Archives for category: Manuscripts

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.

This double page spread of the Bible of Yerevan (1338), on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Armenia! show, features an unusual image of the medieval artist at work.  At bottom left we see Sargis Pidzak painting the sponsor of the manuscript Catholicos Hakob II who is seen to the right of Pidzak in his official robes. Above him Saint Matthew is shown starting in on his gospel. (You can click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The manuscript was illuminated and partially written by Pidzak using ink, tempera, and gold on parchment. It normally lives at the Matenadaran, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia.

Mashtots at Matenadaran

Mesrop Mashtots was the inventor of the Armenian alphabet around 405 AD. His alphabet had 36 letters, but others have subsequently been added. There are some references to an Armenian alphabet prior to that, but no survivals have been discovered. The prototype for Mashtots’ alphabet is debated. According to Wikipedia, “Pahlavi [a Middle Iranian script] was the priestly script in Armenia before the introduction of Christianity, and Syriac, along with Greek, was one of the alphabets of Christian scripture. Armenian shows some similarities to both. However, the general consensus is that Armenian is modeled after the Greek alphabet.” Below is the ISO transliteration of the modern Armenian alphabet.

Bookbinder Jeff Peachey has a post about the Met exhibition with more pictures of books and book-related objects. The Armenia! exhibition closed on 19 January.

Another scribe may be seen at my earlier post Eadwine.

Erik Kwakkel sends us this picture of a 12th century letter Q, delivered by a happy, if thin, dog. As a Cap Q, it makes me think of dog quoits, predecessor of dog frisbee.

Erik Kwakkel’s blog medievalbooks has an informative post on the design and layout of medieval manuscript books, entitled Architecture of the Medieval Page. When you are looking at a richly illuminated book you have narrow your eyes to detect behind the text and illustrations surviving evidence of the indentations of the grid pattern the scribe would start off by ruling into the surface of the parchment. Later on a lead “pencil” would be used and these lines might subsequently be erased.

The grid pattern is especially obvious in these examples.

This is sort of like that ruled sheet you used to get in a pad of Basildon Bond letter-writing paper. If you stuck one of these behind a sheet of parchment though you wouldn’t be able to see through to it. I am in fact using just such a ruled sheet from my insane handwritten version of The Dynasts. (Not as much progress as should have been has been made on this since my last update. I took the last winter off for one reason or another. This has to be a seasonal activity: I don’t know if scribes were troubled by drops of sweat from their brows — but this is obviously incompatible with pen and ink production. Thus activity has to stop during the humid summer months in New York. I think it should be safe to start up again now.)

In Philadelphia there’s a nice handsome Georgian house on Delancey Place, a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square.

Here lived the Rosenbach brothers, one an antiques dealer, the other the biggest rare book dealer in the world.

The house (plus the building next door) has been turned into a fascinating small museum. In addition to furniture and pictures you can see bookcases full of rare books and manuscripts, with pages from some of them on display in a glass-topped display case. The manuscript of Ulysses, most of Conrad’s manuscripts, several Dickens originals, a Chaucer manuscript. There’s also a recreation of Marianne Moore’s living room in New York. Her complete library, with many personally inscribed and annotated books from her friends such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, is part of the Rosenbach collections as well as all of her correspondence and drafts of her poetry and unpublished memoirs.

Although much stuff has been deeded and donated to the museum subsequently, one almost gets the impression that the basis of the display may in fact be what was left unsold when the music stopped and these dealers in antiquities sloughed off their mortal coils.

Dr Abraham Rosenbach got into the book trade by hanging about in the antiquarian bookstore of his maternal uncle Moses Polock, and started book dealing while still an undergraduate. But what really established him as the go-to book dealer for the quality was the commission he got to build up the Widener collection after Henry Elkins Widener had gone down with the Titanic. The library Dr Rosenbach compiled formed the basis of the Widener Library at Harvard. Rosenbach also worked for Mr & Mrs Folger, J. P. Morgan, Henry Huntington.

