Archives for category: Manuscripts

Ever cringed at the sight of someone licking their thumb in order to flick over the pages of a library book? Or their own book, for that matter? Or maybe even just the thought of unwashed sweaty fingers is enough to keep you away from the public library. We keep getting told how there’s a whole mass of sloughed-off skin cells lurking in our bedding: I even got an email the other day proposing to sell me a product which would help me to get rid of them! Well, even without thumb-licking we cannot avoid leaving our personal traces all over any book we read. (You’ve never found a hair in a gutter?) I try to comfort myself that the effects of such traces wear off after a few days and will be gone by the time I borrow the book, but of course that’s nonsense. Don’t get too upset though — this is true of anything we handle, so don’t stop reading. Maybe wash your hands more often as instructed by the CDC while singing Happy Birthday twice through.

Proteomics is the study of proteins — and as proteins tend to survive better than much genetic material they are an important source of knowledge about ancient DNA. Paleoproteomics is the result. It’s not about Jurassic-Park-like dinosaur cloning — proteomics can potentially reveal information about ancient peoples and artifacts.

Of course it’s hard to get hold a bit of any ancient relic in order to grind it up and subject it to testing. Matthew Collins, Professor of Palaeoproteomics in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (happy to see the Cambridge archaeology department is still out front on the science of archaeology), emphasizes how difficult it is for conservators to yield up for testing any tiny bit of their unique charges, and this obviously slows down the analysis of ancient materials. In order to obtain samples for analysis Professor Collins makes use of the rubbings that conservators routinely make with erasers when they are cleaning their charges. “Since 2011, Collins has used the rubbings to gather biological information about medieval European cattle, sheep, and goats.”

Professor Collins is quoted in a New Yorker piece (referenced by Emma Smith: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022) describing the work of Pier Giorgio Righetti and Gleb Zilberstein on testing old manuscripts for what biological evidence they might retain. But of course it doesn’t just have to be manuscript you test: “In 2015, researchers at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., swabbed the gutter of a Bible from 1637 and found DNA belonging to at least one Northern European, who had acne.” Kissing the bible was not uncommon behavior (probably still is) among the committed: traces of proteins from drips from medieval lips and noses have been detected on the tenth century York Gospels. Learning that, if you’re upset about skin cells in your bedding (or worse bedbugs in library books), you’re probably never going to open any second-hand book again. But it’s obvious that such research can potentially yield fascinating information about who’s handled a particular book. Presumably, for instance, we might be able to prove just how much attention Samuel Richardson actually paid to Lady Bradshaigh’s annotations of Clarissa by finding his dabs all over it. Or finding traces of the sweat of Ezra Pound’s brow all over the manuscript of “The Wasteland” could be interesting — more interesting if it was some other poem I suppose.

Confronting the testing = destruction problem, Zilberstein has adapted a food packaging ethylene-vinyl-acetate film to pick up a range of chemicals from old and valuable objects without damaging them. Finding morphine all over Michael Bulgakov’s manuscripts may not be too earth-shattering, since we kind of knew he was addicted, but a second test “picked up twenty-nine human proteins, mostly from sweat and saliva, including three biomarkers of the renal disease that killed Bulgakov, in March, 1940.”

The Folger research referenced above comes from their Project Dustbunny, described here in Washingtonian. That test took place in 2015 and inaugurated the project.

Dustbunny involves going through the books swabbing the gutter margin: presumably not every gutter of every book. The dust thus recovered is stored in a bio-archive, where it will sit until it can be scientifically analyzed. Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts says “It’s not just a collection of texts but this biological archive that we need to preserve for future research we can’t even conceive of.” Professor Collins has been advising the Library on how they might best proceed with testing.


* Always a bit risky to embark on the explication of a pun: but my title is a bit of a pun. The word “reading”, as well as its obvious sense, is also the British term more or less equivalent to what in America we mean by “majoring in”.

