Archives for category: Manuscripts

Atlas Obscura has a post about how books were published in the fifteenth century. If you need to go around the butchers’ to get lots of the raw material for making your parchment* and maintain a team of scribes to handwrite your books, you are clearly faced with a different set of challenges than today’s publisher. As you wouldn’t probably start the job until someone had requested it, sales was the first, not the last of your problems.

The Atlas Obscura piece is an extract from The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts which Illuminated the Renaissance by Ross King published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

One of the problems faced by Mr King’s hero, cartolaio Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421 or 1422–1498), was rapid business change. Born when he was he lived through the “revolution” in his stationer/bookseller trade brought about by the rapid increase in printing consequent upon Gutenberg’s development of movable metal types. This lead to a flooding of the market with more and cheaper books than old-style manuscript booksellers could create. Conservative elements stuck with the old ways, and indeed Lorenzo de’ Medici is said to have had printed books re-written by scribes, but, although you can of course still now get a book hand-written for you, the book trade has obviously developed in one direction only.

In its review of Mr King’s book The New York Times Book Review falls into the trap of false equivalency: “For much of the 15th century, the two forms of bookmaking lived alongside each other, much as electronic and paper books do in our own time”. Not untrue of course, but inevitably putting it like this carries along with it a judgement about the ultimate outcome. The jury’s still out on ebook/p-book, though I believe they’ll end up peacefully coexisting like paperbacks and hardbacks. The “living alongside” here has more in common with radio and television, or steel and cast iron, (or indeed hardback, paperback) than with that giant Amazon truck and the horse-drawn wagon.

The review goes on to tell us “In its early years print was a business gamble; many more copies were made than necessarily found buyers.” Of course we all know that publishing is now a totally risk-free enterprise. No publisher has printed too many copies since the 16th century! It’s just like shooting fish in a barrel. There never was such a thing as the remainder! As I have often written however, I do think we are possibly on the brink of just such a world. Tighter inventory control technologies, allied to dynamic sales data, along with shorter- and shorter-run print technologies give publishers the ability to supply all the demand without overproducing a single copy. We’re not there today, but give it a couple of years for everyone to take the idea on board.


*One quaint word derivation is met with in the making of parchment (and cloth making) — the frame on which the hides were stretched for drying and processing was called a tenter. The hides were held in place by hooks all round the edges of the tenter.

Those of us who go weak at the knees when we see signs of the Ye-Olde-Tea-Shoppe kind just have to bite our tongue and put it all down to yoghs and thorns.

Before the Latin-alphabetic-conquest, Germanic languages were written in a runic alphabet. I grew up thinking runes were those scratches on the edge of a stick or old stone: and of course they often were — but more important than that physical manifestation was the fact that they made up a coherent alphabet! Anglo-Saxon “futhorc” (named after the first six letters of its alphabet — just as ours is after the first two in the Greek alphabet)   is the most familiar runic alphabet to an English-speaking audience. There’s the thorn in third place; yogh is also in the top line under the guise of X. Yogh migrated to the form resembling the number 3 in Middle English.









A few letters from Anglo-Saxon times didn’t make the jump across to the Latin alphabet. Notable among these are yogh (ȝ) and thorn (Þ). In rough terms yogh represented the -ch sound in the Scottish word loch. It used to be written at the start of the word ȝear (year) which would occasionally be transcribed as “gear”. An Anglo-Saxon speaking about that twelve-month span of time would begin with this sort of throat-clearing sound.

In the case of the word year, yogh did move to y, but generally it would turn into -ch, -gh, -g, -z, or -x. The name Menzies (which in Scotland we pronounce Ming-iss) is an example of ȝ being replaced by z. The culprit in “Ye olde” is the thorn, a straightforward -th sound as in, temptingly, “the”. However “ye” as a sort of antique-ish form of “the” shouldn’t be conflated with “ye” the personal pronoun, plural of you, as in “hear ye!”. This “ye” (“y’all” in the southern USA, or “yous yins” or indeed just “ye” in Scotland) would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe.

However over the years the shape of the thorn does seem to have moved towards that of y — see the illustration below of the Wycliffe Bible. This can surely be the only justification for thinking that our ancestors ever said (well, wrote) “ye” instead of “the”, because if you’d taken off from the thorn in it’s original shape, Þ, wouldn’t you have been more likely to have ended up with Pee Olde Tea Shoppe?

