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.)

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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.


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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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Reeling Back the Years: Commemorating the Middle Ages

By Irene O’Daly

As preparations for the World Cup gather momentum here in the Netherlands, it is worth remembering some of the other reasons why 2014 is an important year. Many commemorations across the world are marking the passing of 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. But 2014 also commemorates two events of medieval significance, one which had European-wide implications, and one of, arguably, stronger national concern.

In 814 in the now German town of Aachen Charlemagne, the founder of the Carolingian Empire, sickened. According to the account of his biographer Einhard, Charlemagne took to bed with a high fever, and proceeded to fast from food hoping to drive the fever away. It was to no avail, however, and he died a week later, after taking Holy Communion on January 28. Einhard’s account of Charlemagne’s death and burial is rich in symbolism. He was buried in the cathedral he built, a monument to medieval architecture to this day, and his death was preceded by a number of omens and portents. Einhard recounts multiple eclipses in the years prior, the collapse of part of Charlemagne’s palace, the destruction by fire of a bridge over the Rhine at Mainz, and the appearance of black spots in the sun. The emperor’s passing was marked by a series of fitting and dramatic events.

Decorated initial from the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, Paris, BnF, Latin 5927 fol. 280v, Abbaye Saint-Martial de Limoges, ca. 1050 (?)

Decorated initial from the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, Paris, BnF, Latin 5927 fol. 280v, Abbaye Saint-Martial de Limoges, ca. 1050 (?). Source: / BnF

The town of Aachen is marking 1200 years since Charlemagne’s death with the launch of a trio of exhibitions celebrating Charlemagne’s military and cultural achievements, which will include a display of a number of manuscripts. The period of Carolingian manuscript production kick-started by Charlemagne was unique as it united innovations in all aspects of book craft: the clarity of the text itself came under renewed study by scholars, while the script of these texts was simplified and standardised. In hand with these developments, the status of the book was celebrated by intricate decorations and bindings, some of which have survived to this day.

Ivory Front Cover for the Lorsch Gospels, carved in Aachen, c. 810

Ivory Front Cover for the Lorsch Gospels, carved in Aachen, c. 810 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jumping forward two hundred years… 2014 also marks the millennium of another important medieval event with strong relevance to Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf (23 April 1014). On the field at Clontarf, the forces of the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, defeated an army of Vikings, lead in part from the Viking stronghold of Dublin. Although Brian Boru was victorious, he died in battle, and the fighting resulted in the death of thousands of men. Regardless, Brian Boru became an important symbolic figure in Irish history, the leader of the liberation of Ireland from foreign hands. The Battle of Clontarf is being commemorated this year by a re-enactment, and a series of events unfolding throughout the summer.

Unlike Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, which, despite some dramatic licence, is as close to an eyewitness biography from the Middle Ages that we can get, accounts of the Battle of Clontarf must be pieced together from a range of medieval sources, including annals, Icelandic sagas, and an epic poem written in the twelfth century entitled ‘Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib’ (The War of the Irish against the Foreigners). These sources present a version of the Battle that reads at times more like a scene from Game of Thrones, than a reflection of what actually happened. Mixing legend with fact, these sources often served a propagandist purpose, reinforcing the historic status of Brian Boru.

The Twitter account @1014retold provided a 'live' tweet stream of the battle on 23 April

The Twitter account @1014retold provided a ‘live’ tweet stream of the battle on 23 April

In each of these cases of commemoration, manuscripts serve as important touchstones. Manuscripts produced in Aachen, or connected with Charlemagne’s school, provide an insight into mechanics of book production in that period. Handled by scribes and scholars surrounding Charlemagne, they are, in a sense, among the most intimate relics of his reign. On the other hand, the sources related to the Battle of Clontarf pose a challenge familiar to medieval researchers: the task of reconstructing an event based on (often biased) accounts written over 100 years later. 2014 is not simply an occasion for commemoration, but prompts a new look at the sources that shaped our understanding of these events – an exciting prospect for medieval scholars worldwide.

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The Beauty of the Injured Book

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

While our eyes are naturally drawn to pages filled with color and gold, those without decoration can be equally appealing. Indeed, even damaged goods – mutilated bindings, torn pages, parchment with cuts and holes – can be highly attractive, as I hope to show in this post. The visual power of damage may be generated by close-up photography, with camera and book at just the right angle, catching just the right amount of light. The following images celebrate the beauty of the injured book, the art of devastation.

