Archives for category: Manuscripts

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Bishop, is part of the Rosenbach collections as well as all of her correspondence and drafts of her poetry and unpublished memoirs.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.

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.