The website Bellaria from Classics for all comes up with an explanation of why we got lots of “ye”s in the King James Version. Their idea just doesn’t sound right to me. If you go to the link, scroll down to the bottom. On the way down you can work through an interesting series of examples of different translations of the Bible, moving from Greek and Latin, through a very German-looking English, and up to the 1611 King James translation. The Bellaria idea is:

“If you go back to the Wycliffe manuscript and look carefully at ‘In þe bigynyng was þe word . . . .’, you will see that þ (‘thorn’, = th) has changed its shape to Ƿ. But while this was happening, ‘th’ was becoming more common and starting to win the day.

“This is where the fun starts. The original printers of the KJV preferred not to use ‘th’ for the word ‘the’ because it would take up too much space, and opted for Ƿe instead. Unfortunately early printing presses came from Germany and Italy and did not possess such a letter. So in the very first texts of the Bible, the London printers replaced it with ‘y’. Result? ‘Ye’, meaning and pronounced ‘the’ at the time, but in time becoming the ‘ye’ we know and love as in ‘ye olde village shoppe’.”

Here is the Wycliffe illustration, followed by Bellaria‘s illustration of the KJV.

Of course it wasn’t the press which was the defining feature in this argument: any press will be happy to make an impression on anything you place below it — a grape, a piece of type, a recusant’s thumb. It’s the metal type that makes the difference. If the printers of the King James Bible really wanted a thorn of þ or of Ƿ shape what was to stop them obtaining one? 1611 isn’t exactly prehistoric times in the story of British printing, and there must have been any number of die sinkers and punch cutters available to create a mould for a thorn if they really needed one.

To me the unconvincing bit in Bellaria‘s story is that if you look at that 1611 edition of the KJV, there’s nary a Y in place of þ or Ƿ. All the “the”s are perfectly happily rendered as t-h-e, just as if the thorn had never stuck in printer’s flesh. In fact I believe that the only “ye”s in the KJV are in fact of the plural personal pronoun sort, where we are addressing a group. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”. (Acts 7:51 for example.) All the “the”s in the KJV are in fact, and have always been, rendered as “the”. So the printers of the King James Bible didn’t suppress the thorn; they actually got rid of yogh in a different “ye”: a switch which may well have occurred many years earlier.

And isn’t that thorn, Ƿ, in Wycliffe getting dangerously close to wynn, ƿ, another lost Anglo-Saxon letter, which stood in for the -w sound, which was not one the Romans used? Maybe there’s a story in that too.

See Mental Floss for an article about 12 letters which didn’t make the alphabet.

Anther literary connection is to J. R. R. Tolkien, a friend of all medievalia. He introduced runes into The Hobbit. Thorin’s map has lots of them:


SP Books, who refer to themselves as a publisher of manuscripts, offer an edition of the manuscript of Lady Susan, a novella by Jane Austen for $180. Ms Austen’s writing is strikingly legible. (You can enlarge the picture by clicking on it.)

There seems to be quite a decent market for this sort of thing: either that or SP are cock-eyed optimists — but they have been in business for a while, so presumably know what they are doing. They have printed 1,000 copies of this 176pp, 10″ x 14″ book, which is printed on Italian paper made by Fedrigoni, casebound and slipcased.

Also on offer are The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, and several others. The company operates out of France, and was founded in 2012 by Nicolas Tretiakow and Jessica Nelson. In 2014 The Los Angeles Times did a profile of the publishers, which reveals that SP stands for Saints Pères, apparently the Paris street on which the two publishers first met. Their company is located in Cambremer in Normandy.

Original link via Literary Hub.

If you want to read Jane Austen’s works in her own hand, no doubt you’ll want to take this virtual tour of the house in Chawton, Hants. where she lived for the last eight years of her life. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)

Although professional scribes would each unavoidably write in their own individual style, they did have standard letter forms to which they mostly tried to adhere. Certain scripts and sizes were regarded as appropriate to certain types of work: see for example Pica. This virtuosity tended to be less marked in monastic scriptoria, where a uniformity of script was more common — maybe because they tended to be focussed on one or two types of book. The professional however needed to show he could execute in a variety of styles.

Herman Strepel’s advertisement sheet for scripts, c. 1450 (The Hague, KB, 76 D 45)

This picture of a scribe’s sample sheet used as an advertisement — it’s one-sided and was probably pinned to the wall — comes from Erik Kwakkel’s blog post The Secrets of Medieval Fonts. (The text doesn’t look like it reads “lorem ipsum . . “!) Presumably such display sheets were fairly common: work needed drumming up even back then. But like all ephemera few example have survived. Another such sample sheet can be seen at Medieval Manuscripts Provenance. These sheets are directly ancestral to the printer’s type samples which were an indispensable part of the book designer’s toolkit back in the days of letterpress.

