wherever it wants to.

The punctus in action in British Library, Additional 40000, f. 48

The punctus in action in British Library, Additional 40000, f. 48

2. The Punctus elevatus:

The punctus elevatus is not simply a ‘snobby punctus’ (as one may assume from its name) but an inverted semi-colon, acting as, you guessed it, a semi-colon! This punctuation mark was most common from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. At the end of the fifteenth century the semi-colon, as we know it today, seems to have taken over.

A punctus elevatus sitting snugly between a [t] and an ampersand in BM Cambrai 215, f. 128

A punctus elevatus sitting snugly between a [t] and an ampersand in BM Cambrai 215, f. 128

3. The Punctus interrogativus:

Lastly, the question mark, also known in Latin as the punctus interrogativus. This elusive mark took on many shapes, from a “lightning flash” (Truss), to “a squiggle above a period” (Reimer). It was, unsurprisingly, used to indicate the end of a question, alerting the reader to adjust the tone of his voice. The syntax of a sentence would usually indicate to the reader whether they were dealing with a question, and for this reason, they were often considered redundant additions to the page. This is why I get excited every time I see one in a manuscript, which isn’t really that often (although I have other paleographical features to get excited about as well, so don’t worry)!

Medieval question mark in Berne, Bibliotheek Cod. 162, f. 15r

Medieval question mark in Berne, Bürgerbibliothek 162, f. 15r

Of course, there are many other punctuation marks and variations of those marks to be discovered. I suggest consulting some of the sources listed below if you’ve become curious about the punctus and his many friends.



Parkes, M. B. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley: U of California, 1993.

Powell, James M. Medieval Studies: An Introduction. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1976.

Reimer, Stephen R. “Manuscript Studies: Paleography: Punctuation.” Manuscript Studies: Paleography: Punctuation. University of Alberta, 20 June 2009. Web. 23 May 2014. <;.

Tillotson, Dianne. “Punctuation.” Medieval Writing. Dr Dianne Tillotson, 29 Feb. 2005. Web. 23 May 2014. <;.

Truss, Lynn. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003.


Posted in Visiting Bloggers

Unfurling the Past: Ancient & Medieval Scrolls

By Jenny Weston

Here at the Turning Over a New Leaf project, we tend to focus our attention on the medieval ‘codex’ — texts hand-written on parchment, folded and sewn into quires, then wrapped together in a binding. The codex, however, was not the only vehicle of the medieval text. Long before this format came into popular use in the first and second century AD, the ‘scroll’ was the preferred packaging for a written text.

Oldest Complete Torah (12th century, University of Bologna)

Oldest complete Sefer Torah scroll (12th century, University of Bologna)

Today’s blogpost is devoted to everything you need to know about the medieval scroll. How was it put together? What was it made out of? What were they used for? Is there a future for the medieval scroll?

1. How does it work?

To make a scroll, one first needs to choose the material. Some of the oldest scrolls were made of papyrus, and despite the fragile nature of this material, there are many papyrus-scrolls that still survive.

For example, in the eighteenth century, 1,800 papyrus scrolls were discovered buried in volcanic mud in the ancient town of Herculaneum (located on the shores near Mt. Vesuvius). Despite being carbonized by the eruption in 79 AD, scholars still managed to unfold and read many of them. (You can read more about this endeavour here.)

Carbonized papyri scrolls from Herculaneum

Carbonized papyri scrolls from Herculaneum.

During the Middle Ages, parchment became the material of choice, which was then eventually replaced by paper in the early modern period.

Once the material was chosen, the scribe then copied the text onto separate sheets, which were then glued or sewn together, one after the other. In some cases the scroll was meant to be read from left to right (thus the reader needed to unfurl it sideways), while in other cases it was meant to be read from top to bottom.

2. Scroll vs. Codex 

As soon as the codex was invented in the first century AD, it threatened the survival of the scroll. The codex was more sturdy and it was easier to find passages of text  (flipping pages to find a chapter is a lot easier than unfurling a giant scroll). The birth of the codex did not mean the death of the scroll, however. Scrolls continued to be used in various contexts, and were particularly favoured by long-term record-keepers.

One of the biggest advantages of the scroll was the fact that pages could be easily added — all one needs to do is glue another sheet to the bottom! This logistical benefit was not lost on some medieval government agencies, such as the English Exchequer, which kept most of their financial records throughout the Middle Ages in scroll form, known today as Pipe Rolls.

Winchester Pipe Rolls (More information click here).

Winchester Pipe Rolls (More information click here).

It was not only the government that saw a benefit in using scrolls. The records of Wakefield Manor, one of England’s largest manorial houses, were kept up-to-date in a collection of scrolls from the years 1274 to 1925!

Wakefield Manor Scrolls

Wakefield Manor Scrolls

3. The Sefer Torah

One of the most recognizable scrolls still used today is the Torah — a text comprised of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which is copied onto a scroll, and read out to Jewish communities at least once every three days. It is typically forbidden in Judaic custom to touch the Torah with bare hands, both in reverence to the Word of God and to avoid damaging the text on the page. To avoid touching the scroll, the Torah is commonly equipped with specialized wooden handles.

Bible 1

4. The Future of the Scroll is Bright!

While the codex may have reigned supreme for the last 2,000 years, the scroll has somehow managed to live on, kicking and fighting its way back into our daily reading habits. This continued relevance of the scroll is not only due to our collective return to ‘scroll-style’ reading on our laptops and smartphones, but it also owes itself to the creative enterprises of some contemporary authors, such as Jack Kerouac, who opted to type his best-selling novel, On the Road, on a 120-foot paper roll. (You might have to ‘scroll’ down to see it…)







Copy of Jack Keruoac's The Road

Copy of Jack Keruoac’s book, On the Road

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