One day all books were manuscript books, mostly written on parchment/vellum, but with a growing number on paper; then the next day there were printed books too. We probably need to keep in mind that “book” meant something a little different from what you’re used to finding in a bookstore today. Printers and scribes produced pages, not books. Better-off customers would take their purchase to a bookbinder and have it put between covers. Often what went between the covers was not exactly the sort of thing we’d expect to see in a modern-day bookstore. Just see for instance the first “book” printed in Scotland which I wrote about the other day. Gifted in 1788 to The Advocate’s Library, the book contains seventeen different “books”. Many a “book” would in fact be what we’d think of as a pamphlet*. Take my program for the 1987 Braw Lads’ Gathering, an 80-page, wire-stitched booklet, mostly filled with ads. When did it become a book, if indeed it ever did? When I put it onto a shelf in a bookcase, thus treating it as an item to be saved? When it became a container of historical information rather than a program of events? Certainly if I had had it bound up with other items, it’d be an unambiguously bona fide book.

Whatever the product may have looked like, the addition of printing to the universe of book production increased output massively. Over the centuries scribes had tended to move out of the monasteries and into a world where more general work was available. Consider the pecia system: in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries university bookstores came up with the bright idea of renting to students four-page sections of “textbooks” which the students would copy, often in multiple copies, then return. Diligent students would end up with the entire book written in their own handwriting.

Paul M. Dover tells us in his The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press 2021, pp 167-8) “One set of estimates has put the number of manuscript books produced in Western Europe in the twelfth century at 769,000, rising to 1.761 million in the thirteenth, 2.746 million in the fourteenth, and 4.999 million in the fifteenth.”

“. . . the technology of the printing press meant a great many more books in circulation. An estimate of five million manuscripts produced in Western Europe in the fifteenth century, became 12.56 million printed books for the period 1454-1500, 215.9 million for the sixteenth century, and 518.64 million for the seventeenth century. The printing press was not the sole reason for this spectacular rate of increase — growing prosperity, urbanization, and literacy all played a role — but these numbers suggest, quite simply, an altogether different world of books.”

The location of these books also began to change with the availability of cheaper, printed versions. Whereas the majority of medieval manuscript books were destined for ecclesiastical settings, printed books became more broadly distributed. Professor Dover references research by Henri-Jean Martin who studied book ownership in Valencia from 1474 to 1550, and “found that nine out of ten ecclesiastics owned a book, three-quarters of all professionals, one-half of aristocrats, one-third of all merchants, one-seventh of textile workers, and one-tenth of manual workers”. This balance moved heavily away from the ecclesiastical end of the scale during subsequent years. Most impressive to me is that ten percent of manual workers owned at least one book. That, and the textile workers in the list too, put me in mind of the subscription library picture in a nineteenth-century wool town, which I wrote about recently.

Another problem with research into these sorts of issues is that the older the book, the more likely it is to have been lost to us. This would be especially true of cheaper books, less formal volumes such as almanacs, diaries, catalogs and so on: the sort of thing which might have been more likely to have been owned by a poorer person. David McKitterick’s research shows us that of all the sheet almanacs printed at Cambridge University before 1640 (and he estimates over 30,000 of them were printed in the years 1631-33 alone) only a single, partial copy survives. Having scribbled on them users would throw them away and move on to the next issue.†

The arrival of the printing press did not mean that people stopped writing out books — quite the contrary. Not only were there traditionalists, like the King of Hungary and the Duke of Urbino, who insisted on maintaining their libraries in print-free form and kept providing employment for (a few) scribes, but people would heavily annotate their printed (cheaper) books, treating them almost as a venue for a conversation between author and reader, often copying extensive alternative “chapters” into their copy of a book. Some types of book survive more in hand-written form than in their printed version — for example subversive political tracts from Stuart times. Galileo (1564-1642) sought to evade the censor by “publishing” some of his works in manuscript form, with multiple copies circulating simultaneously in a methodology reminiscent of the samizdat of Soviet times.

I myself own three in-progress manuscript books. My Book of Books, a Commonplace Book and my on-going illustrated version of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. La lutte continue.

From script to print always struck me as a really good book title. Henry Chaytor, Master of St Catharine’s College used it for his 1945 Introduction to Medical Literature. Through the joys of on-line access and print-on-demand the book is still available.


