What is the Oldest Book in the World?

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.

What you do when you are kept up at night with such an existentialistic query is to consult Google. However, what Google returns does not make me a happy camper. In fact, I am provided with a very broad range of possible answers. First of all, let’s remove the weed, answers that are the result of flawed reasoning. A lot of websites, for example, confuse “book” with “text”. Wiki Answers reports: “the oldest book in the world is the Bible” (here). And Ask.com: “The oldest book in the world is entitled ‘The Instructions of Shurupak'”, which dates from 3000 BCE (here). A book and a text are, of course, very different things: like a hamburger in a bun or your legs in a pair of pants, a book contains a text, but it is not its equivalent. Equally incorrect are websites whose claims are based on the premise that a book is a printed object. Thus the oldest book in the world must surely be the Gutenberg Bible (oldest printed book in the West, from c. 1455) or Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra (oldest printed book in the East, from c. 868), as in this Huffington Post article. No, it’s not.

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed 11 May 868

1. Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China, 11 May 868.

More carefully phrased answers can be equally confusing, even when provided by reputable institutions. When the British Library purchased the St Cuthbert Gospel, the seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1104, newspapers claimed the library was in possession of “Europe’s oldest book” (see for example here and here). In its press release the British Library qualified its purchase as “the oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which is to say that it survived in its original binding (here). While this nuance is welcome, the claim feels forced – and not just because the press release atypically calls an English book “European”, no doubt to increase the impact of the purchase. The thing is, many medieval books were designed and used without a binding, which raises the question of whether the binding should even be made part and parcel of the concept “book”. Notably, if bindings are taken out of play there are other books older than the St Cuthbert Gospel, such as the sixth-century herbary right here in Leiden (Pic 2).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600)

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600).

The issue of what precisely constitutes a “book” also lies at the heart of another prominent hit in my Google search. Stop the press, the oldest book in the world is an object that consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold written in a lost Etruscan language around 600 BC (check out the BBC news item here)! The sheets are “believed to be the oldest comprehensive work involving multiple pages”, according to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, where it is kept (Pic 3). Significant is the following assessment of the museum: similar sheets are scattered throughout the world, but those are not linked together, and therefore do not represent a book. A book, the underlying premise suggests, is an object that consists of multiple leaves bound together. So far so good – we have started our initial descent towards our answer.
Old Etruscan "book", made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).

3. Old Etruscan “book”, made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).

Unfortunately, the shiny Etruscan object cannot be called “the oldest book in the world”. The reason is that it consists of unfolded single sheets (golden plates, actually), which are held together by two rings (as seen in Pic 3). However, the codex (the book before print and therefore the oldest type of real book in the world) is not an object that merely consists of a bunch of leaves. It is, by contrast and definition, built from double leaves: sheets that are folded into quires. Looking for the oldest book, then, we should look among objects made from bendy, foldable writing material: papyrus (made from the plant), parchment (animal skin) and paper. Of these three writing supports papyrus is the oldest. It was roughly used for four kinds of objects: i) Unfolded sheets, used for notes and documentary purposes (example); ii) Rolls, i.e. unfolded sheets that were attached at their short side (example); iii) Book-like objects made up from group of unfolded single sheets (‘singletons’) bound together; iv) Real books made from quires (“codices”).Bingo!The oldest book must be made of papyrus. Which one could it be, however? Our search is made easy by the fact that very few papyrus books of old age survive. There are some from the seventh or eight century AD (see this one, for example, or this one). The really old specimens, however, are fragments from once complete sheets (Pic 4).
Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)

4. Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)

It is their fragmentary nature that constitutes the last – killer – hurdle on our way to the finish line. From a surviving papyrus fragment we can, unfortunately, not deduce – at least as far as I can tell – if it originally belonged to an unfolded (single) leaf or a folded (double) sheet. While catalogues often tell you that a papyrus fragment was part of a codex, in other words, that it belonged to a book made from quires (here is an example), we can, in fact, not know for sure if this was the case. Unless it sports a sharp fold, the oldest book in the world will therefore remain hidden in its vault, old but deprived of its prize.

Post-scriptum (30 Dec 2013): a recent British Library blog shows what the bindings of papyrus codices looked like. Read it here.
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Bernhard Bischoff on the Study of Medieval Script

By David Ganz

Editorial note – David Ganz is Visiting Professor of Palaeography at the University of Notre Dame and a Research Associate of Darwin College, University of Cambridge. His guest blog summarises a much-overlooked publication by Bernhard Bischoff (d. 1991), the great expert on Caroline script and Carolingian book culture. In retrospect, Bischoff’s lecture and subsequent publication reads as a ‘report on the state of affairs’ of palaeography in the mid-1950s. (EK)

At the Tenth International Conference of Historical Sciences, which met in Rome in September 1955, papers on palaeography were delivered by Charles Perrat, Bernhard Bischoff and Gaines Post. Bischoff’s paper, which is titled ‘Paläographie der Abendländischen Buchschriften vom V. bis zum XII Jahrhundert’, falls between his article for Deutsche Philologie im Aufriss, first published in 1950, and the revised version in 1957. As a public lecture to an international audience it is both more discursive and more personal than his textbook. He starts by suggesting that in the last two generations palaeographical work has focused on the period of 400-1200 because it offers favourable conditions for fruitful study, while after the thirteenth century the material becomes too vast to master. He noted the change for the philological and text-critical goals of Ludwig Traube and W.M. Lindsay to more historical and cultural historical interests.

