Archives for category: Manuscripts

I’d never really thought about it, but even back in medieval times when paper was being made by hand there were standard sheet sizes. These were no doubt less formal and rigid than today’s, but sheet sizes turn out to have grouped around certain popular sizes which played the role of standard sizes. After all you had to have moulds and deckles: these were reused time and again. If your customers got used to paper in these sizes, neighboring paper makers would tend to conform to the same or closely similar sizes.


The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania has created the Needham Calculator, a tool for calculating sheet size of manuscripts. Enter a few details and bang, bang, there are the dimensions of the original sheet. The Penn Libraries blog describes the tool and its rationale.


Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’. Photo: British Library

It is only in the sixteenth century that carole became explicitly associated with Christmas. Prior to that carole, a borrowing from the French, had meant a sort of ring-dance, and by extension the songs which might be sung while doing the dance. Publishing Cambridge links us to this post from The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, which sets out the story and shows several early examples.

In 1967 Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Hymnal, notable (among other things no doubt) as being the place where Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” was first published.

We recognize the term Book + as referring to things like a book for tweens shrink-wrapped with a cheapo plastic bracelet or similar. It’s a book plus a gift. No doubt the main source for this sort of thing remains Hong Kong where not only do you have access to cheap printing, but also access to the mass production of chachkies which Chinese industry churns out. I still periodically get a catalog from an importer offering every cheap gift item you could image, and then a lot more. Books plus tend to reach the market more through special sales, though you might find some in bookshops.

Book + might however have a longer, if slightly different history when we look at these books + tools produced in medieval times. These books incorporate things like spinning arrows which you can turn to point at a part of the printed page. These had to be mounted to a hole made in the paper or parchment, and secured on the other side of the page. We all think of hand work utterly beyond any reasonable budget, but this of course is because we have developed a powerfully efficient book manufacturing industry. Hand work on a page by page basis is almost unimaginable to the modern production manager. However, if you are hand writing a manuscript, adding a bit more one-off stuff isn’t much of a gear shift. Erik Kwakkel shows us several examples.

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century)

The nearest we get to this sort of thing nowadays is pop-up books, but these rely on paper folding tricks. Pop-up books do have to be mass produced, and every cunning trick, while often very cunning, has to be producible by machine with minimal hand work.


LATER: This piece from Atlas Obscura showing the use of flaps in early medical books is also relevant here.

folio 15 recto after restoration

folio 15 recto after restoration

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge provides this step-by-step account of the restoration of one of their manuscript volumes, MS 251, a copy of the encyclopaedia Livre des proprietés des choses. This manuscript was produced in Paris in 1414 and illuminated by one of the leading artists of the day, the Master of the Mazarine Hours.

The link above takes you to the Introductory page. On the left are links taking you to the other parts of the story. They lead you through disbinding, flattening out and repairing the pages, reassembling the book, sewing and rebinding it, cutting the wooden boards and covering the book, including making a box to contain it along with the old binding they had just removed. These links also appear in sequence at the foot of each page.


Note that this Gothic type of binding over wooden boards has a secondary set of head and tail bands sewn into the covering material, not attached to the book block itself as in modern binding.

If you hang a painting in the sunlight, you will notice its colors fading almost before your eyes. The yellows go first, then the reds, leaving you with a strangely blue landscape. It’s hard to know what the colors in ancient painting really looked like because time has faded them, even if they’ve never actually sat in direct sunlight. The Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition “Colour” aims to show us medieval colors as their creators intended them; as seen in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition goes on till the end of this year. It is almost overwhelming: you tend to get a bit blasé about so many beautiful works coming at you one after the other. But stop and look closely at just one and you can see what scientific cunning, skill and artistry went into its creation. One thing that struck me is just how small many of the books are, and consequently how finicky the detailed work was that went into illuminating them.


This page from The Macclesfield Psalter measures about 4¼” by 6½”. On one of the manuscripts (not this one) I noticed that the illuminator clearly considered the space left for him by the scribe to be inadequate as he’d allowed the illumination to extend over the ascenders of the script. You could still read the text, but with some difficulty.




The Fitzwilliam has the largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in any museum, and they have done a great job of displaying 150 of them here. Under the terms of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s bequest many of their manuscripts may never leave the museum. The lighting is low: one of the reasons so many illuminated manuscripts have survived so bright and vivid is that they live inside books which have spent most of their lives closed and protected from the light.

The Museum has also produced a site, Illuminated: Manuscripts in the making which provides even more information than was available on display, including multiple pages from some of the manuscripts. As their About page says “ILLUMINATED invites you to view multiple images within each manuscript, zoom in on details, discover drawings hidden beneath the painted surfaces, learn about the pigments and the advanced scientific methods used for their identification, and explore the relationships between scribes, artists and original owners.” Click on the Lab tab and you’ll get to find all the technical details. One might spend hours at this site. For the enthusiast, the catalog of the exhibition is available for £30 from Harvey Miller Publishers, an imprint of Brepols.