1. Post-operation

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

This is what I call a Frankenstein page. It is composite in that the top part is from a different sheet, perhaps even from a different animal, than the lower half. The sheet used by the scribe was short on one side, but he still wanted to use it. In came the patch that is now the top half of the page. Where the two pieces of skin meet the scribe-surgeon punched holes through which he pulled a thin cord, joining them together. The operation was successful, the insert was not rejected, and so the page could be filled with text. Miraculously, the low-quality book was never thrown out. Instead, it limped, for centuries, to the finish line of our present day – to the safety of the Leiden University Library.

2. Bad back

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century). Pic: the author.

This poor-looking manuscript from the fifteenth century looks worn and beaten. It is so happy to be retired that you can almost hear a groan of disappointment when you take it out of its box. The manuscript is filled with school texts and it was heavily used over a long period of time. At some point the binding gave in and began to arch, like an old man with a painful back. It could do so because the book was fitted with a cheap, so-called “limp binding”. This type lacked the wooden boards of regular bindings – as well as the firm support these boards provided. Such bad backs are reflective of how popular the books once were.

3. Sliced

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1. Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1 (c. 1100). Pic: the author.

This page needs a shave. From time to time you encounter a hole in the page, but this one is special. An important stage in the preparation of parchment was removing the hair from the skin. When the parchment-maker pushed too hard with his knife, a cut like this would appear. Not unlike a distracted hairdresser, the individual who prepared the parchment overlooked a few tiny – white – hairs, which still inhabit the hole. It makes for a pretty picture with the light from behind, which also highlights the text on the other side of the page.

4. Scar tissue

3. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92. Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92 (c. 1000). Pic: the author.

This parchment sheet came from an animal with skin problems. It appears that the cow had been in a fight and was kicked. As your butcher will tell you, such kicks result in scar tissue, which he will remove. Judging from how infrequent we encounter such patches in medieval books, we may assume that skin with such damage was not processed into parchment. However, this particular book was made from off-cuts: strips of bad parchment that were cut away and thrown out. Remarkably, someone fished them out of the bin and produced a book from it (more details can be found in this YouTube movie I made). Thus this “garbage manuscript” exposes an urge for cheap materials as well as a dispute between two medieval cows.

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

5. Mouldy skin

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

And so it happened that a certain medieval reader did not pay attention and placed his book in a moist environment. And so it happened that he forgot all about the book. That is the story behind the mould on the pages of this eleventh-century Psalter. The fungi turned purple over time, producing a neat contrast between the high quality white parchment sheets and their damaged corners. It’s the beautiful despair of a book under duress.

Note: all images were taken with a Canon Eos 600D camera and a Sigma DC 18-250 mm lens (at aperture value 6.3).

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A Window on the Middle Ages and Some Famous Clothes

We are delighted to present a guest post today by Prof. Francis Newton, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Duke University. 

I was once lucky enough to spend a year in a tiny, mostly mediaeval village in France. A cultivateur whom I knew, who owned one of the larger farms in town, showed me its fourteenth-century barn (grange) and the fifteenth-century farmhouse, where he lived. In the large hall, in which his predecessor, the mediaeval farmer, and his family had meals and slept (or at least certainly slept in the cold winters of Picardy), beside the great fireplace there was a window, with a solid wooden shutter. But the window did not open onto the out-of-doors. It opened onto the stable just on the other side of the thick stone wall, and in the Middle Ages, in the middle of the night, the goodman of the house, simply by opening this shutter in his hall could look down and check on his valuable stock, the very foundation of the entire household and economy of the estate.

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the fourteenth /start of the fifteenth century)

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the 14th /start of the 15th century)

I thought of that old stone farmhouse when I first looked into Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship. Egbert’s fascinating collection of fables, proverbs, and folk-tales in Latin, never translated into any other language before, in the new text and translation by Robert G. Babcock, opens for us a window onto the peasant culture of countryside, farm, and village of the region of eleventh-century Liège. Egbert’s unique way of teaching boys Latin, by using material from the talk of their own countryside and villages –only in Latin hexameters–, was intended to make the language easier to grasp because the tales and sayings were already familiar to the young in the vernacular speech.   The collection probably was not intended to preserve a rich segment of mediaeval popular culture for readers eleven centuries later. But that is what it does.