Bernhard Bischoff (d. 1991)

Bernhard Bischoff (d. 1991)

The divide of c. 800
In the period 400-1200 there is a divide around 800. E.A. Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores (CLA), the first volume of which appeared in 1934, marked the start of a new phase, and is a testimony to the advances in localizing and dating the material from the earlier period. Bischoff sketched the history of the photographical collection assembled by Traube, which was used as the basis for the lists of unical and half uncial manuscripts published by Lehmann and Lowe, for Lindsay’s work on minuscule manuscripts, and for Lowe’s attempts to establish objective bases for the dating of these scripts. When Bischoff gave his paper, six CLA volumes had been published (of the planned ten) and many items had received their first palaeographical descriptions. He noted other efforts to assemble large photographic corpora, such as the catalogues of dated and localised manuscripts (the Catalogues des manuscrits datés), as well as the work on Beneventan and Visigothic manuscripts dating from after 800, and the assembling of microfilms of Irish manuscripts in Dublin. He then drew attention to the work on Carolingian manuscripts by Albert Bruckner and himself, and stressed the importance of collaborative work between palaeographers and art historians.

Manuscript copied c. 800 (St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 229)

Manuscript copied c. 800 (St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 229)

Ninth century
For the ninth century, script types were replaced by house styles with distinctive and localisable ‘earmarks’. Bischoff reminded his audience how much was lost, urged the need for inventories of library holdings, and noted his goal of a list with exact dating and localising. He pointed out that eliminating places where a manuscript could not have been written was also helpful and stressed that such a list would inevitably be a first attempt, in need of improvement and greater precision, but it was still a requirement for the understanding of the period in which most classical and patristic texts were transmitted to us.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 116, copied in 800-25

Carolingian manuscript copied in 800-25 (St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 116)

Tenth to twelfth centuries
Moving to the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, Bischoff stressed the diversity found in some centres, and the remarkable conservatism of centres like Angers. Given the amount of material, the right strategy, as suggested by Bischoff, might be to look for common features and to record the differences between the script of luxury liturgical books and the less elaborate and fast scripts used in schools. He noted the importance of Tironian notes as essential for the study of Carolingian schools, and the significance of their revival in the circle of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, and also the difficulties on the analysis of insular scripts. He pointed out that Lowe had spoken of the decisive role of ‘quarter-uncial’ in the development of insular scripts in the preface of CLA Volume II and gave his own account of the development of Irish script After noting developments in the study of early Visigothic script and in the study of the script of Luxeuil, he drew attention to the differences between Lowe’s views on the origin of Caroline minuscule via the influence of half uncial and his own sense of the convergence of different factors: the decline of half uncial, the calligraphic formalising of cursive, and the experiments at Charlemagne’s court to create a new bookscript based on the cursive used in the chancery.

Pregothic script in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 196, written 1145-49)

Early gothic script in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 196, written 1145-49)

In conclusion, Bischoff spoke of the ‘gothicizing’ of script and of his own contribution to discussions of nomenclature. Carolingian was not a chronological term, early gothic script had strokes at the bases of the shafts moving to the right, sometimes these were hairline strokes. When the bows were linked, then the script was fully gothic. Most of the scripts that stand between Caroline and Gothic can be described as ‘protogothic’ (frühgotisch in German) in this way. Although, as in every living development, there are transitional forms, they do not invalidate the use of this basic terminology. Two final paragraphs discuss De Bouard’s views of developments in England and on the role of the cut of the pen, and Lieftinck’s thoughts about the plainness of Cistercian books.

Bernhard Bischoff, ‘Paläographie der Abendländischen Buchschriften vom V. bis zum XII Jahrhundert’, in Relazioni del X Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche I (Florence: Sansoni, 1955), pp. 385-406.

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Teeny Tiny Medieval Books!

By Jenny Weston

While most of the manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages are roughly the same size as today’s books, some volumes feature outrageous dimensions—either super-large or teeny tiny! Today’s blogpost is devoted to the ‘small-end’ of this spectrum, examining some of the world’s tiniest medieval manuscripts.

Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2, British Library

Anne Boleyn’s golden psalm-book, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2, British Library

During the later Middle Ages, prayerbooks (and in particular ‘Books of Hours’) were often produced with smaller dimensions. These books were often favoured by women, who relied on their collection of prayers, psalms, and painted miniatures for their daily devotion. With smaller dimensions the book would have been lighter and easier to carry, which would have appealed to the devoted lady who wished to have the book on-hand throughout the day. (Such books could easily fit into one’s pocket or be attached to a girdle, see below.)

Here we can see a fourteenth-century example of a miniature prayerbook known as the Hours of Jeanne D’Evereux. Made in Paris by the artist Jean Pucille, this little book measures just 9.2 x 6.2 cm and could still easily fit into the palm of your hand.

The House of Jeanne D'Evreux

The Hours of Jeanne D’Evreux

The little book was originally produced under the patronage of King Charles IV as a gift to his third wife, Jeanne D’Evereux (1310-1371), who was only fifteen years old at the time of their marriage. It is a rather sweet idea to think that the book may have been designed with to fit the small hands of the young Queen.

It is likely that these tiny manuscripts also presented a tantalizing challenge to some ambitious scribes and artists, particularly those who wished to demonstrate their skill and precision on a tiny-scale. Despite the limited surface area, some books feature an impressive level of artistic detail, such as this fifteenth-century Book of Hours, which includes a number of illuminated portraits:

Miniature Book of Hours, Codex Manuscript 001054 © Rauner Special Collections Library (http://raunerlibrary.blogspot.nl/2013/05/a-beautiful-manuscript.html).