* Strange word for a booklet when you start to think about it. Derives from the 12th century Latin amatory poem or comedy Pamphilus de amore, a work which was often copied as a little booklet. According to The Oxford English Dictionary the word arrived in English via Middle French. Their earliest quote, from 1415 is this dedication by Thomas Hoccleve to his poem Balade to Edward, Duke of York, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “Go, dumb-born book”,

Go, litil pamfilet, and streight thee dresse
Vnto the noble rootid gentillesse
Of the myghty prince of famous honour,
My gracious lord of York, to whos noblesse
Me recommande with hertes humblesse,
As he þat haue his grace and his fauour
Fownden alway, for which I am dettour
For him to preye, and so shal my symplesse
Hertily do vnto my dethes hour.

† In a fit of entrepreneurial zeal I produced such a single sheet calendar for university use in the early ’70s. I did manage to persuade Heffers to take enough of them at a price which covered my costs, but no-one could regard the publication as a success of the 1630s variety.

“In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3,500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate ‘bake-metes and dish-metes . . . peynted and castelled with papir’ in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest – hundreds of thousands of sheets – was writing paper.”

Tom Johnson, in his London Review of Books review of Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions by Orietta Da Rold (Cambridge University Press, 2020), continues “Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England”. (Link via LitHub.) The point here (well, my point anyway) is that demand for paper skyrocketed long before printing à la Gutenberg got going in the 1450s. One might almost suggest that the revolution in printing was a response to the demand for paper and all the things you could do with paper, rather than the opposite. The other point is that in medieval Britain nobody much saw the need for paper: they had parchment.

Paper had been invented in the second century BCE in China, and by the fourth century CE its use there was widespread. Paul M. Dover informs us in his fascinating The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (CUP, 2021) “During the late sixth century the civil service of the Sui Dynasty provided one emperor with 300,000 paper copies of an edict condemning an imperial rival”. This far eastern origin was known in Europe when paper arrived there: what was glossed over when it arrived in the West was the fact that it came via the Islamic world where it had importantly been adapted to use rags as its raw material. After the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols paper making in the Middle East largely shut down, and they began importing paper from Italy. Spain was another early source of European paper. When Toledo was “liberated” by the Christians in 1085 they found a paper mill working away there.

Although parchment held the field in Europe, it was expensive, and this tended to militate against any kind of casual use. In 1471 the Innsbruck imperial court bought 86 sheets of paper for the same price as a single sheet of parchment, and as time went by the price differential got worse. Expensive stuff: fine for the laws of the country — Britain’s parliament only decided to stop writing its laws on parchment in 2016 — but lousy for shopping lists, letters, aide memoires or any other less formal usage. Parchment has also the advantage/disadvantage that it’s easy to scrape off a typo and write in a new word. Ink gets absorbed into the fibers of paper, and thus becomes a more reliable witness to the original condition of things. For legal, financial, business and government documents this was by no means a disadvantage.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ushered in a frenzy of note taking, and partly because there was finally something on which you could write a note without sacrificing a lamb. Much of the initiative came from bankers and merchants, who realized that as their business grew so did their personal memory become less and less adequate for the facts they needed to retain. Writing notes, once paper became available, could become an obsession. Herman Weinsberg (1518-97), a Cologne lawyer, became a sort of life blogger avant la lettre: his Gedenkbuch in three volumes was a sort attempt to record everything that happened to him and his family. “In less than eight months, Weinsberg filled more than 700 folio pages with anecdotes from his earlier years; he described his own habit of daily writing as like being a fish in water”. People wrote letters, made memoranda, wrote diaries, drew up accounts, listed topics to be dealt with that day, and did all the sorts of things you can imagine doing with paper yourself. The Chinese had even had toilet paper for at least half a millennium by then.

Parchment’s demise may in the end have been hastened by the development of printing: the inks required to adhere to metal types were less successful in adhering to parchment than they were with paper — and of course paper by then was so much cheaper. 

This color list comes from A Book on Heraldry by John Guillim (1566-1621) at the Folger Library and is discussed in a Collation post.

