Archives for category: Manuscripts

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.

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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.

Photo BBC

Every schoolchild knows about The Domesday Book (at least every British schoolchild) but few know much about it or have ever seen it. Now we can all get the chance to examine it with its loan to the British Library where it will be part of their Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opens in October and runs through next March. The Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog carries the news.

The Domesday Book (yes, Domesday does mean Doomsday: it got its nickname because its decisions, like those of the last judgement, were said to be unalterable) contains the results of a survey ordered by William the Conqueror in 1085 to figure out what it was he’d conquered in England and Wales nineteen years previously, and most importantly how much in taxes could be milked from it. The parts of England not covered are by and large places exempt from taxes like London and Winchester, or which owed taxes to someone else (e.g. County Durham whose taxpayers remitted to the Bishop of Durham), and Cumberland and Westmoreland, which were not fully conquered by 1086 when the survey was completed. Domesday contains records about 13,418 places.

The book is actually in two volumes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday. Great Domesday was apparently written by a single hand. Little Domesday, which covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, is more detailed, listing assets down to the level of head of cattle. Both parts normally live at Kew in The National Archives whose website tells us that the books were actually rebound in the 1980s into five volumes in order to reduce the strains on the parchment pages in the fatter bindings. During the Second World War the books were evacuated to Shepton Mallet prison where they escaped the bombing but fortunately not the gaol. It’s not altogether clear whether one or all the volumes are now making the trip downtown. Both the Library and The Guardian consistently refer to it as “the book” so maybe it is the entire work that is being lent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never really thought about this, and obviously never stopped to read the text, but I discover that the text of most Books of Hours was basically standardized: a collection of prayers and readings from the Bible suitable to particular occasions, primarily the eight “hours” of the day: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, compline, and vespers. You can see the same words on these pages from two different books. All these Books of Hours look so different with their illumination, illustrations and background patterns that we just assume the text is different too: it’s hard to read after all! Christopher Hamel took the time to look, and has an interesting essay at AbeBooks. He points out that The Book of Hours may have been the only book owned by a lady, and that many children would have been taught to read from such a text.

The Book of Hours developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements from the Breviary into their devotional life. A typical book of hours contains a calendar of church feasts, an excerpt from each of the four gospels, the Little office of our Lady, 23 of the psalms, the litany of saints, an office for the dead, the hours of the cross, and other prayers. Variations on these contents would exist by region and time as Sandra Hindman in her Primer on Collecting Books of Hours points out, but we are talking minor variations on a well-established theme. Obviously the decoration and illustration would differentiate the books, no doubt corresponding to the owner’s social status, though of course none of these books would be for poor people. You’d need to be able to read to want one, even though the texts would be familiar to most people from their attendance at church.

Here’s a short video from the Getty Museum about the making of medieval books. It takes you from making your parchment, through writing and illustrating, up to binding the manuscript.

We know much of this stuff not because people have handed down the knowledge from generation to generation, but as a result of painstaking non-destructive research on old manuscripts themselves. Here, from Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, is a video introduction to MINIARE, Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis Research and Expertise, a project for scientific research into manuscript production.

If you don’t see two videos, please click on the title of this blog in order to view them in your browser. Beware: the sound is much louder on the first than on the second.

Codex is the word used to indicate that form of content holder which we think of as a book: a bunch of folded pages held together on one side and conventionally, but not necessarily, protected by some sort of cover. It can also be used to indicate a manuscript volume: The Codex Sinaiticus is a famous example. Indeed The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its single bookish definition, ignoring the folded book/not-scroll definition, which meaning has presumably evolved in the last century or so, maybe as a result of the growth of book history as an academic subject: this OED entry is one of those not revised since 1891. They cite a listing of recipes for medicines as their only other non-obsolete meaning for codex. My school Latin dictionary (published by Cassell & Co. in 1927) gives “codex, codicis, m, = caudex, trunk of a tree; a book, composed of wooden tablets, covered with wax; a book, document.” This all seems a bit more definite than other sources suggest: but maybe there really are Latin documents which use codex in the sense of wax writing tablet. The editor, Professor Thomas, is obviously plumping at least for the derivation of the bound book from wax tablets. But if we are starting off with caudex, a tree trunk, log, block of wood, ending up with “book” may a bit of a stretch, but there are theories. Perhaps we’ll have to await the OED editors’ adjudication when they get around to updating this entry.

The development of the codex is often held to be associated with the Christians in 2nd century Rome. The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format. “You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.” Sounds a bit like paperbacks for railway journeys, doesn’t it? I still like my suggestion that the preponderance of early codex volumes from Christian sources is not a result of there being more of them in the first place. Rather I suspect it was a result of differential survival rates. Monks would no doubt go to considerable trouble to hide their codices — they well knew how laborious they were to create — and would clearly be more motivated to save the devotional literature on which their life was grounded rather than those bulky pagan classics, while reading laymen, thin on the ground anyway, might be less heedful about their books when the Vikings were landing. Thus more “Christian” codexes would survive the times of trouble, no matter whether there were more or fewer of them at the start. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from the absence of evidence, but we shouldn’t altogether ignore it in making our guesses.

To come up with the idea of the codex we did first have to “invent” the page. Scrolls, the functional predecessors of the codex, weren’t of course written in mile-long lines; their text was indeed divided up into blocks which could be said to resemble pages. They were only written on on one side though. Some papyrus pages were first found at Oxhyrynchus in Egypt, written on both sides and thus presumptively from things we’d call books rather than scrolls. The presence of page numbers is also diagnostic — they were obviously not needed if you were just unrolling a scroll as you read. But papyrus was liable to break when folded, and was in any case more suited to the hot dry climate of Egypt than to Europe’s more humid environment. We can say with some confidence that the codex format couldn’t really take off till there was a regular supply of parchment. Exactly when parchment was invented, or more importantly was perfected is not know. Herodotus says that writing on skins was common in his time, the 5th century BC, but what’d be needed would be a regular supply of good quality, and we can only speculate rather circularly that such conditions began to appear in 1st century Rome, as attested to by Martial.