Miniature Book of Hours, Codex Manuscript 001054 © Rauner Special Collections Library (http://raunerlibrary.blogspot.nl/2013/05/a-beautiful-manuscript.html).

As noted above, the greatest advantage of a small book was its portability. By the thirteenth century, there was a growing interest in books that were easier to carry—friars and preachers, for example, often carried personal pocket-sized bibles with them as they wandered the streets (ready to teach and discuss the Word of God at any moment); students and scholars also benefited from these smaller, lighter books, as they were far easier to transport between the lecture-hall and home. Some of these books were attached to a piece of cloth, which could then be hung from a belt:

A portable copy of Boethius's 'De consolatione philosophiae'.

A portable copy of Boethius’s ‘De consolatione philosophiae’.

The tradition of ‘tiny-book-making’ has continued on since the Middle Ages, and it is still possible to find artisans making teeny-tiny volumes today.

On a final note, I could not resist adding this neat picture of an 18th-century leather bookcase from the Netherlands, designed to secretly house a collection of tiny books:

1757 leatherbound case for miniature books care of National Library of the Netherlands

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And now for something completely different….a humanist manuscript in the Leiden Collection (Leiden PER Q 18)

By Irene O’Daly

While most of my research involves eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts, occasionally I have an excuse to dig deeper into the collections at Leiden University. Sometimes these searches unearth manuscripts that, while they may be run-of-the-mill examples of their kind, are new and exciting to me as a medievalist. I recently found one like this when I was preparing a demonstration for some students working on texts written by humanist scholars in the Renaissance.

Although only 16 folia long, this manuscript (PER Q 18) was full of interesting features. The manuscript contained Leonardo Bruni’s (c. 1370-1444) translation and commentary on the first book of pseudo-Aristotle’s Economics, written c. 1420. Bruni, of course, was one of the ‘superstars’ of the humanist revival of interest in classical philosophy – and his translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian text was destined to become a medieval bestseller, surviving in over two hundred manuscripts. The Leiden example is in three parts. It contains a dedictory letter to Cosimo de Medici, a translation of book I of the text, and a copy of Bruni’s commentary on that book.

Opening Dedication, Leiden UB PER Q 18, f. 1r

Opening Dedication, Leiden UB PER Q 18, f. 1r

The opening dedication is presented in the style typical of Florentine book production in this period. The text is surrounded by a decorative border and opens with an initial containing a personification of Cosimo de Medici himself. As is typical of the period, the script references the rounded style of Carolingian miniscule, rather than the pointed characters of the Gothic. It is only lightly abbreviated, compared to the compressions of text common in the Gothic period. These archaising tendencies had a practical purpose – to increase legibility – but the aesthetic choice to make the volume emulate earlier (supposedly more accurate) exemplars was also reflected in other aspects. For example, the text is presented on pages that are ruled with a pointed stylus, rather than the dark lead lines favoured from the mid-twelfth on.

Bruni's translation of Book I of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Economics Leiden UB, PER Q 18, f. 1v

Bruni’s translation of Book I of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Economics
Leiden UB, PER Q 18, f. 1v

Bruni’s translation follows the opening dedication. Although accompanied by a decorative border, again the page gives a clean and uncluttered impression, emphasised by its finely produced parchment. Often humanist manuscripts were decorated sparsely, to allow the text stand for itself.

Opening of Bruni's Commentary on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Economics, Leiden UB PER Q 1, f. 4v

Opening of Bruni’s Commentary on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Economics,
Leiden UB PER Q 1, f. 4v

Bruni’s sentence-by-sentence commentary on the text follows. Interestingly, here the extracts taken from the Economics are presented in a different register of script – characterised by a different range of letter-forms (note particularly the a and the round-s) and in larger size for ease of consultation. Although a reference work, the manuscript was carefully copied by a professional scribe who was obviously at ease switching between scriptural registers and adept at making the text visually pleasing.

Vespasiano da Bisticci, a Florentine stationer, described how Bruni was able to walk around the city and see his works copied wherever he went. Bruni was a celebrity writer, and the Economics, with its advocacy of private wealth, seems to have held particular appeal in the mercantile economy of Florence in this period. Despite its diminutive size, therefore, Leiden UB PER Q 18 tells a story of changing fashions in book culture in the final heyday of manuscript production.

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Things you’ve always wanted to know about medieval cooking…

By Ramona Venema

Ramona is a research masters student from the University of Groningen, and currently working as an intern in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. Her interests include baking and she maintains her own cookery blog.

We have already seen what a medieval cook could whip up in a previous post. Being the fanatic foodie that I am, I recently acquired a cookbook filled to the brim with historical baking recipes from the seventeenth century onward. I wasn’t exactly surprised at first, knowing some medieval recipes are perhaps a bit too adventurous for the modern mind. In any case, it prompted my curiosity and I set out to find out more about medieval cooking.

First of all: medieval chefs really knew their stuff. Whereas some modern cuisine is concerned with food on a molecular level, medieval chefs were probably not that bothered with exact amounts. It soon became clear why the writer of the historical cookbook left out medieval recipes. They do not contain any indication as to how much of a certain ingredient was needed, and so left a lot of creativity up to the chef. Perhaps medieval cookbooks were then not so much a cookbook as we would recognize it today, but rather a reference work. Or perhaps it shows that medieval cooks were used to cooking with whatever was at hand – it’s not like they could walk into a supermarket. Also, precise timings would be fiff-faff as medieval chefs were using an open fire.

