The Unfinished Book and Medieval Updating

A website updates, a book doesn’t.

This is one of the many ways to dichotomize two of today’s major competing media. However, such a categorical binary has not always been the case, and in the medieval world books were rarely ‘published’ in the way we’ve come to understand. Take for example the manuscript British Library Harley 1758.

Folio 45
Folio 45v

It was produced sometime between 1450 and 1500 and contains a copy of the Canterbury Tales, including the spurious Tale of Gamelyn. It seems to have been written by three distinct scribes and then corrected by a supervisor of sorts. While finely decorated and illuminated, there are notable gaps throughout the manuscript. Such gaps were clearly intentional at some stage in the process and similar blank spaces can be found in other manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The gaps in Harley 1758 (found on folios 45v, 102, 127 and 200) all fall between the end of one character’s tale and the beginning of another’s. The reason behind such premeditated gaps seems to be an intention to fill them with a portrait of the upcoming speaker. For example, on folio 102, the gap in the manuscript comes between the rubricated sentences Here endith the gode wifes tale of Bathe and Here begynneth the prolog of the ffrere.

Folio 102
Folio 102r

Presumably, then, the plan was to place a portrait of the Friar to fill in this gap. Similarly, on folio 200, we find a gap beginning at the top of the manuscript and ending with the sentence Here begy[n]neth the prolog of the ffrankeleyne.

Folio 200
Folio 200r

In this manuscript, portraits of the Cook, Friar, Manciple, and Franklin, were all clearly intended but have been left out in the process of manufacturing. The modern mind, strongly rooted in the print culture of the last few centuries, immediately wants to call this an ‘incomplete’ manuscript. By the simplistic standards set out above for a book, this work is clearly missing pieces intended for inclusion and therefore cannot be called ‘finished’ or ‘published’ in the sense we think of today. However, in a time with limited writing materials and a high cost of production for a single manuscript, books were an evolving entity and constantly updating in purpose and function. Moreover, as stated above, books like Harley 1758 were the product of numerous workers, all of whom had to be paid. In scenarios such as these, the eventual owners of the book funding its production might have simply run out of money. Even still, the book was ‘published’ despite its missing pieces, and its gaps cleverly used for other purposes in later times.

Folio 127
Folio 127r

Folio 127 of the work has been carefully reused to record the birth dates of the children of Edmund Foxe of Ludford, a 16th century clerk. This type of genealogical information is commonly found in medieval manuscripts, since, as stated above, the preciousness of such items made them valuables in medieval and early modern times.

The gaps in Harley 1758 give us insight into medieval and early modern usage of books and thoughts on the concept of publication. It is clear that the print-age dichotomy of finished and unfinished breaks down for medieval books, and perhaps their status is more akin to modern notions of website updates.

Axton Crolley
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Alien manuscript. . . or ancient writing system

Commentarii notarum tironianarum (f. 1-42v). Psalmi notis tironianis scripti (f. 43-57).
; Bn lat. 190, f. 44r

Medieval manuscripts pose many intriguing writing systems. Some, like Yale University’s Voynich Manuscript have foiled even the best attempts to unravel them. Others, like this strange looking text from the Bibliothèque nationale de France may seem to have come from another galaxy, but it can actually be identified from its rubric letters XXII PSALM[US] D[AVI]D, the twenty-second Psalm! (Psalm twenty-three in modern bibles)

Although it looks like the lost script of ancient aliens, this strange writing system is actually a medieval form of abbreviated writing known as Tironian Notae. Tradition ascribes the invention of these strange squiggles to the Roman Senator Cicero’s freedman and secretary, Tiro. Tiro, so it is claimed, developed this way of writing to help him take down his employer’s verbose dictation more quickly. This system of shorthand is attested in the ancient world, but was adapted and used extensively among the esoteric intellectuals at the courts of Charlemagne and his Frankish successors. Large numbers of manuscripts written partially or sometimes entirely in Tironian notes survive from this period (roughly 750-900 CE). Carolingian court scholars and bureaucrats seem to have been attracted to this writing system’s facility for writing everyday documents, but entire books were composed in it. They even adapted the script by adding new symbols to quickly write Christian words like “Prophet” or “Holy Spirit.”