Caption: List of colors for limning in Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47v. Blewes: Vltra marine, Blewe byce, Smalte, Litmose, Inde blewe, English Inde, florye
Greenes: Severe greene, Greene byce, Verditer, Verdigrece, Sape greene, flowrdeluce greene
Yellowes: Masticot, Orpiment, Generall, Saffron, Berry yellow, Oker de Rowse, or Spanish ocker
Reddes: Vermilion, Redleade, Synaper lake, Roset, Synaper Toppes
Sangwines: Sanguis Draconis, Turnsole
Brownes: Spanish browne, Bole Armoriak, Oker burnte
Whites: Ceruse white, White leade, Spanish white, Chalke
[Blacks]: Lampblacke, Smythes Cole, Cherry stone, Blacke Chalke

Here’s the recipe for flowrdeluce (fleur de lis: iris) greene:

Gather your fflorredeluces ffortnight before mydsummer & havinge
a faire glasse in redynesse gather your flowres when the
deawe is of them, & that the svnne hath somwhat bleached
Then take the blewe leaves & purple leaves & nippe
it from the stalke, takinge no parte of the flowre, but
only of the fairest of the blewe & of the purple. Let your
glasse be wyde mowthed, & put your fflowres therinto
Lett your fflowres be full blown before you gather them
gatheringe asmany as you can get, for many of them make
but a little Color. You must stoppe your glasse contynually very
close settinge it in a shadowe place, lest the force of the
Sune drye vp the moisture therof. And so keepinge them
fast stopped let them consvme & rotte tyll they become water
& the liquor a darke greene. Then strayne it through in lynen

So off you go a-gathering. If you’ve collected your Folium too, you’ve now got blue and green. You’ve got plenty of warning — mark your calendar for two weeks before midsummer, and off you go a-gathering. If you’ve collected your Folium too, you’ve now got blue and green.

Trinity College Library sends us a detailed account of the conservation of a damaged manuscript pocket Bible. The parchment was so degraded by mould and moisture and the binding so tight that the book could hardly be opened without falling apart. Some repairs to the parchment involved straightening out little bent bits, and this was done with moisture and tweezers. In some instances it sufficed for the conservator to use just their breath to dampen the damaged spot using a straw to direct it.

The damage shown above was repaired by reconstituting the parchment. “The parchment leaves were consolidated and repaired with 2.5-3.5mm dots of remoistenable tissue cut with a Japanese screw punch and applied with very fine tweezers under magnification.” In spite of the conservators success in repairing the parchment it was judged that the leaves remained too fragile to be rebound into a book, or even to be turned in the normal way, so they were preserved as individual leaves placed between oversize pages of archival paper gathered into quires.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Each repaired quire was bound as a paper-covered pamphlet and the whole bible is now stored in a box designed to hold the whole thing under slight pressure when closed.

Trinity College conservator Edward Cheese tell us “The conserved manuscript has been photographed and can be read in the Wren Digital Library. Those interested in the collation determined during the disbinding can view the diagrams.”

The whole process took three years to complete. It is inspiring to reflect that we live in a world where we can afford to do such work.

“thus passing the time” from a book printed by Wynken de Worde, 1495

We are all familiar with & and @, but we have to remember that manuscript scribes worked out many more abbreviations, partly to speed up transcription no doubt, but probably mainly to save space on fairly expensive parchment. Early printers aimed to make their products look as much as possible like the manuscripts which had all the prestige in the late 15th century, so they brought over all these features into their hot metal composition.

The Collation provides a comprehensive list of brevigraphs including 37 items. They make the obvious point that most brevigraphs look utterly confusing to us just because we are not familiar with them. Reflect: only a few years ago the meaning of @ and # were not altogether obvious to many of us.

Not sure whether there’s any significance to this, but the word brevigraph does not appear in The Oxford English Dictionary. Nor does it under its alternative spelling breviograph. Does this imply that the word is a fairly recent creation? I suspect we can assume that scribes didn’t swap ideas for new contractions using the word brevigraph.

Hyperallergic reviews and presents pictures from a new book, Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Joshua O’Driscoll, published by D Giles Limited. The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York has an exhibition under the same name which continues through January 23, 2022. Here’s a promotional video with many book views:

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. At the link above you can follow the Morgan’s “Explore the Exhibition” link which takes you through many books with explanation and illustration.