BNF Arsenal 5070

Paris, Bibl. de l’Arsenal, MS 5070

Take eelys & sawmoun & smyte hem

on pecys & stewe hyt in almaunde

mylke & verjous. drawe up an al-

maunde mylke with the stewe. [..]

Fragment from a recipe for Tartes of fysche – no indication of how many eels the cook should use.
Found in Fourme of Curye, transcr. by Daniel Myers

Even though this  eel and salmon pie filling doesn’t sound particularly yummy to most of us, the ingredients weren’t that unusual. Not as decadent as your average fast-food restaurant burger, probably! The same Fourme of Curye reveals an abundance of recipes for meat and fish dishes as well as some vegetable concoctions and sweet treats (“Rysshews of fruyt” anyone?). Even though we might expect, or hope for a recipe for unicorn, as this recent British Library April Fool’s post tantalized us with, this is certainly not the norm. I did find a recipe for “dragonee” which looks like it could be some sort of sweet capon stew, for which the color should turn out “red of dragon’s blood”.  No dragon meat involved however! Hearty and sweet were frequently combined, undoubtedly much to the horror of modern taste buds – who would combine meat with strawberries nowadays?

The oldest European medieval recipes were discovered in Cambridge in April by prof. Faith Wallis of McGill University (Montreal). The twelfth-century Durham manuscript they were featured in also contained medicinal recipes. Some of the recipes, such as “hen in winter”, confirm yet again that medieval cooks worked with the products at hand, and kept seasons in mind. Perhaps something we should take note of today.

BNF Arsenal 5070

Paris, Bibl. de l’Arsenal, MS 5070

Want to try your hand at a medieval recipe yourself, recreate a medieval banquet or have a really original recipe for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving? A good starting point is the Medieval Cookery website. A recipe which looked particularly good is the one for pear custard. If you’re interested in “historical” cooking on a more academic level, then you might be interested in attending “The Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food in the Low Countries” which will be held for the first time on January 17th 2014.  An interesting article on medieval cookbooks can be found here, starting at page 71.

Posted in Visiting Bloggers

Dueling Cantors and Their Early Musical Notation

By Jenneka Janzen

In my last blog post I briefly discussed one of my favourite manuscripts, the Cantatorium of St Gall (Sankt Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 359). It survives as the oldest complete neumed manuscript.

Pages 24 and 25 of Cod. Sang. 359. Photo © 2013 e-codices.

Pages 24 and 25 of Cod. Sang. 359. Photo © 2013 e-codices.

I also mentioned that early neumes, much like those found in this manuscript, are surrounded by legend and controversy. Indeed, their stories are both illuminating and quite funny.

The history of Frankish neumes begins with the rise of the Carolingian dynasty. When Pepin the Short became King of Francia in 752, significant problems in the Frankish Church were further exacerbated by a dysfunctional relationship with Rome. Having taken the crown after a long and violent struggle, Pepin needed the legitimacy of papal support. The new pope, Stephen II, likewise needed Pepin: when Pepin vowed to protect the papal estates from the Lombards, Stephen agreed to demonstrate his support of Pepin by performing his coronation.

Pope Stephen’s visit to crown Pepin was just the beginning; he trained the community at St-Denis to practice the Roman liturgy. While suppressing local Gallican rites, Pepin then requested a collection of ‘correct’ liturgical books from Stephen’s successor Paul I, and established a Roman-style schola cantorum (song school) at Rouen. Although students of the school were trained in the Roman style, it must have been nigh impossible to ensure the new tradition remained uncorrupted by the old. There was, after all, no static notational system; melody had to be passed by voice alone, and ‘correctness’ could only be verified against visiting Roman singers. The eventual consistency of the new Frankish-Roman chant was achieved through development of a successful notational system.

Close-up of the notation on "Alleluia . Adorabo ad templum". Cod. Sang. 359, page 53.  Photo © 2013 e-codices.

Close-up of the notation on “Alleluia . Adorabo ad templum”. Cod. Sang. 359, page 53. Photo © 2013 e-codices.

The earliest examples of notation are from between 825 and 850. Musicologist Willi Apel explains “we cannot assume that the earliest musical manuscript that has come down to us from these remote times was actually the earliest ever written. On the contrary, the highly complex and intricate notation of a manuscript such as St Gall 359 […] marks it beyond any doubt as one that was preceded by others, now lost.” Another example, generally attributed to the late 9th or early 10th century (with some disagreement) is the incomplete Laon Gradual.

Much of what we know about the spread of Roman chant and development of neumes comes from 9th- and 10th-century writers who describe a sort of ‘chant war,’ if you will. According to Notker Balbulus in his Gesta Karoli Magni, written c. 884 at St Gall, Charlemagne asked the pope for a dozen Roman cantors to teach the monks in his kingdom. However, “being, like all Greeks and Romans, greatly envious of the glory of the Franks” they decided to sabotage Charlemagne’s goal of uniformity by each teaching a different vocal style to the Franks. Charlemagne found out that he and his kingdom’s singers had been deceived, and alerted Pope Leo. Leo recalled the offending cantors to Rome and punished them with exile or life imprisonment. Sure that any other singers he sent would be equally devious, Leo took in two of Charlemagne’s singers to be trained, and when their skill was perfected, sent them home to spread Roman chant.

(Listen to one of Notker’s own chant compositions.)

