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M edieval M anuscripts Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask English 328 (Fall 2005)

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1 M edieval M anuscripts Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask English 328 (Fall 2005)

2 B efore the B ook... T here was no paper. T here was no pencil. T here was no printing press. W ord-processors? Ha!

3 Mesopotamian scribes used clay tablets and pressed designs into the wet clay using a reed stylus. The script the Sumerians invented and handed down to later Semitic peoples is called cuneiform, which is derived from two Latin words: cuneus, which means "wedge," and forma, which means "shape.” Below, we see a series of cuneiform words for animals. The scribe would rapidly press the end of the reed into clay to “stamp” various combinations of shapes.

4 Advantages? Once dried or baked, cuneiforms tablets were difficult to alter. They were excellent for records and legal documents. Potential to make rubbings of tablets as copies. Cheap and plentiful mud is the building material. Using reed stylus to imprint clay is speedy--up to 40 ideographs a minute.

5 Disadvantages? Very heavy--up to 2.3 pounds per “page.” Difficult to transport! Melts or weathers away in all climates but arid ones without firing. Breaks if dropped. To the right, we see broken remains of a treatise on divination from lizard movement (circa 650 BCE) located in the British Museum

6 Papyrus scrolls were an Egyptian alternative.... Easy to make by pounding or weaving reed fibers into a mat. Lasts centuries in dry climates. Absorbs ink readily But.... Papyrus reeds only grow in hot, dry climate with seasonal flooding.

7 Image of the Dead Sea Scrolls Later civilizations used scrolls, which one read by unrolling them along a horizontal frame. Scrolls were compact, but unwieldy for rapid transition from one passage to another. Any damage to a scroll would affect large swathes of the text, rather than one page alone.

8 Paper would not be invented until the 12th century in the Middle East. It would not be widely used in Europe until the early Renaissance....

9 Classical and ancient scribes needed an alternative way to store writing. But what? The answer came in a new structure and alternative materials….

10 The new structure was the codex. By putting sheets of papyrus on top of each other, with a protective cover on the top and bottom, readers had two major advantages.

11 A : The hard outer covering protected the internal pages. This covering--usually two pieces of wood or metal with a narrow spine connecting them-- was easier to make than carving out a hollow scroll tube from bone, ivory, or wood. It also remained attached to the book while in use, providing further protection. Ancient codices have a much higher rate of survival than ancient scrolls do.

12 As this poor copy of a biblical scroll of Isaiah illustrates…. Above: Q Isaiah-b X: Isaiah 57.17-59.8

13 As an added artistic bonus, this hard surface gives the book-builder a chance to decorate… Left: a jeweled book cover for a medieval psalter, made of hammered gold.

14 Turning the literary object into even more valuable art… Right: Cover of the Codex Aureus, which uses over 120 precious and semi- precious stones.

15 B : As an additional benefit, it was possible to browse through a codex or book. One could mark pages, compare passages, and flip back and forth. Scrolls required laborious rolling and unrolling. In the case of the Hebrew Torah, it might take a rabbi twenty or thirty minutes to roll back to the opening section of Genesis from the end of Leviticus. It’s hard to cross-reference scrolls!

16 The codex was a fantastic innovation in late Roman and early Patristic times. But where would European book-makers find an equivalent for Egyptian papyrus? The answer lies with...

17 Our good friend, the cow….

18 Cow skin, goat skin, and sheep skin provide a fairly flat but somewhat flexible surface. The skin holds inks, paints, or even gold foil. Properly preserved, such skins could last for long centuries.

19 Mind you. This was no cheap material. Step #1: You must kill poor Bessie…

20 #2: Cut away the skin in a rectangular pattern

21 (It’s trickier than you’d think, given the gruesome geometry involved in irregular animal bodies.)

22 #3: De-hair the skin by rubbing off the hair with a stone or knife.

23 #4: Treating the pages with lime and water will help dissolve any hairs you missed on the “hair side” of the sheet. The lime additionally helps keep bookworms from eating the sheets. Sprinkling chalk on the surface and rubbing in the powder will fill in the pores and irregularities on the “skin side” of the sheet.

24 #5: Measure out a number of lines for text, and then mark the lines by using chalk. Alternatively, “prick” the line by using a needle to punch a dotted line across the page. Left: Natural chalk deposit from a seaside cliff.

25 #6: Fold the skin as appropriate for the size of final book. One fold = folio Two folds = quarto Three folds = octavo Four folds = duodecimo

26 #7: Sew the “leaves” (pages) together in bundles or leaflets called “quires.” Each quire might contain 8-16 sheets or so. Then sew the quires together to make a larger collection of leaves. Each page requires twenty to forty stitches.