Commentarii notarum tironianarum
; Bn lat. 8779, f. 47r

Very few everyday records have survived in Tironian script. One type of texts that do survive, however, are textbooks used to teach the Tironian system to new scribes. Large texts like the Psalter above written entirely in Tironian Notae gave students the opportunity to practice deciphering the script, while dictionaries and word lists like the one below presented the vocabulary in groups based on shared roots. A careful examination of one set of words below demonstrates the way the Tironian shorthand was based on variations to a common root. The set of four symbols shown below stood for the Latin words:

Commentarii notarum tironianarum


Although knowledge and use of Tironian shorthand disappeared rapidly during the decline of Carolingian court culture in the tenth century, aspects of the system were preserved in part by incorporation into the standard long-hand forms of writing Latin. The Tyronian note looking like ‘7’ was frequently employed in normal Latin writing to represent the word ‘et’ (‘and’). In England especially, Tironian ‘7’ was so popular for writing the Latin word for the conjunction that scribes even used it for the native English word meaning the same in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts.

Although the vitality and importance of this ancient writing system were quickly forgotten, books like this Paris manuscript are tangible reminders that what we might consider the “dark ages” was actually a time of sophisticated learning and culture which preserved and extended a form of literacy so sophisticated it looks alien to us.

Benjamin Wright
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of our ongoing series on the Mysteries of Medieval Codicology.

Holes and Holiness in Medieval Manuscripts

It’s probably not terribly surprising to anyone that there are holes in medieval manuscripts—after all, a millennium-old piece of parchment should expect to see some wear and tear. While countless medieval manuscripts have been lost to time, a large number remain, and in a wide range of qualities. But almost every medieval manuscript has some holes in it somewhere. They may be large or small, accidental or intentional, hidden away in the binding or displayed openly, but they’re there.

Some holes are there before the parchment or vellum (footnote: parchment is made from animal skin, typically sheep, cow, or goat; vellum, the most prized variety, is made specifically from calf skin) is written on:

Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 16, f. 16v

Parchment is made by taking animal skins, removing their hair, and creating a writing surface by stretching and scraping the skin repeatedly over time, until it is the thickness and texture desired. This is a labor-intensive and thus expensive process. So, when a hole formed during the parchment-making process, the product couldn’t very well just be discarded. (However, it should be noted that these holes are not found as often in very expensive manuscripts—we can probably assume that the scribe would select more pristine parchment for more important documents.)

Some holes appear after the scribe’s work is done:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 1

Medieval manuscripts face many dangers. Holes can be caused by insects, fire damage, mold, or perhaps from damage done during the writing, illustration, or binding of a text. Holes were clearly viewed as part and parcel of the medieval bookmaking process. Not only were they often written around, but sometimes they were decorated:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 299

Many manuscripts—it seems particularly common in Continental manuscripts, like this Swiss manuscript from the monastery of St. Gallen—have holes and tears sewn up with colorful thread. Some of these holes were apparently caused by damage from the bookmaking process: these horizontal slits that have been sewn up appear to have been caused by a monk who was ruling the page with too heavy a hand. Others seem to just be from accidental damage:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 339

The stitching serves two purposes: to protect the book from further damage, and to add decoration to what might otherwise be seen as unsightly.

And finally, holes are occasionally created for the purpose of decoration:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 18, p. 43

In this manuscript, containing mostly liturgical texts, the illustrator has cut a hole as part of his illustration of the “star clock” (a means to tell time after dark), the invention of which is credited to Pacificus of Verona. It’s impossible to know if this was an ingenious method of using a piece of parchment that already had a hole from some sort of damage, but close observation shows where it has been cut to form the frame of the clock.

Sometimes it’s surprising just how good the condition of most medieval manuscripts is: most, if not all, of the manuscripts we still have today have survived damp, fire, insects, or wars (if not a combination). We can’t really begrudge them a few holes.

Marjorie Housley
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is one in an ongoing series on the Mysteries of Medieval Codicology