John the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino with ties to the papal court, recounts another colourful introduction of Roman chant to Francia. In his Vita sancti Gregorii (872-882) he describes a meeting of Charlemagne’s cantors, who accompanied him on a trip to Rome, with members of the Roman schola cantorum during Holy Week of 787. Following mass one day, a bitter conflict arose about who best performed the liturgical chants; the Franks maintained their chant was superior, while the Romans claimed their perfect style descended directly from Gregory the Great himself.

Gregory the Great dictates chant to a scribe in the Hartker Antiphoner, c. 1000 (Cod. Sang. 390, page 13).

Gregory the Great dictates chant to a scribe in the Hartker Antiphonary, c. 1000, St Gall (Cod. Sang. 390, page 13).

Perhaps following a sing-off, Charlemagne deemed his own cantors inferior and insisted his kingdom adopt the ‘purer’ Roman chant style. John however maintains that the Franks were unable to accomplish this goal “because the savage barbarity of their drunken throats, while endeavouring with inflections and repercussions and diphthongs of diaphonies to utter a gentle strain, through its natural noisiness proffers only unmodulated sounds like unto farm carts clumsily creaking up a rutted hill.”

"Oh! Sweet melody!"

“Oh! Sweet melody!”

While these 9th-century sources express the impetus for the introduction of Roman liturgical customs, neumes are unmentioned. The first direct discussion of neumes appears in Adémar of Chabannes’ Chronicon (1025-1028), and details the same confrontation between Roman and Frankish cantors as is told by John the Deacon. Adémar attributes the creation of neumes to the Romans: “all the cantors of the Frankish kingdom learned the Roman notation, which they now call Frankish notation”. Despite Adémar’s usually reliable accounts, no other evidence corroborates this Roman origin. Rather, Roman cantors likely taught the Franks orally, and the Franks later developed notation.

So, what were these early neumes and where did they come from? Among regional varieties, there are two general types of neumes. The earliest, called “paleo-Frankish” first appear between about 825 and 850, and are marginal or squeezed between lines of text. Unlike neumes later applied to chant books, these accompany classical poetry or illustrate small sections of musical treatises. They are likely private, localized memory aids for a single cantor or his associates, as opposed to the formal, transmittable “gestural” neumes.

Gestural neumes (so-called to reflect their imitation of the hand gestures used by the cantor-master to guide a choir) appear around the year 900; the oldest complete neumed text, as mentioned above, is the St Gall Cantatorium, attributed to 922-925. Early gestural neumes were not “literate”, that is, one could not simply read and interpret the melodies from the page without already knowing them. According to Leo Treitler, “the essentials of early notation lay not in representing individual pitches but in aiding recognition of crucial points in the text and indicating appropriate melodic gestures. This implies a sort of musical punctuation.”  Pitch notation (with the development of the staff) did not exist until the eleventh, or in some places the twelfth century.

What do you mean you can sing along? The Laon Gradual, f. 1.

What do you mean you can’t sing along?
The Laon Gradual, f. 1.

If notation was not a requisite step in the transmission of a new chant style, how was it used? Chant continued to be transmitted and performed largely from memory throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, and unneumed chant books were produced long after standardization of notation systems. While the cantor relied on memory, he could now refer to neumes if he needed a reminder of how to sing the day’s chants consistently. It is likely that the very development of neumes produced their necessity; as the role of memory diminished with the popularization of neumes, neumes then likely became increasingly important to cantors.

Although the timeline, proponents, and exact use of early neumes are still somewhat unknown (and in some ways unknowable), they will most certainly continue to spark debate among researchers who approach the evidence with different questions, experiences, and the considerable body of existing scholarship laid out by passionate scholars. While manuscripts like the St Gall Cantatorium are not new to study, increasing digitization of international manuscript collections, coupled with ongoing interest in medieval chant and notation, will continue to provide ample opportunity for further discussion.

Some notes: Read Jenny’s blog on musical manuscripts here. There is actually a great album of Frankish and Roman chant curated to tell the tale of their legendary face off in Rome, called Chant Wars. Read about it here. Also, if you’d like to try singing along with the early neumes of Laon 239, a lovely tiny hand will guide you through a chant here.

Do you like neumes, chant, or Frankish liturgy? Here are some starting sources:

Apel, Willi. “The Central Problem of Gregorian Chant” Music in Medieval Europe: Chant and its Origins. Thomas Forrest Kelly, ed. (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2009): 325-332.

Grier, James. The Musical World of a Medieval Monk: Adémar de Chabbannes in Eleventh-century Aquitaine. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hiley, David. Cambridge Introductions to Music: Gregorian Chant. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Huglo, Michel. “The Cantatorium: From Charlemagne to the Fourteenth Century” The Study of Medieval Chant: Paths and Bridges, East and West. Peter Jeffery, ed. (Cambridge: Boydell Press, 2001): 89-103.

Levy, Kenneth. Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians. Princeton University Press, 1998.

McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Page, Chirstopher. “Pippin and his Singers, II: Music for a Frankish-Roman Imperium,” The Christian West and its Singers: the First Thousand Years (Yale University Press, 2010): 305-326.

Treitler, Leo. Several chapters in With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How it was Made. (Oxford University Press, 2003): 131-185.

Posted in Jenneka Janzen | Tagged , , , ,

Where Are the Scriptoria?