ChghANOWwAEBYFUAccording to a tweet from Sophie Reinders, this account book from the House of Borghese weighs 60 kilograms. It is housed in the Vatican Archives. Thank you Erik Kwakkel for retweeting.

I guess one shouldn’t really complain that it’s mousetrapping.


The reference to my manuscript project in my recent post on Blotting paper, prompts me to make a progress report on this effort.

As mentioned in Camera lucida, I am transcribing and illustrating Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts (1903-1908). This is no trivial undertaking: the printed edition runs to 707 pages! For those who don’t have it on their bed-side table for constant reference, The Dynasts is, as its title page announces, An Epic-Drama of the War with Napoleon, in Three Parts, Nineteen Acts, and One Hundred and Thirty Scenes. The Time Covered by the Action Being About Ten Years. My motivation for this slightly crazy project is set out in that earlier post. I am beavering away. My hope that I could copy the text using the camera lucida has been frustrated. The hammering of the pulse is too much for the detail required for small type, so I have resorted to an italic script. I have just worked my way past Nelson’s death at Trafalgár, as we still pronounced it in Hardy’s day. Here’s my depiction of a pub discussion of the return of Nelson’s body, a voyage more fully described in this story from Atlas Obscura. In a slightly obnoxious convention Hardy has his common-man characters talk in prose, not verse like everyone else. I have passed the death of Nelson, resisting the temptation to allow a fake tear to smudge the ink, and am on to Austerlitz and page 177 of the original edition. I keep seeing Prince Andrey Bolkonsky lying there gripping his banner.


Although I can’t use the camera lucida app for the text, I am making pretty extensive us of it for the illustrations. I initially draw these in situ in pencil using a specially-made jig on which I place the iPad. I then go over the drawing using a 0.25mm Stano technical pen which I am also using for running heads, character names, and stage directions. At my current rate of progress I should be done in about four years, though I did redo the entire first 90 pages last fall, so maybe three years will see me through. I had been doing it double-sided on sheets of 60# Mohawk which a bindery had supplied me, along with a promise to bind up the resultant volume for me. In the end I decided I couldn’t ask them to do so, especially as it looked like it might end up as a 3-volume set, so I restarted in a blank dummy copy of Volume 1 of The Oxford English Dictionary which I had salvaged from office-cleaning routines. There I am using one side of the page only as the paper is thinner and there’s too much show-through to back things up. I have (I think and hope) got more than enough pages in this volume.

Jeremy writes to tell me that parliament is rumored to have found funds for this self-evidently essential archive material. We are all no doubt still puzzling over how it can be that any government anywhere in the world can manage to function without the use of parchmentThe Guardian has a report that the Cabinet Office may be going to cough up the money to preserve the parchment regime.

Here’s a link to the manufacturer, William Cowley & Co. Ltd, of Newport Pagnell, who are unsurprisingly keen that tradition should be upheld in this area at least. The possible loss of an annual order worth £47,000 might also have an understandable part in their attitude. They have a little video showing part of the manufacturing process:

There’s a video with a more thorough examination of the process at the same factory at my earlier post on Parchment.

Here is Parliament’s own take on the subject. Looks like they are running behind in their revision process, as there’s no mention of any change to archival paper. Their headline is a bit misleading: what they really meant to say I think is “From manuscript to print” — their note is determinedly historical and only deals with the switch in 1850 from hand writing on parchment rolls, to printing in parchment codices. Their real problem would seem to me to be printing a sizable book in an edition of two, rather than printing on this or that substrate.

Maybe I should admit that my use of the word vellum in the heading of my recent post may have been inaccurate. I think what we are talking about in the case of parliament is actually parchment, though the whole situation remains a little murky. Calf is mentioned in the video, but so is sheep skin. But maybe the calf skins are what’s used for the parliamentary order. Who knows?

I asked a year ago if Parliament really could still be recording UK laws on vellum. Apparently the answer was yes, because here is Quartz to tell us that in February they passed law to cease doing so. I guess that’ll mean the last law recorded on vellum will be the law to stop doing so.

Knowing as we do that Wang word processing discs from last century are inaccessible to us now, Quartz‘s parting shot that even the longevity of vellum, at an overestimated (?) 5,000 years, is tiny compared to that of electronic media, seems unnecessarily hubristic.


It makes some sort of superficial sense to measure type in ems. Usually ‘m’ is the widest character in our alphabet, though ‘w’ is probably almost always just as wide and occasionally wider. Once you’ve fixed on ‘m’, for whatever reason, though, ‘n’ comes up as an obvious half unit: ‘m’ looks like two upside down ‘u’s while ‘n’ is one. Leave aside the fact that one has three legs and the other two — the upside down pockets justify you in claiming ‘n’ is half of ‘m’. But of course it isn’t. Just measure them. You could of course find a quirky typeface which did have ‘n’s that were exactly half of the ‘m’, but mostly this won’t be the case.