Keith Houston’s The Book has just been published, and is, as I’ve said in my review, an invaluable resource on many topics including this one. Here’s a piece of his for BBC.com about the origins of the codex.

This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.

 

How long have we had books? What about printed books?

Who knows when the first book was actually produced? How long does a piece of writing have to be for us to call it a book anyway? No length at all: we are perfectly happy to accept the existence of blank books. Books are not just physical objects; the are also intellectual output. Within this definitional haze, we have agreed that the oldest complete dated printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra which may be seen from time to time at The British Library. It is dated May 868 AD. What’s the oldest handwritten book? Hard to be certain, but obviously much older. Papyrus scrolls are subject to decay and don’t just leap out of the ground shouting “I’m here, I’m here”. We have found papyrus scrolls dating back to 1,500 – 1,800 BC. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are relatively modern; consensus dates them to the last three centuries BC.) Maybe we could think of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform on clay tablets as a book, but apparently the text wasn’t really finalized till about the 12th century BC.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo Getty Images

 

But let’s leave all these bits of clay and scrolls to one side and focus on what we tend to think of as a book: a number of folded pages bound into a pair of covers. The codex, as such an object is named, was allegedly originally invented to deal with Christian literature in 2nd century Rome. (No doubt that statement is too bald by several orders of magnitude — the folks around at the time didn’t leave us firm evidence, so we try conjecture and balancing of evidence.) The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century, who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format which takes up less space than a scroll and is more comfortable to hold in one hand. Let’s just start the life of the codex in the second century and, although manuscript codices can obviously still be produced*, mark its ending with the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454. So the reign of the manuscript book lasted for about 1,200 years: let’s just say 1,100 years, since that would neatly represent twice as long as the current lifespan of the printed book, which, despite some recent panic, doesn’t yet look doomed to being superseded by the ebook.

Yes, what we think of as a book has been around for about 550 years: a third of the time we have had codices, and maybe a sixth of the time we’ve had books.

But during these 550 years we’ve been busy. We got off to a quick start, and have been accelerating ever since. Peter Stoicheff informs us in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, “the press itself was small and cheap enough that within fifty years of its invention Europe contained at least 200 of them, and they produced more books in that short time than had been produced by hand to that point in history”. (You can see this spread dynamically in the map linked to at my post Atlas of early printing.) Our book output built slowly and steadily. “Prior to 1750, approximately one hundred new titles were published annually in England; by 1825 approximately 600 annually; by the end of the nineteenth century approximately 6,000”. We were up to 184,000 in 2013.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles which more or less corresponds to the output of those 200 presses over those 50 years. Of course the older the item, the more likely it is to have disappeared without a trace, but we can only deal with what we can deal with, and I take this to mean Professor Stoicheff is telling us that we know of something like 29,000 manuscript books produced from the first to the fifteenth century. This means, I guess, that every couple of months now we publish more books than ever existed prior to Gutenberg’s revolution. No wonder we suffer from angst about what to read next.

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* In the late 1650s there was a newspaper issued twice a week by Henry Muddiman, handwritten and distributed to a select group of subscribers. In Dawk’s News-Letter (1696-1716), Ichabod Dawks exploited the personalization implied by the handwritten format by setting his newsheet in a specially designed typeface, Scriptorial English No. 2, leaving a space at the top so that the subscriber’s name could be entered by hand after the text had been run off.

Illuminating a manuscript meant embellishing it with gold and/or silver.

Gold leaf was made by taking a small lump of gold, putting it between layers of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane derived from the gut lining of cattle) and beating it till it became thin. Wikipedia tells us that 1000 bits of cleaned and processed goldbeater’s skin stacked one on top of the other would only measure an inch thick. The American Institute for Conservation provides fairly gruesome detail on the making of goldbeater’s skin. Apparently malnourished cattle were preferred: less fat to get rid of.

Over a hundred layers of membrane/gold/ membrane could be beaten thin as one operation. Thin meant very thin: 1/250,000 of an inch. If a piece of gold leaf was left unattended by an open window it would fly away on the lightest breeze.

Publishers are notoriously careful, and gold isn’t something they throw around. That gold stamping on the spine of the book you’re reading isn’t gold (metal) it’s just gold (color). The only exception to this is in Bible production, where for a de luxe Bible you will find gold leaf used for the stamping on the leather cover and for the edge gilding of the pages.

This video (click on the title of this blog post if you don’t see a video below this paragraph) shows an Ochsner Edge Gilding machine in operation. You can see the gold leaf in the bottom of the track; it is pressed, with heat, against the thoroughly sanded and smoothed book block.

Bell Type and Rule Company will sell you a kit including sheets of 23 carat gold foil so you can personalize your Bible, and no doubt, those of all your friends.

You can get hold of gold leaf fairly easily. Amazon offers you a pack of 25 5½” square sheets for $7.98 with free same-day delivery for Prime members. The manufacturer does however admit to you that this gold leaf is really only “golden leaf”, being made of 85% copper and 15% zinc. Real gold leaf is available for a higher price but, as they keep emphasizing its edibility, seems to be directed at the cooking/baking/ candy-making market. Fair enough; there probably aren’t a man market of illuminators out there these days.