I can’t imagine reading a manuscript book like the ones you can see in this exhibition: they are certainly beautiful, but overwhelmingly so. How could you risk touching such a thing, even if you were a Prince-Elector or even an Emperor. In the end the piece which impressed me most was this little drawing preparatory for an engraving: even someone as skilled as this draftsman would not disdain the grid pattern as an aid to the enlargement and transfer of a little picture.

Manicule just means little hand in Latin. And it is just a little hand. The pointing forefinger ☛ (index* in Latin) was originally used as a way to annotate your book to point out bits you had thought important — “Just look at this!”

Here’s a little red one in the right hand margin:

Keith Houston’s Shady Characters shows and tells

A hyper-dextrous manuscript manicule. He even seems to be using his pinkie to scratch his wrist.

Whether scribes writing out old manuscripts copied the manicules added by readers because they understood their job as to follow the copy text out of the window, or whether in some cases they may have added them themselves as a sort of rough and ready textual commentary is impossible to know, but when we came to printing, manicules were well-established, and were carefully carried over into the world of hot-metal typesetting. The aim of the earliest printers was to make their wares as close to indistinguishable from there prestigious manuscript versions as the could. Until the eighteenth century manicules were very common in book work. I suspect their popularity waned as the craft turned more and more into a business. Manicules usually need to be set out in the margin, which means surrounding them with non-printing spaces, as well as requiring a bit more paper. Today they are vanishingly rare, though you can (inevitably) buy fonts which include manicules pointing in all directions.

Just look at all those shiny spaces. Someone has to fit them all.

I Love Typography has an illustrated piece outlining the history of the manicule’s early use in print.


* The OED tells us, under its entry on Index “1727 W. Mather Young Man’s Compan. (ed. 13) 38   Index is a Note like a Hand, with the Forefinger pointing out at something that is remarkable, thus ☛.” So manicule does tie in with indexing — both aids to navigation.

The National Trust for Scotland alerts us to the sale of the contents of the Honresfield Library, which it had been assumed for over a century had been lost. The library was due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in July, but the sale’s being delayed so that a group of national charities can get their ducks (and ducats) in line to “save” the library for the nation. The collection of books and manuscripts was formed at the end of the 19th century by William Law (1836-1901), a Rochdale mill-owner living at Honresfield, a few miles from Haworth in Yorkshire, and has been quietly maintained by his descendants. His brother Alfred seems also to have had a hand in forming the collection. Given the location of Honresfield (do you think it’s pronounced Honor’s field?) it’s unsurprising that there are Brontë manuscripts in the collection. Reporting on the Sotheby’s sale announcement which prompted all this action, Fine Books Magazine tells us “Treasures include an extremely rare handwritten copy of Emily’s poems, with revisions from Charlotte (est. £800,000-1,200,000) and the well-loved Brontë family copy of Bewick’s History of British Birds, the book made famous in the opening pages of Jane Eyre (est. £30,000-50,000), brimming with entertaining annotations from their father Patrick.” 

Also included are manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Among the Burns manuscripts is collection of poems, notes and ideas put together by Burns when he was twenty-four. First Commonplace Book was last sold at Sotheby’s in 1879, for £10. (Presumably Mr Law was the buyer? Or maybe he got it from a dealer later on.)

Burns’ First Commonplace Book

Later: See Blavatnik Honresfield Library for the outcome of the appeal.

We all know papyrus — it’s in the Bible isn’t it? It’s a sort of paper used by ancient Egyptians, isn’t it? But we are probably all a little vague about what it actually is.

Well it’s made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus. Slice it thin, soak it, then lay out a double layer of strips at right angles to each other, press the resultant web to dry it, and there you have it, a sheet you can write on.

Open Culture, via Shelf Awareness for Readers, sends us this charming video story about papyrus. It takes you through all the steps of papyrus making and goes on to give a bit of history as well as a look at current (tourist-driven) demand.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

I discover I already wrote about papyrus four years ago: Papyrus, with a different video.