Cover of Robert Babcock's recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège's The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Cover of Robert Babcock’s recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Those who have lived in the country will recognize a saying like “A cold May will fill the granaries with corn.” And some of the actual proverbs are familiar to everybody: “Continually rolling stones do not collect moss.” Other proverbs are more familiar in other cultures: “What’s not stolen, the house gives back” is more familiar in Holland (“What the house has lost, the house will find”). Occasionally, in the mix there are quotations from the classics, such as “A drop of water hollows out a stone; a ring is consumed by wear” (Ovid, Ex Ponto 4.10.5).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, which has its roots in medieval storytelling.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. A version of this story is first found in Egbert of Liège’s collection.

Among the hundreds of proverbs and the wealth of tales, the reader is often challenged to understand the application, or moral (often in the earlier part, that is supplied). It is clear that the wolf who swallowed the nightingale represents the greedy man who thinks that what creates a loud sound will be large prey as well. But there is a host of other, endearing, mediaeval crackpots, such as the man who made a moon out of wheat bread; or the coward who was apparently ordered to slaughter the day’s catch of wild beasts but –instead–kissed the bear.   Among these obscure figures, a few famous ones appear. Waltharius of Aquitaine, the hero of the great Latin epic under his name, in the single-hexameter proverb and in the expanded tale, now in old age serves a monastery, whose brothers enjoin him, if he falls among enemies, to surrender all earthly goods –except his pants. In the rousing tale, this is what the aged warrior does, to (it seems) illustrate the principle that the Christian must be prepared to surrender all, save modesty itself; for this Waltharius may fight.   And an even more universal heroic figure makes her first appearance in history in Egbert’s enchanting work. This blog will not reveal how Egbert’s version of Little Red Riding Hood turns out –readers will have to see for themselves– but I can say that the cloak is, deservedly, the focus of the action.

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From Sound to Image, From Language to Culture; A Review of Medieval Academy of America Conference 2014

By Julie Somers

Last week the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America was held at UCLA in California. Every year this conference brings together scholars from all over the world to discuss and share experiences related to their work on the Middle Ages. At the opening session of the conference we were treated to live musical excerpts* as part of the presentation by Susan Boynton (Columbia University) on ‘Music as Text and Music as Image.’ Boynton’s paper explored the way image is connected to sounds in the text. We are reminded that the pages can be loud. Images of choirs of angels, birds that fill the margins, or groups of monks performing daily chant present a lively reflection of the musical nature of the book. The addition of a live performance really brought Boynton’s examples to life and was a wonderful way to begin the three day conference, hosted by UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

A busy conference with multiple sessions available, there was something for everyone. Topics on Thursday covered Scandanavia to Sicily, with an underlying theme of language and cultural encounters. In the session, ‘Queens and Empresses: Beyond the Agency Question,’ the speakers, Kriszta Kotsis (University of Puget Sound), Theresa Earenfight (Seattle University) and Gillian Gower (UCLA) addressed the concerns of women in royal settings, including beauty, fertility and proper behavior. Gower, similar to the opening presentation by Boynton, demonstrated how music can act as an image, ‘it sounds as it should look.’ The motet composed for the wedding of Catherine de Valois to King Henry V, En Katerine solennia/Virginalis contio/Sponsus amat sponsum depicts the story of the virgin martyr St. Catherine, who was tortured on a spiked wheel for her refusal to marry. Gower argues that the music presented on the page mimics elements of the legend of St. Catherine – the notes look as if they are bleeding, the accidentals (in the form of a sharp) represent the spikes and the music itself follows a circular style that reminds us of the wheel in the legend. The music acts as an historiated initial thus reinforcing the connection between the legend of St. Catherine and her namesake, Queen Catherine de Valois.

Friday continued with the theme of languages and cultural encounters. During the morning session, Christopher Cannon (New York University), Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Notre Dame) and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University) each gave powerful papers under the heading; ‘Competing Archives, Competing Histories: French and its Cultural Location in Late Medieval England.’ Each presentation addressed aspects of medieval vernacular research. Cannon began by questioning how we define the vernacular, arguing that Latin, being a primary language of medieval England should also be treated as a vernacular language. In a similar line, Wogan-Browne pointed to the fluid boundaries of language, stating that instead of ‘mother tongue versus language of culture,’ we should think ‘mother tongue and the language of culture.’ An informative paper, she kindly summed up her main points in this slide.