Professor Kwakkel’s post includes a link to a free downloadable book, Turning over a new leaf: Change and development in the medieval book, which will enable the enthusiast to explore change in scribal practice in greater depth.

There were three main divisions of script: 1. Caroline minuscule, 2. Pregothic script, and 3. Littera textualis or Gothic script. These did tend to be more used at different periods one after the other, but there was extensive overlap. One can see a trend from what we might regard as the most modern-looking one, Caroline minuscule, towards the sort of Gothic letter form which Johannes Gutenberg was striving to imitate in his Bible.

Three medieval script families: 1. from St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 14 (9th century); 2. from Leiden, University Library, BPL 196 (12th century); 3. from London, British Library, Arundel 28 (13th century)

See also Lettre de forme. . .

A prayer book once owned by Mary, Queen of Scots is to be auctioned by Christie’s in July. The Scotsman, appropriately, brings the news.

Photo: Christie’s. © JPI Media

The small book contains forty miniatures “painted with the utmost subtlety by the Master of François de Rohan, one of the most sought-after artists of the court of King Francis I (r. 1515-1547)” as Fine Books & Collections puts it.

Mary was given the book by her great auntie, Louise de Bourbon, Abbess of Fontevraud at some time between 1558 and 1561 when Mary was already Queen of France.

Photo: Christie’s. © JPI Media

The Queen inscribed the book “Puis que voules qu’issi me ramentoive en vos prieres et devotes oraisons / Je vous requiers premier qu’il vous soviene quele part avés en mes affections”. [As you hereby keep me (?) in your devout prayers, I ask you first to remember what part you have in my affections]. ‘Va Tu meriteras’* her sort of ID motto, is followed by the monogram “MФ” (the initial M of Mary and Greek Ф for her husband Francis II).

The book is expected to fetch between £250,000 and £350,000. This is a lot of money of course, but pales into insignificance when compared to the amounts paid for artworks.  Why is it that Jeff Koons can get $91 million for Rabbit, while this unique little book inscribed by MQoS is only worth one two-hundredth of that? You can see that there’s only one Rabbit or Demoiselles d’Avignon, whereas books are printed in their thousands. But this one isn’t one of a print run; it’s a one-off manuscript with forty pictures by an important artist, and it’s inscribed by the world’s number one romantic crush. Supply it ain’t: Must be demand. I guess the money folks haven’t gotten around to boasting about their books: should we be surprised? We should probably be grateful that the silly money isn’t looking at books, so that someone sensible can still afford them.


* Mary would use this anagrammatic label to sign poems and other writings. It’s an anagram of “Sa vertu m’atire”, I am drawn by His virtue.

When it comes to the blue pigment used in medieval manuscripts we have known for years that lots of manuscripts were colored with indigo and lots with something called folium. Until recently however we didn’t know what the word folium meant exactly; we didn’t have a recipe for making it. Turns out folium is derived from a quite common plant which can be found growing alongside Portuguese roadways.

Researchers worked from recipes for preparing the blue pigment found in medieval manuscripts. Using the sledgehammer approach they collected many possible plants along with their fruits and subjected all of them to the procedures described in the manuscripts. Then they waited to see which one turned out to provide the correct blue.

Chrozophora tinctoria’s fruit is the missing ingredient. It’s apparently about the size of a walnut. Atlas Obscura reports that the recipe for creating folium was mined from a manuscript about making colors written in Judeao-Portugeuse, the extinct language used by the Jews of medieval Portugal. The discovery has been published in a paper in Science Advances, which describes the plant thus: C. tinctoria (L.) A.Juss. (Euphorbiaceae) is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean region, north Africa, and central and southwestern Asia. This species can be found on dry and disturbed lands, ruderal habitats, fallows, and along the edges of cultivated fields, mostly in limestone. The plants are 10 to 40 cm tall, gray-green, and tomentous (densely covered with stellate hairs). Stems are erect and branched and leaves are alternate, rhombic to ovate, cuneate at the base, and with sinuate leaf margin.”

Here, from the Hungarian Medieval Manuscript Manual is a listing of the sources of some of the pigments used by the medieval scribe/illuminator. Even better, because well illustrated, is this page from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Illuminated display.