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

This blog connects to two earlier entries in medievalfragments: Irene O’Daly’s recent blog on how scribes are depicted in medieval art (here); and Jenneka Janzen’s assessment of how we are to understand the “physical scriptorium” (here). Something struck me when I read both pieces, in particular when I looked at the images accompanying Irene’s blog. The scribes in her story, as well as those in images I had on file myself, are depicted as individual copyists instead of scribes working in groups. Even when multiple scribes are presented in each other’s vicinity, such as the four evangelists in the Aachen Gospels of c. 820 (Fig. 1), we are still looking at multiple individual scribes – after all, they have their backs turned to each other and are separated by rock formations. My point, you ask? Where are the scriptoria, I reply!

Aachen Gospels, Aachen, Cathedral, s.n. (c. 820)

Fig. 1. Aachen Gospels (Aachen, Cathedral, s.n. c. 820).

While the monastic scriptorium is the location where manuscripts were made – at least until c. 1200, when commercial scribes took over the monks’ role as primary book producers – it turns out that medieval images of scriptoria are rare. Very rare. Check this out: while a Google search consisting of the words “medieval” “scribe ” and “manuscript” returns dozens of writing monks, not a single one is shown in a spacey room working side by side with fellow monks – with the exception of images from the nineteenth or twentieth century. Even an intense search through various databases left me nearly empty handed. Here is what I did find.

Lay person and monk making books jointly in a monastery (Wiesbaden, Deutches Museum)

Fig. 2. Lay person and monk jointly making books in a Echternach Abbey (Bremen, Universitätsbibliothek, MS 217, c. 1020).

This first image of multiple book producers at work in a monastic environment is from a richly-decorated Gospel Book produced in Echternach, Luxemburg (Fig. 2). It was made as a mighty gift for Emperor Henry II. The image shows a peculiar blend of two worlds: the individual on the right, a monk, is copying the text; while the person on the left, whose clothes show he is not a monk, produced the decoration. For important books such as this one professionals from the outside world were sometimes hired to decorate the pages. Is the place we see them working in a scriptorium? Perhaps. However, what the image really shows is how this particular book – the object sent to Henry II – came to be, namely with the help of a hired hand. Perhaps this image was added to show the receiver that a professional had decorated the object? (‘Spare no expense!’) In any case, it is unlikely that this illustration was included to show the inside of a scriptorium. This may be underscored by the observation that when lay scribes were asked to enter an abbey for the duration of a book project, they were usually separated from the local monks by order of the abbot.

Scriptorium in tenth-century Spain (Madird, Nat. Hist. Archaeological Museum Ms.Cod., 1097 B, c. 970)

Fig. 3. Scriptorium in tenth-century Spain (Madrid, Nat. Hist. Archaeological Museum, Cod., 1097 B, c. 970).

The second image I found presents a similar scenario (Fig. 3). Shown is the scriptorium of Tábara de León, a monastery in Spain, in what is usually regarded as the oldest known depiction of a scriptorium (c. 970). The image is part of a copy of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse. The accompanying colophon identifies the monk on the left as “Senior”, while the individual across the table is “Emeterius”, who is dressed as a lay person. Both are working on a book (is Emeterius perhaps drawing images?), while a third, in a room to the right, is cutting sheets (more information on this image here). While you are looking at a band of individuals producing a manuscript, the image likely shows how that very book was produced, as in Fig. 2.

Both images presented so far raise questions rather than answer them. Are we looking at a realistic representation of a scriptorium? Or do they show how a particular book was produced; stressing, in particular, that the monks had help from an outsider? If these two images do show us the real deal, then the scriptorium is a tiny space, not a vast room with rows of desks. Or did the illustrator choose to sacrifice a realistic view of a spacious room in order to show multiple individuals in the small space of a miniature?

Fig. 4. Paris, BnF, Lat. MS 818 (11th century).

Fig. 4. Paris, BnF, Lat. MS 818 (11th century).

The third image I found, which is part of an eleventh century missal (Fig. 4), underscores the issues encountered so far. The two figures appear to be involved in the production of a book. The individual on the left is writing on a wax tablet with a stylus, while the other is perhaps ruling a parchment sheet with a sharp object. (Or is he cutting sheets?) What may appear to be the inside of a scriptorium, could, in fact, also be showing us something else. If we zoom out and observe the full page, we see that the two figures are placed in a cramped space underneath the main character, a saint, who is writing text on a wax tablet with a stylus. It reminds me of the famous tenth-century ivory cutting showing Gregory the Great towering over some ‘dwarf’ scribes copying his works (Fig. 5). Three scribes producing manuscripts in a confined space do not constitute a scriptorium. Or do they?

Fig. 5. Gregory and his scribes (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 10th century).

Fig. 5. Gregory and his scribes (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 10th century).

Having searched the web far and wide, I came up with one last image. This scene is hard to trace back to a specific manuscript, but it appears to be kept in Madrid’s Bibliotheca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial – this is where I found it (Fig. 6). At long last, I hear you say, a real scriptorium, fitted with benches that are filled with scribes copying books, while a scriptorium master is looking on.

Spanish scriptorium? (Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 14th century).

Fig. 6. Spanish scriptorium? (Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 14th century).

Perhaps this is so, but there are issues here, too. For one thing, the scribe in the back is not a monk but a lay person. A rich one by the looks of his clothes and hair. The figure in the middle appears to be a monk, but the person on the right is likely not. The image comes close to what we would imagine a scriptorium to look like, judging from such descriptions as “[in the cloister] you might have seen a dozen young monks sitting on chairs in perfect silence, writing at tables carefully and skillfully constructed” (quote taken from Jenneka’s blog, mentioned earlier). However, the lay person in the back would seem out of place, as does perhaps the individual on the right.