These reflections are prompted by an exchange on the SHARP listserv. Frank E. Blokland has a learned and detailed post about measuring ems. The discussion was started by someone asking how one might calculate the number of ems in a book. (I hope I don’t have to go into this here. The bare bones can be worked out from my earlier post, though as someone on the listserv commented, why would anyone want to do this!) Much of the scholarly discussion has started from the assumption that there is some rational basis for measuring in ems. I suspect that nothing of the sort is actually the case. In the early days of print there was no standardization in type. One printer’s ‘e’ might look like this and another’s like that. In the course of time type began to be a bit more standardized: all the printers in town might buy their type from the same type founder, and then all their ‘e’s would be identical. But people in another town or country would be buying theirs from a different founder, and their type design and proportions might be entirely different. It’s not like someone came down from Mount Sinai or Mount Nurem and announced “God saith, behold, this shall be unto you an em; and this eke shall be your en. And the Lord thy God saith let there be two ens unto every em.” The fact that when Johannes Gutenberg talked about an em he had in mind something which may have been a millimeter wider or narrower than what Aldus Manutius had in mind when he referred to one is neither here nor there. They were close enough, and that was fine for discussion and for getting the job done. [I should perhaps say that I have no idea whether Aldus’ em was or was not identical to anyone else’s. All that matters is that there was no God-given or man-made reason why it should be.]

I suspect that printer’s nomenclature grew up in a fairly informal workplace-culture environment. We’ve all worked in offices: co-workers will refer to things in a sort of in-group jargon. Early print workers had no concern for what researchers 5¾ centuries later would think. So, if they would call a big space an em, and one half its size an en, Hinz in the corner wouldn’t shout out “But you can’t say that; an ‘n’ isn’t exactly half as wide as an ‘m’, lads”. Nobody would waste their time measuring anything with any precision: they were there to set type and print pages, and if they’d all called a big space a Wienerwurst, they’d all still have been able to throw you one when you needed it. And that was all that would be needed. So they called it after the letter ‘m’. I hesitate to tell serious academics not to waste their time looking for any more rational answer, but I do doubt there’s one to be found.

The_Witch_posterBut why did they chose ‘m’ rather than ‘w’ — they are both similar in width? And half of a ‘w’, the ‘v’ does echo the m/n relationship — rather better actually as a ‘w’ is just two ‘v’s, without that duplicated middle leg issue. I wonder if there’s any relevance in the fact of the letters’ pronunciation. Both ‘m’ and ‘n’ are pronounced alike in English, French, German, and Dutch, while ‘v’ and ‘w’ sound quite different. Still one can hardly imagine Hinz and his colleagues deciding against a “fvow” space on the grounds that people in other countries might be confused, while “en” would be internationally comprehensible! The fact that we call it “double-u” while the French have it as “double-v” may also have some relevance.* Obviously the French have the edge over Anglo-Saxons here, since ‘w’ does look like two ‘v’s. But hang on a minute: when you learned to write you were taught to form a ‘w’ as two joined-up ‘u’s. So can it really be the case that ‘w’ got its name in Britain under a scribal-based, manuscript regime, while  in France it was named after a print-based picture? Of course ‘w’ doesn’t feature much in French and other Romance languages, so they wouldn’t really have needed to invent a name for it till later on when the French Academy was no longer able to keep out foreign loan words. Anyway, I assume, the nomenclature started in Germany. If you look at Fraktur type (Wikipedia shows the alphabet) you can see that ‘v’ and ‘w’, while obviously related, are not a double act in the intimate way that ‘m’ and ‘n’ are.

But this makes me wonder whether calculating things in “ems” may have originated in the scribal world, and was just taken over by printers. Now there’s something academic researchers could get their teeth into! Personally I doubt it. Again, working from complete lack of specialized knowledge and using my common-sensical methodology, I say it would seem unlikely that workers would start to talk in terms of standard units of measurement until there was something there to measure. A lump of type invites you to think about each character as a unit in a way that a line of handwritten script doesn’t. Also I’d say the evidence points to scribes being paid by the project or the job: why, if you were being paid by the em or the letter would you devise an array of abbreviations which seem to appear in manuscripts mainly as a means of saving the scribes time and wrist power? (As well of course as saving rather expensive raw materials.)

Why should it be troublesome that em and en remain slightly slippery, imprecise terms until Apple plumped on a precise definition? The system worked.



* The Oxford Dictionaries site tells us — “English uses the Latin alphabet of the Romans. However, this had no letter suitable for representing the speech sound /w/ which was used in Old English, though phonetically the sound represented by /v/ was quite close. In the 7th century scribes wrote uu for /w/; later they used the runic symbol known as wynn. European scribes had continued to write uu, and this usage returned to England with the Norman Conquest in 1066. Early printers sometimes used vv for lack of a w in their type. The name double-u recalls the former identity of u and v, which you can also see in a number of  words with a related origin, for example flour/flowerguard/ward, or suede/Swede. (Based on the Oxford Companion to the English Language)”