Leaf books are books containing one leaf (two pages) cut out of an old, decorative or famous volume, presented with some sort of accompanying commentary. This isn’t, to my mind, too different from cutting out a page from an old illustrated book and framing it so it can be used as a bit of home decoration. In principal I can’t avoid agreeing with John Carter that “breaking-up is not to be condoned, even in a good cause.” I have often registered my protest against book sculpture, not to my mind any kind of good cause. (I did walk beneath an archway made of sculpted books in an otherwise excellent Pennsylvania bookstore recently, though I wasn’t too happy about it. A bit like walking under a ladder. And the CUP bookshop did display a book sculpture one Christmas. I’d like to have them share my belief that they should have known better!) I suppose I do have to admit that sculpting a book may be no worse than burning it or pulping it. Pulping a book does at least generate material to make more paper — which is obviously more important than creating decorative objects.

Chopping pages out of a book destroys the integrity of the volume, and leaves it less useful to future readers. But what about a book of drawings by a famous artist? At AbeBooks, Scott Brown gives a brief run down of modern artist’s book illustration. Would it be OK to cut out a leaf from a book containing some engravings by Picasso and frame it for display on your wall? The puritan in me says no, but on the other hand if you’ve just paid $12,000 for the thing, maybe you have the right to do what you want with it. Book illustrations and the artists’ book perhaps present different issues. The Victoria and Albert has a useful essay on artists’ books.

Leaf from the St Albans Bible auctioned at Christie’s on 10 July 2019

Erik Kwakkel has a piece at his blog entitled Breaking Bad: The Incomplete History of the St Albans Bible. In 1964 Philip Duschnes, a New York rare book dealer paid $1,500 for a Bible produced in early-fourteenth-century Paris. Starting in his 1965 catalog he began offering individual leaves cut from the book. He seems to have done quite a bit of business in this mode, as of course have lots of others. You can apparently still buy cut-out leaves from manuscript books on Ebay.

Maybe we need to apply different standards to manuscript books and print books? My objection is fundamentally that breaking up a book destroys the book (in the sense of content, not so much as physical object, though it obviously does that too). But I’d have to admit that no amount of cutting up of Bibles is going to get us close to any risk of losing the content. So maybe it’s better that lots of people should be able to frame a page from the St Albans Bible and display it on their wall than that yet another copy of the Bible should sit around, unopened, in an archive. Of course as Professor Kwakkel points out these pages being in private hands does prevent scholars from examining them.

Am I stumbling towards a principal that shutting up works of art, graphic art, inside a book is wrong? I’ve never felt enthusiastic about artists’ books — though one has to agree that artists have every right to express themselves in book form. If the artist has created a work of art which takes the physical form of a book, it must be wrong to chop out part of it. But if they didn’t create these engravings to live inside a book, I’m not sure that we need to respect the decision of some entrepreneur to offer them to us in that form. On the other hand, although cutting out leaves may bring some short-term income, it does at the same time reduce the value of your book. Mr Brown tells us that a complete edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America has sold for $8.8 million.

Does it make a difference that the St Albans Bible is a unique, manuscript, copy? Not sure it does — the bit of unique that’s significant refers to the text, I think. Tearing out pages and using them as kindling would be unambiguously wrong, but that’s not what’s going on here — Arctic explorers are unlikely to lug along with them medieval illuminated Bibles. It’s just the profit motive red in tooth and claw. In theory it might be possible to reassemble the St Albans Bible, though in practical terms this is obviously unlikely ever to happen. Once a leaf has fallen it risks being lost for all time.

Parenthetically I might add that, to me at least, the fact that a text has been made digitally available online does affect the case. Doesn’t make it right to chop up the book, but does make it less damaging.

Rottererdamsh Leeskabinet, K 1595. Photo: Arie Kers

Nelleke Moser has launched a blog about trompe l’oeil books: books handwritten in imitation of print books. Professor Moser requests information on any other examples beyond the seven shown on her blog.

These books tend to have been created in the 18th century Netherlands where writing masters and artists would produce them, perhaps as a kind of advertisement of their skill. As the illustration at the top — from Professor Moser’s blog — shows these tours de force often included depictions of random bits of paper lying in the book.

These are complete books, generally fairly short. Obviously there are lots of pretty convincingly trompe l’oeil representations of open books in early modern paintings.

My illustrated The Dynasts project was initially envisaged as such a project, but I found my hand just shook too much (just the normal pulsing of the blood, I insist) to enable me to trace ten or twelve point type without gross wobbles. Hint: start with a larger type size — if you have a good steady hand — but of course that then means you’ll have to use a huge sheet of paper to accommodate the enlarged page. Maybe we just have to defer to the extremely steady-handed.

In that context, I’m constantly amazed by the Glasgow craftsman creating repro-quality type with a paint brush in the first of the three videos at Engraving a halftone block.