In spite of all the obscurity in this blog, my main point stands: where are the scriptoria? After all, a search on the web and in my bookcase did not produce more than a handful of scenes where we see multiple individuals working on books in the same physical space. That none of them convincingly show us the inside of a monastic scriptorium does not matter. The biggest mystery, in my opinion, is why there are so few depictions of multiple scribes working together.

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Manuscripts for the Rich & Famous (Super Bling)!

By Jenny Weston

For the most part, medieval books do not look like this:

Front cover of the Lindau Gospel (© Morgan Library, New York)

Front cover of the Lindau Gospel with raised gem stones (© Morgan Library, New York)

But just as some people today add chrome to their cars or gems to their watches or phone cases, some medieval people chose to add ‘bling’ to their books.

Take for example the following Gospel book known as the Codex Aureus or ‘Golden Book’. Made in the 9th century for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles II, the cover of the book is covered with gold, gems, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls.

Codex Aureus of St Emmeram ("Golden Book")

Codex Aureus of St Emmeram (‘Golden Book’)

These extremely luxurious book covers are often referred to as ‘treasure bindings’ (for  obvious reasons)!

Because these books were extremely valuable, they were naturally a target for thieves. As a result, only a handful of ‘intact’ examples survive today. It’s possible to see a few ‘missing gems’ in the following book, where someone has carefully plucked out the precious stones (providing a little window to the wooden binding below).


Codex Aureus of Freckenhorst (11th century Gospel Book)

It is interesting that many of the most lavishly decorated books from the Middle Ages were Gospel books. Not only were the Gospels revered as sacred and significant holy texts, but these books were also often put on display on the altar of the church (for use in church services or ceremonies), as well as being read privately. They presented an opportunity to show off the wealth and prestige of a church, lord, or local community.

In some cases, the decoration did not stop at the binding but continued inside with grand illuminations and impressive detail. One of the most famous examples is the 9th-century Gospel book known as the Book of Kells, which contains many full-page illustrations like this:

Book of Kells

The ‘Chi Rho’ Monogram of the Book of Kells

The attention to artistic detail is really stunning. If you take a closer look at the figure of Christ in the image below (centre), you can see how the illuminator has carefully intertwined the locks of hair, echoing the celtic motifs seen in the border of the image.

Christ on the throne (Book of Kells)

Christ on the throne (Book of Kells)

But why did some wish to decorate their books so opulently? I have compiled a (not so) comprehensive list of the most likely reasons for adding the ‘bling’ to the book:

1. To show off. 

Even ‘normal’ books were expensive to produce in the Middle Ages. By adding jewels and rubies to the cover of a book, you could send a pretty clear message that you were wealthy enough to afford such an expenditure.

2. To show how much you loved the text. 

Books, especially religious books, were seen as important carriers of spiritual texts—essentially vehicles of the Word of God. Some chose to honour the significance of the texts by adorning them with beautiful artwork.

3. To give a really nice gift to someone really important. 

Many of these books were made as gifts to honour important people or important events. The Golden Gospels of Henry III, for example, were made under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in the 11th century to be donated to Speyer Cathedral to mark the dedication of a new altar.

Golden Gospels of Henry III (11th century)

Golden Gospels of Henry III

For more images of treasure bindings and medieval manuscript ‘bling’, be sure to check out the website of our friends at Sexycodicology.net—especially their pinterest page where you can see lots more examples!

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Writing the Word: Images of the Medieval Scribe at Work

By Irene O’Daly

Scribal portraits in medieval books were fairly common, and can be an important resource for scholars attempting to reconstruct the atmosphere of a medieval scriptorium, as they provide insights into the materials used in the production of the medieval book. In scribal portraits, however, there is often a substantial dose of iconographical convention mixed with attempts to make an accurate, realistic portrait. Scribal portraits may, therefore, tell us just as much about what the scribal process was thought to be like as what it actually was like.

The Four Evangelists (Plaque): Victoria and Albert Musuem (Germany, mid-11th century)

The Four Evangelists (Plaque): Victoria and Albert Museum (Germany, mid-11th century)

Gospels often illustrate the four Evangelists at work, and these depictions commonly show the principal elements of the scribal process. In fact, such depictions were not limited to the pages of the book, but could be found in other media – as in the case of these ivory plaques. Here the Evangelists (identified in each case by their associated animal shown in the upper corner of each image) are depicted mid-process: on the top left, Matthew sharpens his quill; the next image to the right shows Luke hard at work in the process of composition; the image on the bottom left shows the Mark reaching away with his quill from the book, perhaps to refresh the ink; the fourth presents John deep in contemplation, looking beyond the boundaries of the image. Mental composition, preparation of materials, and writing are recognised as distinct stages of the scribal process.

Image of Eadwine, the Scribe Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1 Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1160

Image of Eadwine, the Scribe. Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1
Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1160

A common inaccuracy in scribal portraits, as seen in the ivory book cover, is the convention of showing the scribe writing directly into a bound volume. We know that medieval books were, instead, written page-by-page, then assembled into a book after completion; drafts were usually made on wax tablets or parchment scraps. The presentation of the scribe writing into a book, therefore, was misleading. However, it clearly shows the value that was placed on the ‘finished product’ and, indeed, on the scribe’s role in designing and executing the volume. The famous portrait of Eadwine, scribe, found in the Eadwine Psalter (depicted above) is an example of this convention, and can be contrasted with the more accurate image below of Laurence of Durham, who is shown writing into a quire of parchment.

Image of Lawrence of Durham, Durham, University Library. Ms. Cosin V.III. 1. f. 22v.