The Library and Museum, which is affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation but independently run offers an interesting series of events, including Hands-On events which feature early editions and manuscripts, which obviously you can get really close to. Edward G. Pettit, Sunstein Manager of Public Programs at the Rosenbach, comes up with a varied list of activities. When we were there he let us see a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed (1640) in British North America. They had recently arranged for a concert featuring a choir singing psalms from the book. The Rosenbach also runs a Bibliococktails series, held almost every second Friday, which include light refreshments and themed cocktails provided by Quaker City Mercantile, as well as a rotation of activities such as readings, music, and games. So if you’re planning a weekend in Philly, book your place.

They have a blog, The Rosenblog, which often carries reports on their events, plus research activities and exhibitions. They welcome researchers: make an appointment.

Transcription Services Ltd., based on the Isle of Man, will make plain that old handwritten document that’s driving you mad because you can’t read it — after all it obviously must contain your patent of nobility or at least a claim on riches beyond  your wildest. As well as English documents they’ll tackle Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German or Dutch.

This seems like a fairly specialized business, and I hope the piece about them at Atlas Obscura will help drum up customers. Maybe they’re doing OK — they’ve done a bit of transcribing for the British Library.

Photo: Rosenbach Museum & Library

The first known printed bookplate, as Hyperallergic boldly claims, dates from 1480. You can see from the photo of that bookplate that this label, printed in black only and hand-colored, was pasted into a manuscript book.

Hilprand Brandenburg, clearly a 15th century early adopter, stuck at least 450 of these bookplates into volumes he donated to the Buxheim Carthusian monastery near Memmingen. The book illustrated is from the collection of The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, who last year organized a bookplate show called “The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present”. Probably because the exhibition closed in March 2017, the link in Hyperallergic‘s article no longer works. You can find the Rosenbach’s note about the exhibition here.

You’ve got to have some fairly valuable books, I’d think, to want to put a bookplate in them. Of course in the early days of book production books were exactly that: rather expensive, thus valuable objects. Sticking a bookplate in a mass market paperback would surely make you look slightly foolish.

Apparently as a security device the bookplate was preceded by book curses, often added to a manuscript as by the scribe an awful warning. Here’s an example from Bibliomania and the Medieval Book Curse: “Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged.” That should do it. Of course chaining the book to the shelf was another satisfactory security method.

Link to Hyperallergic‘s story thanks to Kathy Sandler.

See also Plates/inserts.

Atlas Obscura provides a gallery of neat fixes to tears and holes in parchment. The team of artist and scribe who did this one were obviously an amusing pair. The guy looks like he’s cranking an old car.

We live today in a throw-away society and this makes this sort of meticulous repair work utterly incomprehensible. Who has the time? I guess we should be happy that the value of human life, as expressed in wages, has gone up relative to commodities.

See also Parchment.

We’re all perhaps aware that scribes writing manuscripts, especially on parchment, had (have) the ability to erase errors simply by scraping the ink off the writing surface. Unamazingly, traces of the original remain even after a correction has been overwritten. This often involved the erasure of entire manuscripts so that the parchment could be reused for another book. The word palimpsest (from the Greek meaning, apparently, scraped again) floats back into the memory. Several ancient works are known only as palimpsests; we only know the work from a copy overwritten with a different text. Wikipedia has a list of examples.

This excellent YouTube video from the Getty Museum shows all the steps involved in creating a manuscript, including a brief scene showing the erasing of a letter by use of a pen knife (the origin of whose name becomes obvious as you watch this film). If you see no video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Mental Floss brings the story of this recently discovered palimpsest. High-powered X-rays reveal this erased text, which you can just see with the naked eye was in fact there. Ten hours of processing for each of the 26 pages may well be worth while if it yields a new book we’ve never seen before.

In olden days scholars strained their eyes trying to read this sort of stuff. We now have the help of no end of sci-tech whizzbangery. Below is a Library of Congress image showing the revealing  via hyperspectral imaging of an overwritten section of a letter by Alexander Hamilton.