Archives for category: Manuscripts
“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.

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.