Image of Lawrence of Durham, Durham, University Library. Ms. Cosin V.III. 1. f. 22v.

Common tools shown in all these images include the quill and the knife. The quill was made from a hardened, dried-out feather cut at an angle. The scribe held the quill in one hand, and a knife in the other. The knife was used to sharpen the quill, to hold the parchment flat while writing, and to correct small errors by scraping the parchment. As depicted, the scribe usually sat at a sloped desk, which facilitated the flow of ink on to the page. If the scribe sat, it was at a chair with no arms, which allowed him to move physically across the page. The scribal task was often shared with that of illuminating the manuscript. Hugh, a late eleventh-century Norman monk, who describes as ‘pictor’ and ‘illuminator’ depicts himself ambidextrously engaged in both roles – quill on parchment, feather for painting in an inkwell.

Self-portrait of Hugo ‘pictor’ and ‘illuminator’, Oxford, MS Bodley, 717, f. 287v (Jerome on Isaiah) – late 11th-century Jumieges (Normandy)

Self-portrait of Hugo ‘pictor’ and ‘illuminator’, Oxford, MS Bodley, 717, f. 287v (Jerome on Isaiah) – late 11th-century Jumieges (Normandy)

The value of scribal images is that they allow us to imagine the scribe at work. Shown hunched at his desk, quill in hand, they represent the labour that went into the production of a medieval volume. A previous post touched on literary depictions of the medieval scribe. To echo that theme, and to reflect on the efforts of the medieval scribe, I conclude this post with a translation of an eleventh-century Irish poem by the late Seamus Heaney:

‘Colmcille the Scribe’:

My hand is cramped from penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-spark of ink.

Wisdom keeps welling in streams
From my fine-drawn, sallow hand:
Riverrun on the vellum
of ink from green-skinned holly.

My small runny pen keeps going
Through books, through thick and thin
To enrich the scholars’ holdings:
penwork that cramps my hand.

Posted in Project News

Capless a’s and a Fringe Ligature: The Courtship of Medieval Script

By Ramona Venema

Ramona is a research master in ‘Classical, Medieval Renaissance Studies’ at the University of Groningen. She is currently working as an intern for the ‘Turning Over a New Leaf Project’. 

After completing a course in the fundamentals of codicology I was hooked: I had to do an internship that involved the study of medieval books. The smelliness of parchment couldn’t keep me away from the manuscripts. When I attended a lecture given by Dr. Erik Kwakkel, I decided to send an e-mail asking whether there was a place for an intern in his Turning Over a New Leaf project at the University of Leiden. I received a swift reply and a couple of months (and a pile of paperwork) later here I am.

Some of you might remember Erik Kwakkel’s earlier blogpost about how medieval letters can ‘kiss’ and ‘bite’ — in the twelfth century it became increasingly common for scribes to fuse certain letterforms together, giving the impression that they were ‘kissing’ (just touching slightly) and then ‘biting’ (almost fully joined together). Essentially, my internship project analyzes and records this ‘courtship’ of letterforms that took place during the eleventh century, while also keeping my eye out for developments and changes in other script features.

You might be wondering how my current project relates to the Turning Over a New Leaf project as a whole. Well, the data that Erik Kwakkel has collected thus far, has focused primarily on manuscripts produced between the years 1075 and 1225. He has shown that some early examples of ‘Gothic’ script features (including letter fusion) occur in approximately 30% of the manuscripts produced around the year 1075. This suggests that certain features that we now call ‘pre-Gothic’ or ‘Gothic’ may have been introduced even earlier than 1075. The question is where and when they were introduced for the first time. My task is to document examples of these script features in manuscripts of the eleventh century.

Two examples  of  a ct-ligature, the c and t are connected overhead – Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France Lat. 3786 fol. 259; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés

Two examples of a ct-ligature, the c and t are connected overhead (Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France Lat. 3786 fol. 259; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

My internship is (at the time of writing this) still in its infancy. Yes folks, that means that I spend most days staring at my computer screen, scanning 11th-century manuscript images, and entering their script features into a database. Admittedly at times it can be a monotonous task, but it also has its fun moments. I have now immersed myself so heavily in 11th-century script, that I sometimes find myself looking into the mirror early in the morning and thinking “Hey, that could be a ct-ligature!” and then quickly realizing that it’s just a curl in my fringe that I’m really looking at.

Or that merry moment when I found what I thought was a really obscure and unusual script with crazy ‘capless’ ‘a’s and huge ‘e’s. (I immediately got all geeky and excited—something strange was happening in this script). But then moments later Erik Kwakkel stopped by and said (after about 2 seconds of looking at it): ‘Oh, that’s visigothic script!’ (Read: You can’t include the manuscript in the database). Bummer! 

Visigothic: a fun transcribing exercise. Can you spot the capless a’s and the enormous e’s?  (Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France – Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2169, fol. 26; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

Visigothic: a fun transcribing exercise. Can you spot the capless a’s and the enormous e’s?
(Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France – Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2169, fol. 26; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

What I find satisfying about this type of (quantitative) research is that the numbers tell the tale. Even though I am not exactly a mathematical genius (far from it) I can appreciate that statistics (when applied to script) are able to give us the tools to date a manuscript more specifically, rather than going on gut-feeling (or the ‘Zap’ moment). It makes the research that is conducted more of an exact process, which is very satisfying. Needless to say, I am very content with my internship, and I am curious to see whether all my ‘staring at computer screens’ will yield some exciting results in the weeks to come.

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