27 Scholars commonly refer to medieval manuscripts not by page numbers, but by the side of the individual “leaf” or page. The back side of a leaf, called the verso side, appears as the left page of an open book if you are sitting down to read. The front side of a leaf, called the recto side, is on the right.


29 Thus, the scholarly abbreviation MS Hengwrt f. 32 v stands for “Hengwrt Manuscript folio leaf 32 verso side.” If you work with medieval manuscripts at a museum or library, these are the sort of references you will find in catalogs of medieval manuscripts and citations of specific manuscripts.

30 It took up to 100 sheep to make an average book…. That’s a significant percentage of a population’s wealth, when that leather is desperately needed for other purposes. Larger bibles might require 500 sheep. Books were rare and expensive items in the medieval period.

31 Animals hides from goats or sheep are generically called parchments. If the skin comes from a calf, lamb, or kid, it is technically called vellum. In practice, the two terms are often used interchangeably by scholars--especially after DNA testing proved in the 1980s that it’s very hard to distinguish between them by sight alone.

32 Now that we have pages and are ready to write, what do we use for ink? What for a pen?

33 Near the Mediterranean, monks would use squid ink to make black, blue, or purple ink.

34 In Europe, the best black ink came from oak gall, the seepage that comes from oak trees infested with larval parasites. Right: grub larvae within a gall in the quercus rubras species of red oak

35 Truly impoverished monasteries would use ashes mixed with water to make a thin, diluted ink.

36 Goose quills, cut with a knife to a sharp point, were the preferred writing instrument. Every few pages, the scribe would need to take a knife and cut the quill anew in case ink had dried on the tip or the tip had grown dull from friction.

37 By now, this book is now becoming a luxury item. The ink should be supplemented with flashier materials in the most valuable manuscripts. Crushing semi-precious gems or using rare dyes could result in brilliant red or blue inks. Gold foil can be attached with wax to the page, or molten gold poured (very carefully!) to create reflective artwork on the page.

38 Adding gold to a manuscript is called illumination. Adding colored ink, especially red ink, is called rubrication.

39 T he term initial refers to any enlarged letter at the beginning of a section of a book. These first letters are often elaborately illuminated or rubricated. For instance, let us take a look at the opening of the Psalms, “Beatus vir,” in Dagulf’s Psalter....

40 All that stuff that looks yellowish in the photograph of Dagulf’s Psalter is gold leaf. The entire manuscript shimmers incandescently. Notice the elaborate Celtic knotwork in the initial “B.”

41 If there is an animal, scene, or person inside the letter’s artwork, we have what is called an inhabited initial.

42 They range from the grandiose and the pious to the absurd and the obscene.

43 …To pictures of the author himself Left: The Hoccleve Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer

44 The borders of medieval manuscript are also lavishly depicted. Scribes intentionally left wide margins, partly to allow the leaves to be trimmed if the book needed rebinding in a century or two, but also to leave room for marginalia. Marginalia includes glosses (marginal notes added by later readers) and artwork provided by illuminators and rubricators.

45 The Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer is particularly lush with vinery or “vine-work.” The illuminators probably spent several days decorating each page. Remember that much of the vinery is gold. Here’s a closer look on the next slide.


47 The beginning and ending of each section would be marked with Latin phrases. “Incipit…” (“Here begins…”) and “Explicit” (“Here ends…”).

48 Altogether, these disparate elements created an elegant, pleasing organic unity. But the most beautiful manuscripts were huge endeavors. A scriptorium of twenty monks took nearly ten years to produce the beautiful Utrecht Psalter for Duke Udolphus. Similar effort must have gone into the Duc du Barry’s Les Trés Riches Heures, a gorgeous book of hours.

49 And it was all done by patient monks sitting quietly in scriptoriums, copying these texts by hand onto cow skin, relying on faith and goose feathers.

50 Explicit Presentatio! Works Consulted: Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Medieval Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: the British Library, 1994. Cuneiform text containing omens taken from the behavior of lizards, pieced together from several fragments, c. 650 BC (Photo courtesy of British Museum) 12 March 2003 as found at. The University of Pennsylvania hosted the site with the sample cuneiform words as found September 2 at. “Green Gregory.” Image of unknown scribe. 12 March 2003.. Images of scribe at desk. 12 March 2003.. Squid. Photograph by John W. Forsythe. Cephbase. 13 March 2003.. 2003 © Dr. L. K. Wheeler

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