Jan Tschichold, born Johannes Tzschichhold in Leipzig in 1902, was the son of a signwriter. He trained as a calligrapher, and started working for type foundries and printing companies. He was influenced by the Bauhaus and transformed his approach to a much more modernist line. His book Die neue Typographie: Ein Handbuch für zeitgemäß Schaffende, 1928, became an influential text in the new typography movement. But note, he didn’t do anything as old-fashioned as using that ß in the subtitle! In 1933 he and his wife were arrested as “cultural Bolshevists” by the Hitler government, but after six weeks they were able to escape to Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in Locarno in 1974.

When I started out in book publishing Jan Tschichold was Design Director of Penguin Books which was situated in Harmonsworth, just across the street from Heathrow: handy for commuting from Switzerland. I did once haul out there for a job interview — not with him though. Tschichold designed the typeface Sabon, a useful, serviceable old-style face: an example can be seen here. He was responsible for the clean uncluttered look of Penguins at that time exceptional among paperback lines. The covers were color coded: green meant mystery and dark blue biography for instance. In the picture the orange ones are all fiction, with the designers original rough at the right. There’s one travel book, red, second from the left. To me this is what Penguin books should look like. 

Tschichold was a notable innovator in book design, while at the same time an upholder of traditional typographical values and also a historian of the craft. He exploreded the means by which medieval scribes would come up with the perfect type area for their work which he thought of as the golden ratio. Here’s a slide from John Barrow’s Gresham College lecture from 2011, The Uses of Irrationality: Paper Sizes and the Golden Ratio.

Barrow’s commentary reads (though it does work better if you view it) “These are the sort of medieval counterparts of the considerations of our paper sizes, and here is a construction that Tschichold had reconstructed. He claimed that this was the way people tended to do this in ancient books, or how easy it would be to do it, if you wanted to do it systematically.

Here is a double page, and suppose the page width and height were each divided into ninths.  Then, by drawing this diagonal across to the corner of the page, and this diagonal here, and then the hypotenuse, okay, you can construct this rectangle over here. The centre of the circle allows you to draw a circle which touches so that its diameter is the page width, and its diameter is therefore a way to work out the text height to make sure it is the same as the page width.  So, the scalings that you have, because this is one-ninth of the height, this is one ninth of the width, this guarantees that you have two-ninths over here, one-ninth here, two-ninths at the bottom, one-ninth at the top.  So it is a simple, rough and ready way, on your double sheet of paper, to make sure that you have the grid size and the text area, rightly laid out. You can work out, rather simply, from these ratios the ratio of the page area to the text area, and it is just (3/2)2, so 9/4. “

Theory is of course one thing, practice another: you can take it that Tschichold’s Penguins did not feature a type area of the same dimension as the page width. Commerce demands compromise.

Tschichold wasn’t the only designer to seek to nail down the theory behind scribal page design. Wikipedia has a page on “Canons of page construction” which will walk you through all the other geometric mazes in this area. I wonder if all this post hoc analysis corresponds to any contemporary reality among medieval scribes. Scribes did draw lines on their parchment to guide their writing, and clearly made decisions as to where these lines began and ended, but I rather doubt that they got out compass and dividers to figure out angles etc. I suspect they just went with what looked good, and what had come to be accepted by the market. Still it’s all good fun to try to work out a master plan behind it all.

In this context The Medieval Helpdesk seems apt.

See also Margins justified, and Medieval page design.

There’s a bit of a flurry just now in the book-discussion universe about testing old books for their DNA. Parchment, being derived from animals, is of course going to have DNA in it: though I wonder what useful information it could give you about the book. Of course, as The Atlantic article which seems to have gotten this ball rolling tells us, the DNA research is really into matters other than bibliography. It’s just that old books provide a nice source of information for DNA researchers, and one which has lived for a long time in that protective environment which we know of as libraries. Turns out that you don’t even have to chop up a page to get a DNA sample: just using the residue from the act of rubbing the parchment with an eraser will provide enough DNA for testing.

For a more metaphorical DNA test we have to welcome “Story DNA Machine Learning”, the tool Wattpad plan to use in their publishing program. Well, it had to happen I guess: we are finally getting into the 21st century. Wattpad is establishing a publishing division and will use software, not fallible folks, to determine what books deserve publication. The New York Times tells us the ominous tale (link via Book Riot).

“Whereas traditional publishing is based on individual editors’ tastes, Wattpad’s technology will scan and analyze the hundreds of millions of stories on the app to find themes or elements that might determine a story’s commercial success.” Enough of these silly editors and their individual tastes! At last a way to overcome the inherent inability of editors to understand what’s good, and more importantly what it is that makes a bestseller! We have no alternative but to look forward to Wattpad’s inevitable success.

See also DNA ink, and DNA books.