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

As with all types of large conferences, deciding on which sessions to attend is always difficult. I was happy I chose to listen to the papers given in the afternoon on ‘Museums and the Presentation of the Middle Ages.’ Two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Peter Barnet and Helen C. Evans) and a curator from The Walters Art Museum (Martina Bagnoli) showed us images on the changing dynamics of presenting medieval art in a museum setting. Taking us through the different ‘fashion’ of the times, we saw the development of the galleries and the struggles each museum faced in regards to conservation, construction and presentation of the buildings and the objects they hold.

This was a perfect segue into the evening exhibition and reception at the UCLA Library Special Collections, Young Research Library. Illuminated manuscripts and early printed books from the library’s collection were on display for us to admire with a special welcome from Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Rouse (UCLA). Needless to say, from sound to image, language to culture, I found the conference very inspiring and look forward to attending in the future.

*Music Ensemble: G. Edward Bruner, Chriten Herman, Chris Green, George Sterne, Christopher Walker, directed by Martha Cowan.



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“There’s a map for that!” Visualizing the Medieval World

By Jenneka Janzen

Generally, a map is a visual illustration of an area, a means to symbolically represent spatial relationships between objects, regions, and even ideas. I bet for many of us we most commonly use maps to find the quickest bike path to the train station or the easiest route to drive to Ikea. Looked at less practically, however, maps can reveal much about how we view the world around us.

While we tend to use maps to show distance, medieval maps are more focused on relationships. Probably the most common type of medieval mappa mundi, or world map, was the O-T map (so called because it looks like an O with a T in it) which clearly depicted the continents as the settling places of Noah’s sons Shem (Asia), Japeth (Europe) and Cham (Africa). It was based on Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century description of the physical world.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f.135v. 12th century.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f. 135v. 12th century.

Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est […] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.

The world is said [to be] round like a circle, because it resembles a wheel […] Indeed the Ocean, flowing around it on all sides, encompasses its furthest reaches in a circle. It is divided in three parts: one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa. (Etymologiae, 14)

Copies of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, often known for their incredible illustrations, use a variation of the OT map to illustrate the exodus of the Apostles.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

While most surviving maps are found in books, they were also created to stand alone, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created c. 1300 and now hanging in Hereford Cathedral. As the largest surviving medieval map, it stands on a single piece of vellum at 158 cm by 133 cm (62” by 52”). It illustrates at least 420 towns, 33 plants and animals, 32 people, 15 Biblical events, and 5 scenes drawn from classical mythology. (Note an unsurprising theme in these maps: the Bible is a central iconographical topic, and Jerusalem is often depicted right at the centre.)

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website!

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website.

There are also strange people depicted, such as the ‘sciapods’ shown in what would be present day India, at the extreme south of the (incompletely) known world. (You can also see a sciapod on the left in the Osma Beatus above.)

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

As suggested, besides just known lands, mappa mundi sometimes depict the unknown or legendary. They’re not navigational tools to be carted along on your journey, but display items intended to tell stories and teach lessons about the outside world. The largest known medieval map, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, was made sometime during the 13th century out of 30 goatskins, measuring 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12’ by 12’). While it was very shamefully destroyed in the bombing of Hanover in 1943, several good facsimiles and photographs were made before its demise.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Around the outer reaches of the map, which rests on the body of Christ, are a variety of strange beings.

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford's.)

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford’s.)

Some of the most interesting figures (and yet, probably the most disturbing) are Gog and Magog, found on the eastern edge of the world. Gog and Magog (in Revelation 20:7-8; or Gog from Magog in Ezekiel 38-39) were prevalent in both biblical commentary and popular imagination through to the Early Modern period. There are many stories, but essentially, at the apocalypse, Gog and Magog would be released from their prison (some said they were put there by Alexander the Great) to wreak havoc on the world. Here they are munching on some poor sinner’s hands and feet (naturally).


“No thanks! I already ate.”

There are so many fantastic medieval maps – from the west and the east, of the whole world, regions, and towns – that I could only dream of sharing them here. If you’re interested in medieval maps, start with the great Cartographic Images site, or Early Medieval Maps. But be prepared to spend some time – medieval maps will lead you right into the path of an internet vortex!

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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: 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. <;.



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